No Reciprocity: On the Papal Visit to the UAE

Pope Francis is planning a pilgrimage to Arabia, a land of no reciprocity. Unlike in the West, no religious equality is to be had there, and, for the most part, in practice, no religious freedom either. It is doubtful that the Pontiff will be able to remedy the situation.

Aside from Iraq and Yemen, which are largely outside the scope of our inquiry, the region consists primarily of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, and Kuwait. These five are all Muslim monarchies and their system is based upon Islamic law, the sharia. Specifically, the Roman pontiff will be visiting Abu Dhabi in the UAE in early February. The region is majority Sunni Muslim, where hard-core Hanbali and orthodox Maliki schools of jurisprudence vie for supremacy.

The attitude toward Christianity among the Gulf States ranges from an officially tolerated creed to a viciously persecuted one. Everywhere non-Muslims are dhimmi. This means that they must submit cravenly to the Muslim masters, who, in turn, offer them protection. The price is not just the payment of a special tax, the jizya, but also the acceptance of an inferior social, political, cultural, and economic status. Its appendages include various humiliating practices intended to institutionalize inferiority. In American culture the closest approximation of such a status would be that offered by a protection racket, say, in a Chicago neighborhood. The local hoods shake down businesses with the promise of protection from outside thugs.

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In Islam, protection was extended only to the People of the Book, i.e., Christians and Jews, when Muhammad and his companions first embarked on their jihad in the seventh century. Conquered animists and other pagans between Africa and Central Asia faced a stark choice: covert, die, or be enslaved. However, the protection was soon extended beyond Christians and Jews, including, most notably, Zoroastrians and Hindus. Thus pragmatism in relation to other faiths reflected the stupendous success of the Muslim conquest. It created a caliphate spreading from the Pyrenees in the West to the Pamirs in the East. The victors simply did not have the capacity to exterminate everyone who refused to convert. Besides, they needed slaves and taxpayers. Since canonical taxes on the Muslim populations were quite limited, the dhimmis had to cough up the bulk of the revenue. It was convenient thus to milk the kafirs.

As Bat Ye’or has argued, dhimmitude should not be confused with religious equality. Islam reigns supreme; to survive, others must submit to its might. No faith may challenge Islam. Christians and other non-believers are expected to submit to the particular stipulations of the dhimmitude law enforced by their Muslim overlords. The law must be renewed when each new king, sheik, or emir ascends to power. Thus, dhimmitude entails a personal relationship between submitting kafir and the Muslim master.

In other words, the official attitude of the rulers in the Gulf toward Christianity is tolerance. This should not be confused with the standard misconstruction of the term in post-modern America. Here “tolerance” entails approving, embracing, and celebrating even the most repulsive pathologies because, allegedly, everything is virtually equal to everything else. The opposite of “tolerance” is “discrimination.” And who are we to pass judgement? In such a cultural morass, cannibalism is just an alternative lifestyle, no better or worse than Catholicism.

However, to “tolerate” traditionally meant to put up with something unpleasant, perhaps even abhorrent. It is in this sense that the term religious tolerance is understood in the Gulf States. The Muslim believers reign over the unbelievers, who are permitted to persist in the error of their ways at the price of perpetual inferiority and humiliation.

Islamic tolerance comes with caveats. First, it operates within the context of dhimmitude. Second, tolerance is only allowed in very limited circumstances. In most of the Gulf States the penalty for apostasy is death. A Muslim may abandon his religion and embrace another, including Christianity, only at his peril and facing the specter of an imminent martyrdom.

Under the circumstances, it is little wonder that Christians keep a low profile in the Gulf States. Two Catholic bishops shepherd the faithful. They divide the jurisdiction along the north-south axis. The bishop of Bahrain minds Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. The bailiwick of his counterpart in Abu Dhabi consists of the UAE, Oman, and Yemen. They are practically invisible. And so are their followers, most of whom are migrant workers.

Abu Dhabi and the Rest
Abu Dhabi is arguably the most important of the seven hereditary dynasties that make up the United Arab Emirates. It is equal to Dubai in wealth. Both share control of the UAE politically, especially in international relations.

Of all the countries of the region, Abu Dhabi is the most tolerant of religious diversity. Its leaders are eager to showcase their religious toleration. This was East Germany’s role in the Soviet Block in economic terms and Denmark’s under the watchful eyes of the Third Reich when it came to home rule. The former was well supplied with consumer goods by Soviet standards and the latter was permitted to operate as a parliamentary democracy and hold a free election under the tender mercies of the Nazi occupation regime.

By the same token, Abu Dhabi permits virtually every Christian denomination to maintain their churches and worship openly. Partly, Abu Dhabi’s attitude to religious matters reflects its history. As a coastal location dependent on trade, in particular during the British supremacy in the nineteenth century, Abu Dhabi had to accommodate the non-Muslim population because it benefited the local potentates. This pragmatism continues into the present day. But it is also informed by a sustained effort at perception management targeting Westerners who are necessary for the economy of the UAE. Accommodating Christianity may also be a substitute for avoiding any obligation to cater to the post-Christian West’s current priorities involving so-called “human rights,” understood mostly in terms of sexual liberation.

To be sure, Abu Dhabi is not the only place where Christian worship is permitted openly. Qatar is rather heterodox in its policy toward guests and resident non-citizens. It tolerates Christians and others. For example, about 10 years ago its Wahhabi emir permitted the Catholic Church to build Our Lady of the Rosary in Doha.

By contrast, there is no such counterpart in Saudi Arabia’s Riyadh. Christianity is restricted to the homes of the faithful. No churches are permitted. No outward signs of piety are countenanced. No missionary activities are allowed. Invisibility is the rule. Thus, an estimated 2 million Christians, including over a million Catholics, live under dhimmitude in the Kingdom.

Saudi Arabia is the least tolerant of all the Gulf States. It is the will of the reigning King Salman al-Saud and his predecessors, adherents of the Wahhabi brand and the Hanbali legal school of Sunnism.

There are many excuses offered about this singular lack of generosity toward the dhimmi. The most important is that the king serves as the protector of the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina in the Hijaz. They are the sources of the Prophet Mohammed’s tradition and the world centers of Muslim worship. Any more concessions to non-believers would destabilize the Kingdom, we are told.

Historically, concessions for Christians in the Muslim world could be obtained and maintained in a variety of forms. The key was to establish a personal relationship with a ruler. Immediately after the Muslim conquest, the jihadis were too few to control everything. For example, about 50,000 Bedouin nomads lorded it over 4 million Christians in Egypt in the seventh century. Initially, Muslims ghettoized themselves in fortress cities located next to major urban centers such as Fustat or Damascus. Their Christian subjects continued their patterns of life, including worship, for several hundred years. Further, Christian pilgrims from the Byzantine Empire and Western Europe continued to visit the Holy Land. At times, they were mistreated, robbed, and even killed. But much of the time they were accommodated. Next, Venetian and Genoese merchants plied their trade securely, for the most part, with the permission of local Muslim rulers.

Later, under the Ottoman rule, Western Christians sought concessions from the Turks. The sultan granted a special security letter, called a firman, to European diplomats. This was crucial. Any non-Muslim traveling in the lands of Islam could be legitimately enslaved by any Muslim unless under the protection of a Muslim potentate. According to the firman, European envoys were not subject to the sharia. Eventually, their households were included in the protection clause, including local non-Muslim subjects who were in European (and, later, American) employ. It started with interpreters, the dragomen, who tended to be local Christians (e.g., Armenian, Greek, etc.). Later it came to include anybody. They were eventually protected by Western powers, which refused to be subject to the sharia. Finally, as the power of the Great Porte waned, more opportunities opened up for Westerners to build institutions, including churches and schools.

Thus, the concessions reflect the magnanimity of a Muslim ruler; the pragmatic considerations, usually political and economic, of the Islamic state; and the relative power of those who seek to advance the cause of Christianity.

Western Commitments
Who is advancing this cause? To quote Stalin, “How many divisions does the pope have?” What can Francis do? He has limited himself to propagating the faith among Catholics and calling for reciprocity on formal occasions with Islamic heads of state. But we could ask for more. He could encourage the evangelization of Muslim communities in the West and refrain from criticizing government measures aimed at reducing Islamic radicalization. He could speak pleasantries about Islam to Muslim dignitaries without downplaying the needs of his own flock in majority-Muslim countries or pretending that radical forms of Islam are not the cause of their sufferings.

We should not hold our breath for globalists in Washington or Brussels (or anywhere else) to speak up for Christianity other than perfunctorily. However, the Christian faithful should join with their elected representatives to demand reciprocity. Both Catholics and Protestants should join forces. And they should work to establish a system of quid pro quo with the Gulf States. We must wield all the tools of statecraft applicable to this end. This includes positive and negative sanctions.

It is not justifiable to limit Islamic worship in the West for the purpose of exerting leverage on Muslim countries since the principle of religious liberty has been well established in law. Legal responses to Islamization in Europe have been limited to restricting the number of minarets, banning the burkaclosing extremist mosques, and expelling radical imams. These measures were not intended and are unlikely to induce Muslim states to protect the liberties of religious minorities. But they are intended to discourage the radicalization of Muslim communities in Europe. However, more effective measures can be taken to pressure countries and non-state entities who either persecute or severely limit the liberty of Christians. We should demand reciprocity. Since we allow unrestricted worship and freedom of religion, we should expect it from foreign governments.

Inside the US, we should monitor foreign funding of missionary activity. Whereas we cannot curtail US citizens in their freedom of worship, we can limit or even stop foreign subsidies to religious institutions on American soil. Or we can make them conditional on having the benefactors of, say, Saudi largesse register as foreign agents. Your neighborhood mosque or your friendly Muslim Brotherhood chapter would thus become foreign entities and they would be treated as such.

Public scrutiny and opprobrium should discourage jihadi and salafi ideologies derived, for example, from Wahhabi or Hanbali traditions. Conversely, we should countenance alternative interpretations of Islam, such as the pacific Ahmadiyya or certain Sufi schools that reject violence. Beyond helping the suffering Church in Muslim-majority countries with our charitable assistance, Catholics should encourage missionary activities on our own soil so that Muslim communities can hear and experience the good news that is the Gospel.

We should pursue similar policies outside of the US. First, we should encourage our Western allies to follow our lead in de-radicalizing and evangelizing their Muslim communities. Second, we should pressure Muslim governments for concessions for Christianity under the byword of reciprocity. This will need to be a slow and patient process. But naught will be achieved if nothing is tried.

Editor’s note: Pictured above, Pope Francis meets Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, at the Apostolic Palace on September 15, 2016, in Vatican City, Vatican. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)


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