Oman enforces tolerance, keeping sectarian divide at bay
On a November evening at Sayyida Mazoon mosque in Muscat, worshippers from different Muslim sects ascended the polished marble steps to pray together at sunset. Oman – home to Sunnis, Shias and adherents of the Ibadi branch of Islam, the sultanate's majority sect – increasingly stands out as a bastion of coexistence in the Middle East.
Respect for other religious sects is not an accident. It is enshrined in Omani law, a legal system that has also, according to Human Rights Watch, been employed to stifle free speech, with the shuttering of the independent Azaman newspaper.
But the enforced peace is a source of national pride for the country of 4.5 million (some 46 percent of whom are foreigners) as sectarian conflict rocks other parts of the region.
Sayyida Mazoon, an Ibadi mosque named for the mother of ruler Sultan Qaboos, was an oasis of calm away from the bustling streets of capital Muscat on a warm evening earlier this month. Boys in immaculate white gowns raced across its open-air courtyard before Koran class and men washed their feet in elegant basins as the sun cast its last rays through the arched windows. A trickle of female worshippers filed upstairs to the women's section.
Ahmed, a 46-year-old Egyptian doctor living in Oman, says he chooses to worship at Sayyida Mazoon even though he is Sunni.
"I feel very close to this mosque. The Omani brothers never make you feel like a stranger," he told journalists. "Here we are all Muslims. We worship one God and don't differentiate. When you come to Oman, you understand this."
Ahmed's friend Yahya Rashidi listened, wearing a traditional Omani cap with yellow embroidery. Rashidi, a member of the Ibadi majority in his second year studying Islamic law, says tolerance in Oman – a country roughly the size of Italy – is reinforced by religious centres of learning.
"At the college we have people from all nationalities and all different sects, from East Asia, East Africa, North Africa. And we have professors from different sects – not only Ibadi," he told journalists. "The religious scholars teach this idea of tolerance and freedom of thought," Rashidi explained.
"Sometimes we hear about scholars who are unfortunately very hard-line and they forbid learning about the ideas and the sects of others," he added. He was keen to stress that this was not the case in Oman. "Coexistence... this was the path of our forefathers and this is the path of Sultan Qaboos," he said.
Qaboos, the longest serving ruler in the Arab world, sets the tone on many aspects of life and has worked to steer Oman clear of regional divisions, political or sectarian.
Ahmad Majidyar, a researcher at the Washington-based Middle East Institute focusing on sectarianism, says Oman deals severely with any threat to religious cohesion.
"From a legal perspective, the country's basic law prohibits all forms of discrimination on the basis of religion," Majidyar said, noting authorities hand down multi-year jail terms to those inciting sectarian divisions and sometimes deny visas to foreign preachers deemed extremist.
Majidyar says this stands in sharp contrast to other countries in the Middle East where prominent Muslim preachers openly incite sectarian divisions. But more importantly, he says: "The Omani government has successfully integrated its religious minorities into the social, political and economic fabrics of society and has given them no reason to resort to engaging in violent extremism at home or seeking foreign patrons."
Majidyar points to Oman's small Shia community, who have been treated as "first-class citizens" and exert greater influence than their numbers in business and politics.
Despite being wedged between Shia-ruled Iran and Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia, the regional archrivals have little influence over communities in Oman.
Ahead of sunset prayers, Sayyida Mazoon's young imam crossed the courtyard with his little boy running close behind. An unassuming door on the edge of the courtyard opened to Fahad al-Amri's study, its walls lined from floor to ceiling with Korans and books on how to interpret it.
"Honestly when we look at the problems happening in the world and the neighbouring area, we are afraid it could come to Oman," Amri told journalists. The imam credited Sultan Qaboos for his policy of non-interference in other countries' affairs and Oman's society for its tendency to solve problems "within the family".
Wearing a white gown and matching turban, with striking brown eyes, the imam reflected on his role in keeping the peace.
"As a religious leader, I have to teach the new generation on the foundation of respect," he said. "Every person is entitled to his own opinion. Even if you disagree with him you have to respect him," he added. "If you don't respect him, this is the small spark that will lead to the catastrophe that we are seeing now in some Islamic countries."
As worshippers of different sects began lining up side by side, the imam excused himself and went to lead the sunset prayer. (AFP)
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