Religious history was made this week on the Arabian Peninsula, with Pope Francis becoming the first pontiff to visit the region. He thrilled nearly 200,000 Catholics by celebrating Mass and made news by signing a document of interfaith fraternity with Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s oldest seat of learning.
The visit was undoubtedly historic, and, to many, encouraging. The men signed a document pledging to fight extremism and declaring that “religions must never incite war, hateful attitudes, hostility and extremism, nor must they incite violence or the shedding of blood.”
Yet to many Muslims like me, the famously humble and open pope may have allowed himself to be a pawn as his Gulf interlocutors use him to bolster their facade as a tolerant, liberal society while suppressing diversity and freedom and waging war in Yemen.
To start with, the Gulf state’s decision to present Sheikh al-Tayeb as a pope-like figure, able to speak for a wide swath of Muslims, is misleading at best and perhaps intentionally deceptive at worst.
Yes, Sheikh al-Tayeb holds a central place in an influential hierarchical religious body. But Muslims have no shared overarching institution the way Catholics — however polarized they are — do with the papacy.
Modern-day Muslims look to many figures and bodies for this type of guidance; Egypt’s al-Azhar is one of them, but it has become highly politicized and co-opted by the Egyptian state, used as a fig leaf to justify President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi’s increasingly oppressive policies. The Saudis have tried to portray themselves as the global religious authority for Muslims because of their place as the custodians of the faith’s two most holy sites, spreading their largesse through oil money, and championing an ultraconservative, hard-line version of Islam around the world.
This is why the pope’s stop in the Gulf, and with al-Tayeb, is being looked at askance by many Muslims.
The contrast between the pope and Gulf leaders was stark. I suspect Francis is likely more popular among Muslims than al-Tayeb for his willingness to defend Muslim refugees and to stand up to dictators and prejudice. Muslims worldwide cherish annual images of him washing the feet of Muslim refugees and prisoners during Easter atonement. His surprise prayer stop at the Israeli separation wall in Bethlehem in 2014 still resonates with Palestinians and Arabs till this day.
As the UAE embarked on a PR blitz to promote itself as a religiously tolerant and diverse state, images of the pope’s arrival in a small navy blue Kia to an ornate presidential palace were jarring. The pope’s hosts took a decidedly tone-deaf approach to his trademark asceticism and modesty, welcoming him with a 21-heavy artillery gun salute, ceremonial guards armed with machine guns and a fighter jet flyover.
Muslim fans of the pope are wondering if the pope’s approach to peace-building via engagement with the UAE government is naive at best, misguided at worst.
Just weeks after it declared 2019 the Year of Tolerance, the UAE at the end of December upheld a 10-year prison term against human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor. To promote itself as a role model for coexistence, the Gulf state assigned a minister of tolerance and established an institute to fight extremism. But according to Open Doors, a group that monitors the global persecution of Christians, converts in the UAE cannot practice their religion freely, and expatriates cannot pray in public. Blasphemy and apostasy also carry a possible death sentence. Proselytizing is a criminal offense.
The UAE government’s embrace for tolerance recently also came under scrutiny after it sentenced a British academic, who was conducting research for his PhD, to life in prison, on charges of spying for the United Kingdom. Matthew Hedges has since left the country, but only following an intervention by the British government on his behalf.
The UAE, critics also say, has a long history of faith-washing — using interfaith engagement to obscure its dismal human rights record, authoritarian governance and shared responsibility for one of the worst famines in living history, which resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Yemenis according to U.N. records.
Just two months ago, the Gulf state hosted an interfaith meeting between U.S. Jewish leaders and Muslim scholars. Sheikh Hamza Yusuf and Sheikh Abdullah Bin Bayyah hosted the gathering under Bin Bayyah's Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies. Hamza Yusuf is one of the most popular Muslim religious figures in the West and his teacher, Bin Bayyah, a scholar in his own right, is no stranger to politics, serving in his native Mauritania's government for years.
The meeting bolstered the UAE’s appearance as an inclusive, liberal center of life in the Gulf. Another way the UAE increases its soft-power strategy is by supporting Bin Bayyah and Yusuf, traditionalist Islamic teachers who many consider to be inspired by Sufism, which is seen by the West as more tolerant because it is less political and focuses on the inner aspects of spirituality. They contrast with other Gulf states that support more conservative, hard-line interpretations of the faith.
“The UAE authorities are trying to brand 2019 as the 'year of tolerance' and are now seeking to cast the pope's visit as proof of their respect for diversity. Does this mean they are ready to reverse their policy of systematic repression of any form of dissent or criticism?” said Amnesty International's Middle East Research Director Lynn Maalouf in a statement on Friday.
It’s not that the pope didn’t speak out during his trip. In a 26-minute address Monday, at a meeting of Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders, the pope called for an end to the myriad wars in the Middle East, mentioning Syria, Libya, Iraq and Yemen by name. All religious leaders, Francis said, had a “duty to reject every nuance of approval from the word war.”
Before leaving Rome for the small, oil-rich sheikhdom, Francis spoke of Yemen as well, saying he was concerned that its population was “exhausted by the lengthy conflict” and its “children ... suffering from hunger.”
His remarks were exceptionally candid, given that his hosts are heavily embroiled in the war in Yemen, as part of a Saudi-led military coalition, which has left parts of the impoverished country in famine.
It is no surprise that the pope weighed into this politically fraught arena: Since his ascension, Francis has spoken out on everything from his support of refugees and the poor to his harsh critique of capitalism.
And while the UAE has been praised for hosting expats from all walks of life, and offering them religious freedoms to a certain extent, it is essentially impossible for non-Muslim migrants to gain citizenship at the Gulf state. Still, the pope called the Emirates a place that “tries to be a model of coexistence."
Francis has accumulated an impressive track record of engagement around the Muslim world, reportedly visiting seven Muslim countries in the six years since he began his papacy.
Francis may not be concerned with his host’s reasons for inviting him or choreographing what to Muslims like me looks like an elaborate interfaith carnival. Perhaps he sees an opening to work behind the scenes on the justice issues for which Muslims have come to respect — and even rely upon — him in an era of despots. That is the man Muslims have come to revere; the politically savvy pontiff who has made dialogue with Muslims a cornerstone of his papacy.
Dalia Hatuqa is a journalist based in the West Bank and Washington, D.C.