Diversity & Tolerance in the Arabian Peninsula? Conceptual (Re)Production and its Implication on Religious Reform

By Bader Mousa Al-Saif
Submitted to Session P4950 (Between Continuity & Change: Conceptualizing Slavery, Tyranny, Gender, and Tolerance in Islamic Thought & the Middle East, 2017 Annual Meeting
Arabian Peninsula;
Islamic Thought;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
Contrary to popular belief, the Arabian Peninsula (AP) is a diverse space that has projected bursts of tolerance across its history. AP plurality and tolerance assume various forms. Ethnicity, race, religion, migrants, and gender are critical components of the AP diversity mosaic that have also been candidate sites for the manifestation of tolerance. Drawing on Michel-Rolph Trouillot and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, I argue that this AP diversity and sense of tolerance have been silenced, erased, and even systematically marginalized at times due to factors that include hegemonic Western presence and influence, the advent of the nation-state, and financial abundance. While twentieth-century transformations are marketed as both progress and godsend by some ruling elites, they have significant drawbacks, such as a newly manufactured homogeneity that affects the AP national’s capacity to readily absorb difference unlike in previous eras. This has led to a shift in, not the disappearance of, tolerance and diversity. The extent upon which the understanding and projection of tolerance and diversity has transformed in the past decades is a significant feature marking the thought and practice of various segments of AP society, including intellectuals and religious reformers.

The paper first discusses the contentious role and limitation of semantics when delineating tolerance in Arabic. It then examines the meaning of diversity and tolerance in AP intellectual parlance drawing on the works of modern and contemporary Ibadhi, Imami, Sunni, and Zaydi thinkers across the AP. I group and advance concepts that are marketed as local renditions of tolerance, including tasamuh [forbearance], ta‘addud [diversity], ta‘ayush [coexistence], and ikhtilaf [difference], or what I dub 3TI. Next, the paper assesses whether such AP conceptualization is related to tolerance as understood in non-AP contexts or if it presents an alternative disposition altogether. Through this exercise, the paper tests both the success and failure of AP religious reform and its attempts to challenge mainstream ideas. Local conceptualizations of tolerance and diversity have evolved, becoming a convenient site of contestation and policymaking within nation-states and transnationally. 3TI is a local product whose transfiguration affects the representations of self and other, the status of religious reform, and the development of Islamic thought. The paper sheds light on tolerance and its limitations in its AP garb and highlights an otherwise silenced discourse that hopes to promote diversity, diminish local suspicion of the other, and upset local-foreign binaries that thrive on cultural distance and discrepancy in the AP.