Involvement of high profile Muslim scholars in the 2018 UAE Peace Forum provokes accusations of religious legitimation in light of the Yemen war

The fifth annual conference of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies took place in December 2018, amidst heavy criticism due to the attendance of several high profile Muslim scholars, but specifically the involvement of Sheikh Abdallah bin Bayyah and Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, president and vice president of the Forum respectively.

The three-day event held in Abu Dhabi had the theme, “Alliance of Virtues: An Opportunity for Global Peace” with 800 attendees representing a number of religions, human rights organisations, scholars and thinkers. The forum aimed to explore ideas around the development of an ethical framework that deals with ideas around global peace. Executive director of the forum Zeshan Zafar, stated before-hand that it was about wanting “the Muslim world to understand that treaties and covenants were given great importance during the Prophet’s era. But how can Muslims reconcile the significance of treaties and covenants in today’s changed world?”

This statement is not only indicative of the motives behind the conference, but also pre-emptive of one large element of the critique levelled at it and those scholars who are participated.

Support for established authority

It appears that the promotion of peace heralded by the Forum, is based on a very real political point, that of support for order and subsequently, established authority in current times. Walaa Quisay and Thomas Parker provide a detailed account of the politics of both Bin Bayyah and Yusuf to show that their participation in the Forum is a form of continuation for their political beliefs. Yusuf in particular was noted for his aversion to revolution and rebellions against rulers, basing his argument within a pre-modern ‘traditional’ Islamic worldview. They describe his belief that the arrangement of social and political hierarchies must be viewed within a ‘metaphysical lens’; that social hierarchies exist first as cosmic hierarchies, and so political dissent is destabilising both in the literal but also in the cosmic sense. Related to this is the idea that being a ‘victim’ is not something that is encouraged within Islam, rather Muslims must look inwards and take responsibility for their condition rather than blaming others, quoting Yusuf as saying that “all suffering has a redemptive value”. This, they explain, underpins Yusuf’s approach to modern politics.  Quisay and Parker question the broadness in which Yusuf has interpreted ‘rebellion’, pointing out that there are many shades of political involvement between an organised armed rebellion and outright support for an oppressive leadership. They also critique the suggestion that the nation state was based in pre-modern Islamic thought, which Yusuf insinuated when he suggested at the Forum that when the Prophet entered Medina, the people of Medina became and were treated as citizens, rather than simply a religious community.

Religious Legitimation

Following this, a wider critique is that the Forum is part of the broader response by the UAE  to counter the spirit and effect of the Arab Spring, which agitated against established authority in the Middle East. Here, religious scholarship is used to counter the ‘Islamism’ seen as an integral part of the story of the uprest since 2011. Quisay and Parker describe it as the “soft power” required for the counter-revolutionary project. Usaama Al-Azami, in the Middle East, suggests that this is part of a larger aim for the UAE to promote itself as a vanguard and promoter of ‘moderate Islam’, pointing to the newly formed emirates fatwa council that similarly presents itself as a promoter of ‘moderate’ Islam, of which Bin Bayyah is also the head of. Al-Azami argues that “The UAE’s involvement with religion is nakedly instrumental to its maintaining political power and influence in the region.” A number of these commentators, including Hamza Raza in, pointedly describe the the aversion Muslim scholars in history had towards having a relationship with political authority; referring to Wael Hallaq’s book on “Introduction to Islamic Law” that such an appointment or partnership with government was “viewed with extreme suspicion, both by the ulema and the masses that followed them” because they  “understood that their authority as religious scholars could be used to legitimize repressive governments.”

The Yemen war

Another reason for the outrage, and perhaps why the forum in its fifth year has caused more controversy than previous years, is the UAE’s involvement in the Yemen war. For example, Sahar Al-Faifi‏ tweeted “Shame on all those British Muslim activists, leaders, ‘scholars’ who are attending UAE #PeaceForum2018 alongside Sara Khan! Do you not think you are condoning the repulsive politics of the #UAE?! How about you organise a peace forum in Yemen?!”

[Sara Khan, hired to lead the UK government’s Commission for Countering extremism, also spoke at the conference]. It is considered by many as a PR campaign in midst of increasing criticism of the war.

Adam Kelwick, a British Muslim chaplain and humanitarian, who attended the forum, addressed the criticism upon his return. He praised Bin Bayyah in raising international pledges to provide over two billion meals over the next year for the hungry and victims of conflict, with Yemen being a priority. He also stated that the topic of Yemen was raised and discussed several times throughout the forum. Perhaps an indication of the differing attitudes towards working with top-down government, he mentions that the forum “has a track record of engaging people at the highest echelons of international influence and being a catalyst for top-down change implemented by some of the world’s largest institutions and policy makers.” For him therefore, the benefits far outweighed a few negative elements.

Mohamed Ghilan, a prominent speaker and writer, has been outspoken in his defence of the scholars’ participation event. While he absolutely condemns the UAE for its involvement in Yemen, he asks for the benefit of the doubt regarding Bin Bayyah by, for example, reflecting on the number of well-respected scholars who attended, such as professor Sherman Jackson, Imam Mohamed Magid, Dr. Adel Qootah, and Mufti Taqi Osman, warning against a premature outrage when we don’t have any real knowledge about the background workings of this forum, and suggests that the Islamic tradition is to still deal with people who are distasteful in other ways. However, a later article by Ghilan also acknowledges that the sponsorship by particular governments may tarnish any genuine efforts by Bin Bayyah and Yousef, and more so, inadvertently “serve the interests of tyranny”.

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