I write this article in the duty free lounge at Dubai airport sipping away on a Costa cappuccino; my mind drifts towards my daily commute, as in true ‘Pavlovian’ fashion I associate my coffee with my train journey to work. Bizarrely, the thought of the daily bike ride to the train station on a grey morning brings some relief to me. It seems that absence, indeed, makes the heart grow fonder.
As with every holiday abroad, homesickness kicks in after a certain point during the trip; the irony being that upon landing on the tarmac at Heathrow, the notorious pangs of the ‘holiday blues’ will also make their appearance. In my experience this has been true for the most part, but this time I feel that there is more to it than that. On this particular trip, I wanted to briefly experience living in a GCC country, so I stayed in a self-catering apartment and hired a car to emulate some form of a ‘normal’ life in Dubai. With the exception of being an employee in Dubai, I did the daily groceries, regularly drove through the Dubai rush hour and even experienced the bureaucracy of dealing with the transport police for getting a parking ticket.
In some ways, Dubai felt like a home away from home, only better. British shops such as Waitrose and Boots were within walking distance from my apartment selling nearly all the brands I would expect to get if I were shopping at home in the UK. Such familiarity is an amazing source of comfort when abroad, as it signals that things aren’t so foreign after all. In addition to having one’s creature comforts away from home, there is of course the openly Muslim environment. Thobes and jilbabs are very much the normal attire amongst the locals, the call to prayer can be heard in public (even in the colossal shopping malls), sexually suggestive billboards with innuendos don’t exist (instead you can marvel at the chiseled face of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum), and of course the vast array of halal cuisine can leave one feeling rather spoilt for choice. Additionally, there is the prospect of earning a lucrative, tax-free salary with benefits and all of a sudden the wealthy GCC countries offer an attractive alternative living environment for Western Muslims.
For many, given the apparently increasing difficulties that Muslims face living in the West, emigrating to the GCC countries seems an obvious choice. In addition to the numerous aforementioned benefits, doing it for the sake of God potentially makes it one of the noblest acts of worship that one can do. However, is the supposedly ‘Islamic environment’ that is present in these countries merely a veneer hiding the many uncomfortable realities of living in the GCC?
What are the reasons given to justify performing hijrah to the GCC? The principle reason is the perception that Muslims are facing increasing levels of persecution in the west making it difficult to practice their faith with freedom. Another reason Muslims often cite is the openly Islamic environment in these countries – the absence of alcohol, the abundance of mosques with their respective calls to prayer coalescing at the time of salah and, of course, the modesty that seemingly pervades Muslim societies. It also seems that many Muslims find themselves unable to integrate into Western societies, leading to feelings of isolation. Thus, by moving to a Muslim country, the bond of faith would in theory allow Muslims to fully assimilate into society, whilst simultaneously giving them the confidence to express their faith without compromise.
Firstly, it’s important to question if Muslims truly have the freedom to practice their faith in the GCC countries. When it comes to personal worship one could argue that there is little difference between the freedoms offered in the GCC countries and most western countries. Whilst some may retort that there are early signs that these freedoms are at a risk of diminishing in the West (citing the recent niqab debate as an oft used example), surely now is the time to enter the public debate and fight for preserving religious freedom, as opposed to prematurely packing those bags and fleeing? Isn’t this precisely the form of struggle that is most beloved to our Lord?
I decided to discuss these issues with some Muslim friends living in Dubai. I wondered whether the benefits of being in an Islamic environment (which should have a knock-on effect on improving one’s spirituality) outweighed the challenges of living in the West. When I questioned them about this, their response was rather surprising as they stated quite the opposite – instead of feeling a constant spiritual high, they actually felt a spiritual void. They admitted that whilst it was very convenient to live close to a mosque and hear the adhaan five times a day, the novelty did eventually wear off. In fact, what they were really missing were the private halaqahs and Islamic events, where they could spend some time discussing the verses of the Qur’an and the teachings of our noble Prophet with one another. The sad reality is that even attempting to hold such events in your own home without seeking official ‘approval’ from the authorities runs the risk of deportation.
I was appalled. In fact I found it rather totalitarian that an individual could possibly be deported from a Muslim country for hosting an Islamic gathering in their house, or holding any Islamic event without approval from government officials. The surprises didn’t end there; incredibly, my friends offered justification for such laws citing that it’s in the ‘government’s interest’ to control Islamic preaching in public in order keep the wider public safe by preventing unnecessary civil discord and even terrorism. How ironic that any attempt of the state subtly promoting a religious narrative to Muslim communities in the West causes outrage, yet the strong control of religious preaching in Muslim countries is met with sympathy by Muslim expatriates.
To add insult to injury, many Muslims frequently complain about increasing resistance towards Islamic events in the West (and rightly so), yet some of these individuals would readily move to a country where they are a rare occurrence and state controlled. Moreover, this debunks the myth that people living in Muslim countries have total freedom to express their faith; evidently, they don’t. Imagine the furore that would ensue in Britain amongst Muslims as well as non-Muslims if individuals were deported for holding gatherings discussing the basics of Islam in the privacy of their homes?
A further example of state-controlled religious expression is the Friday sermon – the khutbah. It is interesting to note that when monitored sermons were suggested to Muslim students at City University, they warned that this would be ‘an attack on student rights, not just Muslim student rights.’ Yet monitored sermons are very much the norm throughout the GCC. Taking these factors into consideration, do Muslims residing in the GCC truly have the freedom to practice their faith to its fullest? What is perhaps most worrying is that Muslims in these countries simply accept the status quo and don’t fight for their freedoms.
On the issue of integration, Muslims who emigrate to the GCC countries apparently have the opportunity to fully take part in society without having to compromise on their faith. Whilst the latter part of the statement may be true (yes, Muslims can wear their thobes with pride!), do emigrant Muslims really integrate with the locals of their newly adopted countries? Whilst I believe they should make every effort to do so, the reality is that most of them stick within the confines of their small expat communities and thus they remain just as socially isolated ‘post-hijrah’ as they were ‘pre-hijrah’.
However, there is more to integration than merely sharing a few laughs with desert Bedouins. A fundamental part of our faith is calling to that which is good, and stopping that which is evil. Allah tells us in Surah at-Taubah:
‘’The Believers, men and women, are protectors one of another: they enjoin what is just, and forbid what is evil.’’
I do wonder how often Muslim emigrants to GCC countries get involved in campaigns of activism to stop vices which are prevalent within their society. Take the prostitution trade in Dubai as an example to which the authorities turn a blind eye. In trying to move away from cultures where promiscuity is tolerated, many Muslims end up in countries where prostitution is rife and quietly tolerated, yet they do very little to try and curb this widespread vice.
A further, perhaps more pertinent example, are the injustices that openly take place in GCC countries. Allah tells us in Surah al-Ma’idah:
‘’O ye who believe! stand out firmly for Allah, as witnesses to fair dealing, and let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just: that is next to piety: and fear Allah. For Allah is well-acquainted with all that ye do.’’
Allah describes in this verse that justice and piety stand alongside one another. How often do Muslims who have emigrated to GCC countries publicly challenge the human rights abuses inflicted upon their fellow Muslims by the governments of their newly adopted countries? In times when Muslims readily expose the human rights violations of the west (and so they should), have our Muslim brethren challenged the Saudi regime for their recent deportation of 12,000 Somalis, many of whom were women and children? How many Muslim expats living in the UAE expose the abuses of construction workers, calling for improvement to their working conditions? The reality of course is that Muslims who emigrate to the GCC turn a blind eye to these abuses just as the locals do.
Perhaps one might argue that my comments are based on a stay that was extremely short and in only one of the GCC countries, which is perhaps the most liberal of them all. Whilst there is bound to be some variation between countries, the central themes of strict state controlled religious and political thought, and the obvious injustices pervading society are common to them all. Indeed, the grass isn’t so green on the other side.