On November 14th, 2018 Gulf International Forum (GIF) was honored to have gathered a diverse panel of experts at an event titled “Religious Pluralism in the Gulf.” Such a topic is certainly timely in the United States, after a recent antisemitic mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue forced Americans to grapple with how the project for peaceful religious coexistence remains unfinished. As a testament to the oft overlooked religious diversity that exists within the Gulf, (a region nominally understood as homogeneously Islamic) several Gulf states including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Qatar each decried this recent instance of violence against America’s Jewish community. That these nations would specifically speak out concerning violence against Jews is neither un-shocking nor random, as Jews have deep historical ties to the region. Additionally, other global religions, such as Christianity maintain faithful followers in Arabia that for the most part coexist with their Jewish and Muslim counterparts. Pluralism in the Gulf is certainly not limited to these major Abrahamic religions, as the region is also home to smaller religions such as Zoroastrianism and Yazdanism, too ancient faiths that retain small – yet devout followers. Appearing as panelists were Ambassador Patrick Theros, Nabeel Al-Nowairah, Anna Koulouris, The Honorable Ira Forman and Pari Ibrahim. Each panelist covered a wide variety of topics in order to demonstrate the successes of religious pluralism in the Gulf, as well as the areas that are in dire need of improvement.
Greek Orthodox Christianity
The whirlwind overview of the Gulf’s religious diversity began with Anna Koulouris, the communications advisor to the Patriarchate of Jerusalem. Given that the Arabian Peninsula lies within the religious jurisdiction of the patriarchal seat in Jerusalem, Ms. Koulouris was in an apt position to speak to the presence of the Greek Orthodox church within the greater Gulf region. As example of the tolerance felt by Orthodox Christians in the Gulf region, Ms. Koulouris pointed to Qatar, which in 1996 ended a decades old ban on Christian houses of worship and allowed for the establishment of a church in the tiny emirate. While acknowledging that much of law in the GCC nations is informed by interpretations of Sharia Law, Ms. Koulouris does not see this as a bane for religious diversity and believes that tolerance for religious diversity can be codified into the law itself. Such an approach is already seeing success in the Gulf, where Ms. Koulouris shares that governments once quick to deny all ancient ties to Christian heritage have now begun to acknowledge intersections of Gulf and Christian history through public works projects, such as museums. Also speaking the increasing religious tolerance in the Gulf is the fact that according to Ms. Koulouris, Christians have begun leaving the Holy Land for the GCC nations, which they are finding to be more hospitable.
Often erroneously viewed as monolithic across the region, Nabeel Al-Nowairah shed some light on the diversity inherent to Islam and spoke on Zaidism, a Shi’a variant endemic to Yemen. While Mr. Al-Nowariah himself is not Zaidi, he was able to give a succinct history of the Zaidi movement and explain how it differentiates from other veins of Islam. Zaidism distinguishes itself in that it is not a “school” of Islam in the most traditional sense, but rather is a creed that’s jurisprudence remains reliant on other existing schools within Islam. Additionally, Mr. Al-Nowairah made the argument that Zaidism favors ‘reason’ over ‘revelation’ when ‘reason’ appears to clash with Quranic interpretations. Tying this religious history to the region’s current geopolitics, Mr. Al-Nowairah discussed how the religious status of the Al-Houthi family, (a Zaidi family now infamously known for fighting against the internationally recognized government in Yemen,) has been used as a justification by the pro-Government coalition to unfairly target Zaidis writ large. In reality, although all Houthis are Zaidis, not all Zaidis are Houthis – certainly an important distinction.
As it relates to Judaism, Ira Forman drew from his experience as a Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism to remind us of the presence of the Jewish community in the Middle East outside of Israel. In certain areas, once large and thriving Jewish communities are on the verge of erasure, such as in Yemen where the Jewish community numbers only 37, a far cry from the pre-Islamic era where an independent Jewish state once thrived. Elsewhere, in Bahrain, Mr. Forman spoke of the small, yet influential group of about 40 Jews, including former Bahraini Ambassador to the United States Houda Nonoo. Although small, the Bahraini Jewish community has access to the only synagogue you will find in the Gulf.
More significant in number is the Jewish community in Iran, a group that today amounts to about 10,000 practitioners. Prior to the Islamic Revolution Jewish-Iranians were viewed by their Muslim rulers as “People of the Book,” an Islamic category that in its most basic definition protected the religious rights of other monotheists. After the revolution however, the number of Jews in Bahrain dropped from 100,000 to its current levels. While widely regarded as “second class citizens,” Mr. Forman insisted that so long as Iranian Jews do not espouse Zionist values, members of the community can lead nominally acceptable lives.
Shedding light on a religion whose mere existence is less-known in Western circles, Pari Ibrahim spoke to the threats and discrimination faced by Yazidis – a Yazdanism-practicing group native to Iraq. In greatly oversimplified terms Yazidis belief in a single creator God that manifests in the form of seven divine angels who protect the world from harm. And while Ms. Ibrahim argues that Yazdanism and Islam are both similarly monotheistic, the Yazidi have long been oppressed by rulers like Saddam Hussein, and Islamic extremists such as ISIS. Ms. Ibrahim and her family were among those who had to flee Saddam’s crackdown against Yazidi’s when she was just three years old. Largely unknown prior to 2014, the term “Yazidi” entered into the English lexicon when ISIS militants began large-scale massacres of Yazidi in Iraq’s Sinjar region due to accusations they were “devil-worshippers”. The Sinjar Massacre resulted in at least 35,000 displaced persons, not to mention those who did not survive ISIS’s atrocities. Many of those who did survive, particularly women and girls, were retained as sex-slaves, a harrowing plight brought to light by 2018 Noble Peace Prize Winner Nadia Murad. Although the Sinjar Massacre was the first slaughter of Yazidis to gain much international attention, in reality Ms. Ibrahim shared that this massacre was the 74th recorded instance of genocide against Iraqi Yazidis. This continued violence and lack of political representation is a primary reason why Yazidis are following suite of their Jewish and Christian counterparts and fleeing Iraq altogether. For Ms. Ibrahim and others in the Yazidi community, a recognition that there is indeed a problem by those in the Middle East and in the West is the first step to justice for the Yazidi people.
In closing, Ambassador Patrick Theros spoke to his experience as both an expatriate and a diplomat in the GCC to discuss how the demographic changes the Gulf has witnessed over the last decades have made the region a religious melting pot. Ambassador Theros shared some statistics that might be surprising to some: the non-Muslim population in the GCC is around 25%-35%. This includes about half a million Sikhs, half a million Hindus and a significant number of Christians, most of whom have migrated to the region for various work-related opportunities. While each respective Gulf nation has responded to this diversity differently, many have taken preliminary steps to embrace this diversity and allow migrants to safely practice the religious of their homelands.
For most of our panelists, the comments they shared demonstrated a trend toward increased religious tolerance in the region, however for the Yazidis the story is much less optimistic. While it is important to combat religious discrimination wherever it is observed, Ms. Ibrahim implored our audience to show solidarity with the Yazidi community. Until then, the plight of this underrepresented religious minority group is likely to continue, leaving a stain on the region’s slowly improving reputation for religious tolerance.