The need for tolerance in the Arab world

May 29, 2016

Religious and sectarian violence continues to be the stock-in-trade of jihadist organisations across North Africa and the Middle East.
The Islamic State (ISIS) has undertaken a relentless campaign of religious and sectarian cleansing aimed at emptying the region’s countries of minorities whose mere presence contradicts its vision of what Muslim-majority nations should look like.
On May 23rd, ISIS carried out suicide bombings in Tartus and Jableh in Syria. The attacks were unusually bloody, even by ISIS’s dubious standards, and were intended to inflame strife between religious communities in Syria. They killed more than 150 people and wounded 300. Throughout the Syrian conflict, ISIS has targeted minorities in order to encourage sectarian strife.
According to European Parliament figures, 40% of Syria’s 700,000 Christians have left the country since the start of war in Syria.
In Iraq, sectarian strife and jihadist violence have devastated minority communities: The Christian population is said to have decreased from 1.5 million before 2003 to less than 500,000 today.
Jihadists and other extremists are tapping into lingering undercurrents of bigotry and fanaticism in Arab societies.
Intolerance still manifests itself too often in the Middle East and North Africa. During the last few days, Orthodox Copts in Egypt have complained that, on May 20th, seven Christian homes in a province south of Cairo were ransacked and torched. The attacks apparently followed rumours that a Christian man had had an affair with a Muslim woman.
The problem is rooted in education systems that have failed to disseminate tolerant value and legal systems that do not always deal firmly with crimes stemming from racism and bigotry. Other social institutions — such as the media, cultural elites and the family — do not always play constructive roles.
Another factor is the abuse of religion by preachers and politi­cal extremists whose message is tainted with religious fanati­cism. Religious institutions do have an important role to play to ward off this negative influence. Al-Azhar University and its network of affiliated schools, for instance, reach hundreds of thousands of students in Egypt and beyond. Its high standing in the Arab world lends it great influence.
The meeting on October 23rd between Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayyib, the grand Imam of al-Azhar, and their decision to reactivate dialogue between the Vatican and Egypt’s prestig­ious Muslim institution of learning is a positive development. Such cooperation will help send a message of cross-religious entente between the worlds of Islam and Christianity.
Bigotry does not rule the day. The Arab world has a legacy of coexistence and tolerance on which progress can be based. The ancient Jewish festival recently held on Tunisia’s Djerba island is a case in point. Thousands of Jews were welcomed by Tunisia’s predominantly Muslim society for their annual pilgrimage. The event highlighted the potential for religious tolerance in the Middle East and North Africa, despite the ongoing conflicts and the legacies of hate, bias and distrust.
Religious and sectarian coexistence in the Arab world is crucial not only for ending war and civil strife, but also for developing modern societies that constructively engage with the world.