"This is not a PR campaign; this is not to make us look good," declared the American Muslim convert Sheikh Hamza Yusuf at the December 5-7, 2018, Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies (FPPMS) in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Yet the British Muslim academic Usaama al-Azami has decried the FPPMS as precisely "another cynical PR initiative" by the UAE that masks controversial realities behind FPPMS' previously analyzed interfaith rhetoric.
During his opening address to the forum, United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback contextualized the UAE-based FPPMS and its annual conference as reflecting a progressive UAE. He praised the UAE as a "secure, economically prosperous country that is home to people of many faiths." He also noted his first speech as ambassador his "second day on the job" at the "auspicious occasion" of the February 5-7, 2018, Washington, DC, conference that launched the FPPMS' Alliance of Virtue.
There FPPMS' founder, Sheikh Abdullah Bin Bayyah, had similarly lauded the UAE. Its capital Abu Dhabi "is home to many peace initiatives and is a place where all constructive and innovative ideas that promote a culture of tolerance and coexistence are welcomed." Meanwhile, his FPPMS partner Yusuf drew scorn from human rights activists for stating at the 2018 forum that UAE is a "country that is committed to tolerance" and "civil society."
The UAE's real human rights record is indeed mixed. Press reports have noted that "[f]or foreign Christians, the United Arab Emirates is an 'oasis of freedom' compared to other countries in the Middle East." "UAE is believed to have the largest number of registered churches in the entire Arabian Peninsula" in a country that is "is quietly tolerant of other faiths." Nonetheless, "proselytism is prohibited and conversion from Islam to Christianity carries the death penalty," while churches may not display crosses in a country with "crippling restrictions on freedom of speech."
Open Doors, an advocacy organization for persecuted Christians worldwide, in 2019 placed UAE at 45 among the world's 50 worst countries for Christians on the organization's annual World Watch List (WWL). "Islam influences everyday life" in UAE, the WWL notes, an assessment that the United States Department of State's most recent human rights report on UAE confirms. "Sharia courts, which adjudicate criminal and family law cases, may impose flogging as punishment," this extensive catalogue of UAE abuses noted, "although reports of flogging were rare."
Numerous incidents illustrate Islamic laws' repressive effects upon UAE, despite Pope Francis' recent lauding of UAE as a "land that strives to be a model of coexistence, human brotherhood and encounter among different civilizations and cultures." Reflecting Islam's troubling history of slavery, the UAE only abolished slavery in 1963 and, one analysis has noted, a "culture of exploitation of low income laborers remains prevalent" today under the kafala system.
Although UAE officials in 2017 condemned the Qatar-based television channel Al Jazeera for antisemitism, the UAE's relations with Jews and Israel are similarly complicated. One prominent UAE Muslim cleric who leads Friday prayers at Abu Dhabi's government-owned Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque spoke the same year of the "wickedness of the Jews" on his Abu Dhabi television show. While 2018 UAE visits of high-ranking Israeli officials such as the head of the Israeli Defense Forces signify warming of the UAE's warming ties with Israel, individual Israelis in the past could not fly to the UAE, which has no diplomatic relations with Israel.
UAE policies internationally have also caused controversy. The UAE has given military aid to forces fighting a Libyan government recognized by the United States and the United Nations. Meanwhile, in Yemen's civil war, human rights monitors have condemned UAE-backed forces for grotesque torture.
Accordingly, concurring with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Azami has concluded that the "UAE has been engaged in similarly murderous and reckless behavior as the Saudis, albeit with far more effective PR." By sponsoring FPPMS, where Bin Bayyah and Yusuf "both now serve at the pleasure of the UAE's princes," the UAE seeks "religious legitimation in a part of the world where religion is an integral part of the public sphere." Therefore the "UAE's involvement with religion is nakedly instrumental to its maintaining political power and influence in the region."
In particular, Azami noted that FPPMS was "established in 2014 as a direct counterweight to the Arab revolutionary demand for more accountable government in the region." Georgetown University Professor Jonathan A.C. Brown, head of its Saudi-funded Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (ACMCU), elaborated upon this theme based upon his attendance at both the 2018 FPPMS and the inaugural 2014 forum.
Brown recalled that in 2014, FPPMS speeches
ranged from the lunatic conspiratorial (the UN was behind all the current conflict in the Middle East) to the erudite and specific. But by far the most consistent and dominant theme was the absolute duty of all Muslims to bend to the will of the state.
Brown discerned FPPMS' "clear...insidious ideological message" that "contesting governance—even peacefully—was to contest the notion of law and order itself and to invite chaos." Thus "all the calls of the Arab Spring must be silenced categorically and with unprecedented ruthlessness." Accordingly, the UAE funded the 2013 overthrow of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood (MB) government and later lobbied for the successor dictatorship of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
FPPMS documents clearly substantiate another Muslim commentator's analysis that the 2014 FPPMS urged "Muslim populations to refrain from any call for democracy if they want to live in peace." Bin Bayyah's forum address emphasized that "peace is the highest purpose and regulates all of the other rights...a right that precedes all other inalienable, alleged, individual, and collective rights." "Democracy should be approached with reservations and must never become a religion," he warned, and "[i]n societies that are not ready, the call for democracy is essentially a call for war." Yet "[s]ecular or religious civil war is unacceptable in Islam under any conditions."
The 2018 FPPMS conference booklet contained similar statements such as:
Peace is the true guarantor of human rights, for no right can exist without there being sufficient social harmony to establish the five universal principles enshrined in the Sharia: the preservation of religion, life, intellect, wealth and honor....For many years, the Muslim World has descended into a deep darkness, in which forces of extremism with little understanding of right and wrong seek to establish governments based on their erroneous and ill-informed interpretations.
The UAE's peace credentials do not convince Brown, given that the "Saudi and UAE governments launched and have led a bloody military intervention in Yemen that has plunged the country into humanitarian disaster." Azami also noted that the UAE joined in June 2017 a Saudi-led blockade of Qatar given its MB-promotion and immediately "FPPMS issued a strong-worded statement" in support under Bin Bayyah, an official UAE "promoter of 'moderate' Islam." Ironically, in 2004-2013, Bin Bayyah was vice-president of the Qatar-based International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS) under the leadership of Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian MB spiritual guide.
The UAE's global opposition to the MB also extends to the United States, where the MB-apologist Brown condemns the fact that the UAE supposedly supports the "Islamophobia industry...in increasingly shocking ways." Another Muslim commentator, Hamzah Raza, has noted that the UAE supported the "codified Islamophobia" of President Donald Trump's temporary travel restrictions affecting mostly Muslim-majority countries while Yusuf remained silent. Simultaneously the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), with its "long history of anti-Palestinian and anti-Black racism," has attended FPPMS.
Raza also condemned the UAE's labeling of the MB and its American derivative, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), as terrorist organizations. As Brown explained, the
government of the UAE has been trying—and is continuing to try—to convince the US and other Western governments to declare Muslim organizations—organizations that Muslims in the West engage with often on a daily basis—terrorist organizations.
Thus FPPMS' interfaith kumbaya proceedings funded by petrodollar UAE largesse fit into the pro-Western UAE's wider pattern of expensive influence operations seeking advantage over Middle East rivals. The UAE's donor presence across the political spectrum among Washington, DC's establishment think tanks such as the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) is enormous. The UAE gave $20 million to the Middle East Institute (MEI) in 2016-2017, and with between $500,000 and $999,999 in 2017, was a primary donor for the George Soros-funded Center for American Progress (CAP). Along with these more left-leaning organizations, the UAE engaged in advocacy cooperation with the conservative, pro-Israel Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) against a common Iran enemy.
Other fossil fuel-rich Gulf States play UAE's patronage game, such as Qatar with its Brookings Institution funding and enormous lavishing of American academia alongside Saudi Arabia. Contrary to Saudi protests, Westerners might welcome Gulf State agendas such as the 2017 appeal by the UAE's ambassador to the United States, Yousef al-Otaiba, for "more secular, stable, prosperous, empowered, strong governments." Nonetheless, no one should ignore less savory truths such as Otaiba's long history of hard playboy partying, solicitation of prostitution, and embezzlement cover-up. It is in this context that this investigation will next examine FPPMS' eclectic mix of participants who often combine varying degrees of naïveté and nefariousness.