Diversity in Dubai: Random Thoughts

Yesterday was Friday. Friday is the Muslim day of corporate worship. Here in Dubai, most people have off work Fridays and Saturdays (that’s the “weekend”). Saturday is considered the first day of the week.

As a result, the Christian churches here have services on Fridays. My wife’s family drives twenty minutes to the next Emirate over, Sharjah. Their church meets in a hotel, renting a conference room on the top floor. The United Arab Emirates is an Islamic nation, however they allow other religions to worship in freedom, while regulating tightly the building of churches. The Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, the Orthodox Church and (very recently) a large evangelical church in Dubai all have buildings. Their is also one Hindu temple and, I think, a Sikh temple. Of course, Jews are not welcome here. The UAE does not recognize Israel and forbids traveling there from here.

After our worship service in Sharjah, the whole family went to City Center, a mall in Dubai for lunch. The food court there offers a wide selection and I decided on KFC (if I dive right into local food too much too quickly, bad things happen.) A quick scan across the large food court shows an amazing variety and diversity of people: Westerns in tube tops and short shorts at one table. Arab women covered from head to toe at the next table. Asian, Indian, Arab, White, Black…it’s all here. We’re all here. Arabs eating a Big Mac, American’s eating curry, Indians eating hummus.

Our table is the only one that is mixed, however. The diversity is present here, but interaction between different groups seems limited to “…and a medium french fry” when ordering from an Asian cashier or an “excuse me” to an Arab woman in an abaya and sheila who has blocked my path in the store.  So much diversity, but so little interaction. Bridging cultures and languages is really hard work. Is it worth it? I feel too tired even to try. Maybe its the jet lag. Maybe because its a reality I live everyday. Though we do not have the language barrier, my wife and her family and I are constantly bridging the cultural differences that separate us.

Unfortunately, many modern efforts to bridge differences and breed peace focus on finding “common ground” between diverse groups. While the intent is commendable, the result often is that we ask each group to be less than itself. We’ve all heard the sentiment, “Well, all religions generally teach the same thing…do unto others, kindness, help the poor, etc.” Not only does that statement reveal an ignorance of the teachings of the world’s religions, it dilutes the richness of each religion in favor of a few common denominators just to avoid conflict. Peace and unity are not real if the only thing about me that is valued is what I hold in common with someone else.

But our religious, ethical and moral differences are, by definition, those things that we cannot accept about each other. For example, the newspaper today tells a story of a 17 year-old married woman in Pakistan who was flogged for leaving her house without an appropriate male chaperon (she went out with her father-in-law, which apparently was morally repugnant enough to deserve her a public beating). I cannot accept this. Nor should I have to.

Maybe the problem arises when we begin to equate people’s actions with their worth as human beings. Though we may despise that this young woman was publicly flogged for such a thing, can we look at those who did it and still see them as beautiful human beings? Is their worth as humans determined solely by their actions?

Lord have mercy on us all if that is so.

And maybe that’s the key to bridging differences…Lord, have mercy.

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