Editorial for Penang Monthly, August 2015.
I WAS IN Abu Dhabi recently for the first time. The United Arab Emirates is a strange land. Its citizens make up only 15% of the whole population. The rest are foreigners of one kind or another and from all parts of the world. It is in that sense cosmopolitan beyond belief, and we can of course expect some inter-ethnic and inter-faith spats every now and then.
And yes, there have been a few recent cases. Before things could get worse, the government is now acting decisively and swiftly. Last month, the UAE enacted a vital piece of legislation called the Anti-Discriminatory Law, which follows a decree issued by President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, to criminalise “any form of discrimination on the basis of religion, caste, creed, doctrine, race, colour or ethnic origin”.
In one fell stroke, it will now be illegal for anyone in the UAE to stoke religious hatred and/or expressly insult any religion. Terming other religious groups or individuals as infidels or unbelievers is now a criminal offence.
Given the country’s low proportion of citizens vis-à-vis non-citizens, one would expect this to be a place where the citizens would feel under siege and in need of cultural protection. Instead, this law comes into being to encourage respect for cultural differences, or at least to discourage disrespect for other communities. But then, my frame of reference is warped by my obsession with the case of Malaysia, where practices are generally geared towards the propagation of a privileged position for the prescribed indigenous peoples, which officially makes up over 60% of the population.
According to the Emirates News Agency WAM, the new law is intended to provide a “sound foundation for the environment of tolerance, broadmindedness and acceptance in the UAE and aims to safeguard people regardless of their origin, beliefs or race, against acts that promote religious hate and intolerance”.
Offenders are liable to be sentenced to jail terms ranging from six months to ten years and be fined between 50,000 to 2 million Dirhams (45,000 to 1.8 million Ringgit). According to WAM, “strict action will be taken against all form of expression of hatred and incitement to hate crimes spread in the form of speech and published media.”
Given the difficult times facing the Middle East, this law may be seen as an attempt to stem the activities of those wishing to exploit differences in UAE society for violent ends. The UAE sees itself as the most liberal country in the region, and is therefore passing the law to limit any tendency to provoke inter-ethnic and inter-faith fights.
Such decisiveness by the government of a country where 85% of its inhabitants are foreigners to disallow discrimination of the kinds mentioned shows a confidence and a purposefulness that Malaysia definitely needs today in its leaders.
But to be sure, once upon a time, common courtesy did reign in Malaysia across ethnic and religious divides. And since that was the case, there was no need to legislate for people to behave well across those divides. Those days are now gone.
This courtesy has become more and more uncommon. It has fact become beneficial to the career of some to be a bigot and to be as insulting of other groups as possible, and over the last decade or so, common Malaysians have had to watch helplessly as blatant provocations were condoned and even encouraged by the authorities, and arrests and punishments were clearly biasedly administered. They heard the taunts in disbelief and despair and listened in vain for the government to act and to set things right.
The Middle East is a complex and diverse place, and perhaps it is time that influences coming to us from that region includes how the UAE through decisive leadership and in a show of open-mindedness, tries to put a stop to religious bigotry and ethnocentric arrogance. For Malaysia, inter-ethnic and inter-faith ties have deteriorated so badly that such a law will only be one small step in an uphill battle. But at least that is one small step back from the brink.
OOI KEE BENG