Sheikh Khalifa’s Legacy of Transformation and Tolerance
The entire interfaith community mourns the loss of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, the former President of the United Arab Emirates, who oversaw a dramatic transformation of his country, both economically and to establish the United Arab Emirates as a beacon of tolerance for the world.
For 18 years, Sheikh Khalifa led his people to great progress and prosperity, increasing GDP by 172% during his tenure to over $400 billion a year. Leveraging the UAE’s rich energy resources, but also spurring diversification into non-oil industries, he oversaw the rise of Abu Dhabi into a regional flagship and Dubai into a world-class metropolis, replete with skyscrapers. sky such as the Burj Khalifa named in his honor. .
But fewer know of the social reforms introduced under Sheikh Khalifa’s tenure and the advance of humanist values that accelerated alongside the economic modernization of the UAE. And in this space, the tremendous record of interfaith achievement that extends well beyond the borders of the United Arab Emirates or the Gulf region.
In 2015, the Emirates passed a law against discrimination in all its forms, creating a basis of personal safety for people of all faiths and nationalities in the seven emirates. A year later, a new Ministry of Tolerance launched its work to strengthen the foundations of relationships between people of all faiths. This ministry officially recognized the newest Jewish community to emerge in the world.
For those like me who have dedicated years to the essential mission of Muslim-Jewish relations and broader interfaith understanding, the United Arab Emirates’ declared “Year of Tolerance” in 2019 could prove the legacy lasting of Sheikh Khalifa.
I had the honor of being invited to Abu Dhabi for the arrival of Pope Francis, the first papal visit to the Gulf. Pope Francis has recognized the UAE as a “leading world reference in the culture of tolerance, policies, laws and practices”. This vision of tolerance was soon expressed in the implementation of the Abraham Accords.
But behind the treaty-signing ceremonies at the White House, there was a lot of dedication and hard work on the difficult task of cementing societal and cultural tolerance in the UAE.
A study by the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education found that the UAE leads the region in eliminating anti-Semitic teaching materials and other biased content or discriminatory, demonstrating a deep commitment to the future of interreligious relations. It is encouraging to see that the other Gulf countries, including Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, are now following closely, which shows the power of example that Sheikh Khalifa has had on his entire region.
We know that the mark of any great leader is what survives them. The economic and cultural heritage left by Sheikh Khalifa is multiple and visible throughout the country, from its thriving urban areas to its high-level infrastructure and service sector, its museums and a cultural landscape that has skillfully harmonized the old and new.
The economic and cultural heritage left by Sheikh Khalifa is multiple and visible throughout the country.
Rabbi Mark Schneier
That such diversity pervades religious life in the UAE is no small feat. This year we will see the opening of the Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue. The synagogue is part of the iconic Abrahamic Family House being built as an interfaith center for Muslims, Christians and Jews, with the three places of worship placed side by side as a symbol of togetherness.
The synagogue pays homage to the 12th-century rabbinical leader, who was also a scientist and Saladin’s personal physician. The synagogue is appropriately named after someone who is as much a representative of Jewish cultural heritage as of Islamic history.
In modern times, Sheikh Khalifa has also been a symbol for so many different cultures. He didn’t just prophesy the transformation of the UAE into a center of interfaith tolerance, he used his God-given time with all of us to make it happen. For this, Muslims, Christians, Jews and other groups will remain eternally grateful.
- Rabbi Marc Schneier is president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.
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