Beliefs Brian Pellot: On Freedom Culture Opinion

The UAE’s new anti-discrimination law is a wolf in sheep’s clothing

Burj Khalifa
The Burj Khalifa, now the world's tallest building, still under construction in 2008.
Burj Khalifa

The Burj Khalifa, now the world’s tallest building, still under construction in 2008.

“Look over here! Another shiny building!”

The United Arab Emirates perfected the art of glossing over human rights abuses years ago by spotlighting its triumphs of capitalism and touting its strategic role in regional security.

The country buys its citizens’ obedience with free healthcare and higher education, subsidized utilities and even a plush wedding stipend. It appeases wealthy expats with tax breaks and an unofficial laissez-faire attitude. All of these perks come at a hefty price in terms of freedoms and human rights.

I’ve been writing about this trade-off since first moving to Dubai in 2008 and continue to watch — with amusement and disgust — as leaders and local media put positive spin on even the most troubling developments.

Gulf News, based in Dubai, has spent the past 24 hours reporting how Emiratis, expats and experts are “praising” a new law issued by royal decree that prohibits discrimination against individuals or groups on the basis of religion, caste, doctrine, race, color or ethnic origin. Sounds good…until you look at the actual text.

While most of the law is relatively benign, Section 2 “Criminalizes any act that insults religion through any form of expression, be it speech or the written word, books, pamphlets or online” and Section 8 “Prohibits any act that would be considered as insulting God, His prophets or apostles or holy books or houses of worship or graveyards.” People who break the law face up to 10 years in prison and more than half a million dollars in fines.

Anti-discrimination laws should protect people — people who hold ideas and beliefs — but not the ideas and beliefs themselves.

Packaging glossy platitudes (“tolerance, broad-mindedness and acceptance”) with serious assaults on freedom of expression allows the government to shout “look at our shiny tolerance” while continuing to stifle dissent and to bury human rights abuses.

Don’t be fooled by the positive headlines. This law is a clear violation of our internationally protected right to freedom of expression and should be summarily scrapped.

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