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Omani Harmony: Oman Spreads Its Message of Tolerance, Understanding and Coexistence Around the World
by Anna Gawel
by Anna Gawel
“Extremism, under whatever guise, fanaticism of whatever kind, factionalism of whatever persuasion would be hateful poisonous plants in the soil of our country which will not be allowed to flourish.”
Those words were spoken 25 years ago by His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said, the leader of Oman. Since taking power of this strategically important Gulf nation in 1970, Sultan Qaboos has transformed Oman into a modern nation with a strong economy, political stability and a low-key but highly influential role in regional affairs.
In the process, Sultan Qaboos has ensured that religious strife does not poison the soil of his country by planting the seeds of a moderate, tolerant brand of Islam at home.
Today, the government is promoting this vision of Islam abroad through a traveling worldwide exhibition known as “Tolerance, Understanding, Coexistence: Oman’s Message of Islam.”
That message has now spread to 125 cities in over 36 countries — so far — since the project’s inception in April 2010.
Its most recent stop was in Washington, D.C., where diplomats, U.S. government officials and others gathered at the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center on June 27 to view the exhibition, which consisted of Islamic-inspired artwork, calligraphy and a live sand art performance. The display also features two dozen panels that offer details on Omani life ranging from Islam’s introduction to the country, women’s role in politics, to societal traditions such funeral customs and birth rites.
Omani Ambassador Hunaina Sultan Ahmed Al-Mughairy — herself a symbol of the value Oman places on women in government — welcomed guests and discussed the Sultan’s philosophy of understanding and welcoming all faiths.
“His Majesty Sultan Qaboos is totally opposed to any attempts to twist Islam for political or malevolent purposes,” she said. “Today, throughout the Sultanate, one can see mosques for several streams of Islam and churches and Hindu or Sikh temples,” she added.
“Swiss theologian Hans Küng said there can be no peace among nations without peace among religions,” the ambassador told the audience. “It is incumbent on Muslims then to acknowledge and respect those of other faiths, including accepting differences, and be willing to interact with them. When people of diverse faiths engage in such dialogue, it leads to a meeting of the minds and a greater understanding of the other.”
That’s precisely the purpose of the exhibition, said Mohammed Said Al-Mamari of the Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs in Muscat, who directs the project.
“We are open to new experiences, ideas and knowledge. This is essential in creating a common ground with others. A person might fully disagree, challenge or even contradict anyone on any issue from religion to politics, from food to sports, while at the same time respecting those with different opinions and treating them justly,” he said at the D.C. exhibition opening.
And Oman is the “ideal conduit to deliver the message calling for mutual understanding,” Al-Mamari added.
“It is strategically well-placed to spearhead a new national drive for religious understanding. Geographically, Oman’s near neighbors include both Sunni and Shiite heartland. It is a short route to the world’s largest democracy and has historical trading roots which link the world’s most populous countries,” he pointed out. “For thousands of years, Omanis have traded in peace with other cultures.”
In fact, Oman’s strategic location has made it a crossroads of cultural exchange for 5,000 years. The Omanis were an ancient seafaring people who sailed the so-called “seven seas” all the way to China, where they traded dates for silk and porcelain, along with goods such as gold, ivory and spices. By the 19th century, the island of Zanzibar had become the center of the Omani trading empire. Rulers there were open and tolerant of Christians in East Africa even though Islam had long been the predominant religion in Oman.
Islam was peacefully embraced by Oman in the year 629, when the Prophet Mohammed sent a letter to the two kings of Oman exhorting them to become followers. The kings agreed to convert, united the Arab tribes and expelled the Persians.
But a bloody confrontation between two caliphs led to the schism that created the Sunni and Shiite strains of Islam. Oman decided not to adopt either of these schools, allowing it to remain independent of the Umayyad Muslim dynasty. Eventually, Oman adopted a distinct strain of Islam known as the Ibadi school of thought that is neither Sunni nor Shiite.
Today, three-fourths of Omanis belong to the Ibadi sect. The country of 4.6 million people also boasts the most ethnically diverse population of any Arab country. It is home to a mix of ethnic groups ranging from the Baluchi, originally from Pakistan, to Swahili-speaking Arabs who trace their origins to Zanzibar.
This legacy of religious independence and multicultural exposure has shaped Oman’s unique identity, which stands out in a region plagued by religious and ethnic strife.
At the D.C. opening of “Tolerance, Understanding and Coexistence,” Al-Mamari acknowledged these corrosive divisions.
“The Middle East is faced with many challenges — political, economic, diplomatic, social and religious. These challenges must not cause us to react with anger, but with ambition,” he said. “This region has exported one of the great world religions, which to this day has shaped the values, choices and habits of millions of people. This region should now construct and propagate a global paradigm for peace.”
Oman, which is roughly the size of Kansas, has played a quiet but critical role in fostering that peace while adroitly balancing the region’s competing interests. The country sits on the Strait of Hormuz, where just 18 miles of water separate Oman from Iran.
At the same time, Oman, which is a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), shares a land border with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen — putting it smack dab in the middle of the some of the region’s most volatile conflicts. That includes the proxy war between Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia and its Shiite rival Iran; the war in Yemen; and the recent tensions between the U.S. and Iran in the Strait of Hormuz, a critical oil chokepoint.
Despite being located in the heart of a hostile neighborhood, Oman has managed to act as a trusted interlocutor without becoming entangled in the region’s various disputes. Often referred to as the Switzerland of the Middle East, Oman has steered a neutral course through decades of regional conflicts, which has helped the Sultanate maintain a high degree of independence. It has also won Oman many friends in the wider world, with Sultan Qaboos acting as an honest broker in a range of disputes stretching back to the 1970s.
During the Obama administration, for instance, Muscat was instrumental in bringing Washington and Tehran to the bargaining table over Iran’s nuclear program, serving as a venue to conduct back-channel talks that later evolved into the Iran nuclear agreement. Today, with that agreement faltering, Oman has offered to serve as an intermediary between the Trump administration and Tehran in a bid to de-escalate tensions.
Oman’s strategic location, economic interests and a tradition of pragmatism have guided this calculation to remain on good terms with Iran while not alienating its partners in the Gulf or the West.
“Politically, Oman has open and trusted relationships with all countries, including those farther afield, in the Far East, Africa, North America and Europe,” Al-Mamari said, noting that his country has maintained “good relationships with many Middle Eastern countries, including Iran, and it has managed to fend off the influence of ISIS and other extremist groups.”
On that note, “in 2015, the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence at London’s King College found that not a single Omani had joined the more than 20,000 foreign fighters battling alongside ISIS,” he said.
While Oman’s achievements as a neutral arbitrator that has eschewed extremism is impressive, Al-Mamari stressed that the exhibition is separate from politics. Nor does it try to impose Oman’s philosophy of religious tolerance on other nations.
Rather, Al-Mamari says the goal is to convey his homeland’s experience and illustrate how Omanis have successfully lived together in harmony for centuries, an example that is particularly relevant in a world where hate speech is on the rise.
Beyond serving as a model of religious tolerance, the exhibition offers an intimate snapshot of life in Oman.
For example, in showcasing the government’s efforts to improve literacy rates and education for girls, the panels explain that these efforts were so successful that the Sultan Qaboos University had to allocate quotas for men because the percentage of women studying there had skyrocketed.
While Oman’s constitution designates Islamic Sharia law as the basis of legislation in areas such as marital and family law, the government has also adopted laws that mandate maternity leave and equal pay for women, as well as protections for minorities.
And since the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, the country has embarked on a series of reforms, including expanding the powers of the bicameral parliament known as the Council of Oman, authorizing direct elections for its lower house and guaranteeing the independence of the public prosecutor’s office.
Unlike other countries engulfed in turmoil during the 2011 uprisings, Oman’s population did not revolt against the monarchy. That’s likely because of the progressive policies Sultan Qaboos has pursued since he began his reign in 1970. Buoyed by oil and gas reserves, the government invested heavily in infrastructure, education and health services.
The results have been dramatic. In 1970, when Sultan Qaboos took power, people’s life expectancy was 49 years and the country had only one health clinic and three elementary schools. As of 2010, life expectancy shot up to 74 years and the country now boasts over 1,200 schools, including a state-run university and 12 private universities, as well as nearly 60 hospitals.
Beyond touting Oman’s economic and political achievements, the exhibition offers an inside look at daily life in the country, including the important role that the Quran plays.
For example, Muslim men, women and children recite the sacred book each day in their prayers and certain radio stations broadcast recitations of the Quran. In addition, many Omanis know the entire Quran by heart. The holy book must also be handled with special care so that its inscriptions are honored. If a page ever becomes detached, it is often rolled up and buried in a dry well or plugged into cracks in the wall. The Quran is also stored in elevated places to protect it from desecration and abuse.
The exhibition also offers fascinating insights into time-honored rituals, including funeral customs whereby washed bodies wrapped in white shrouds are carried to a simple grave. Interestingly, there is usually no indication of who is buried in a grave, although gender is sometimes identified.
New life is also celebrated with certain birth rites, some of which are influenced by religious traditions. For instance, immediately after birth, chewed dates are rubbed on the baby’s gums, the call to prayer is whispered in the right ear while a prayer for protection against the devil is whispered in the left ear, as instructed by the Prophet Mohammed.
It is these details that paint a picture of the complexity of Oman’s past, present and future.
Al-Mamari said the purpose of the multipronged exhibition is also to counter the lack of knowledge about Islam and fear of the religion that spiked after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
To do so, the project features replicas of historic manuscripts, a documentary film, a social media campaign (#ActForTolerance) and regular workshops and interfaith dialogues along with the exhibition’s information panels and artwork.
The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, with UNESCO nominating the exhibition for its peace prize in 2016 and 2018.
The project has been translated into 23 languages and held at 125 locations — ranging from education centers to city halls to museums — in 37 countries, including Australia, Brunei, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada, France, Greece, Japan, Kuwait, Pakistan, South Africa, Taiwan and Germany, where it originated.
And the demand keeps growing. Al-Mamari said the project has been extended through 2023 and that he’s fielded more than 500 requests around the world to host the exhibit.
He said the choice to bring the exhibition to Washington, D.C., was especially poignant, given that it opened a week before America’s July 4th Independence Day.
“The United States of America is a symbol for many around the world for individual freedom, protection of human rights and what can be achieved when human diversity comes together to achieve a common good,” he said. “This project has evolved by listening to many voices around the world, and as we listen to those calling for religious freedom, mutual understanding and acceptance, we hear a collective consciousness which can be characterized by united values representing the roots of human identity.”
And those roots are exactly what Sultan Qaboos wanted to instill when he first planted the seeds of tolerance, understanding and coexistence at home.
About this Article
This article is paid sponsored content that appeared in the August 2019 issue of The Washington Diplomat.