MAHASH SAEED ALHAMELI
Five years ago, on February 4, 2019, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, his Eminence Professor Ahmed al-Tayeb, and the head of the Catholic Church, His Holiness Pope Francis met in Abu Dhabi to sign the Document on Human Fraternity.
Its mission was simple: to inspire all people to live the values of human fraternity, recognising that ultimately, despite the difference in the languages we speak, the way we pray or our individual histories, we are one humanity.
The Document on Human Fraternity is underpinned by a range of initiatives that look to deepen these shared values and foster a peaceful co-existence and international solidarity that increases tolerance for one another, empowers the vulnerable, protects our fragile global ecosystems and creates an equitable, socially inclusive world, free from discrimination, hate and violence.
The Abrahamic family house in Abu Dhabi, with its church, mosque, and synagogue – the first ever multifaith complex of its kind – is one of the most tangible symbols of the dictum “Love Thy Neighbour”.
As Sir David Adjaye, the British architect who conceptualised the design, said, “it should represent universality and totality; something higher, that enhances the richness of human life”.
Another important initiative is the Zayed Award for Human Fraternity, an annual award to recognise individuals and organisations that are true bridge builders, making profound contributions to the development of the concept of a human fraternity. It is named after the founder of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, and rewards those whose values reflect the humility, respect, and humanitarianism that he epitomised during his life. Some of the recipients to date include both the Pope and the Grand Imam, as well as the secretary general of the UN, His Excellency Antonio Guterres.
Sheikh Zayed was a visionary and a nation builder, known as much for his championing of what we know today at the UAE, as he was for forging peace in the Gulf, the broader region and the world. He was generous to a fault and tolerant of differences. He was also a dedicated conservationist, well in advance of his time.
On December 21, 2020, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming February 4 as the International Day of Human Fraternity, due in large part to the global acclaim that the signing of the original document and the values it espouses had engendered.
Today those values are in need more than ever before, as the world battles crises and threats on multiple fronts; tensions metastasise into full blown wars, hatred becomes acted upon with catastrophic consequences.
The only solution can be dialogue and through dialogue, tolerance and ultimately empathy and respect for one another.
It is no coincidence that Sheikh Zayed, fondly remembered to this day as Waalid al-Ummah (father of the nation), and the father of the modern South Africa, Nelson Rolihlala Mandela, shared a warm and enduring friendship after Mandela was released from prison and began the next chapter of his walk to freedom.
Both men were born in the same year, within months of one another in 1918. Sheikh Zayed would die in 2004 and then Mandela in 2013, but the friendship forged between them endures today as the UAE and South Africa celebrate the 30th anniversary of their diplomatic ties – in the very year that South Africa commemorates the 30th anniversary of Mandela voting for the first time in his life, exercising a right that had been denied millions for generations.
President Mandela was a fantastic exemplar of the values that the International Day of Human Fraternity wants to cultivate and nurture. He was able to put aside any personal bitterness at being imprisoned of the best part of his productive life in search of a far greater common good. He was able to so sit around a table, literally with the men who had jailed him, and negotiate a peaceful and relatively bloodless transition from what had been an intractable war by people who had become each other’s sworn enemies.
His legacy lives on today in South Africa, in a country that is a leader on its continent, in its region and, increasingly, on the global stage too. The world needs South Africa to find ways of building peace and fostering human fraternity, the very essence of which is found in the doctrine of ubuntu; “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu”, literally a person is a person through other persons.
We must never lose sight of this; irrespective of who we are, where we come from, the divinity we pray to, the language we speak, or the culture that shaped us. I am because you are. This is South Africa’s gift to the world, and it resonates with the tenets of the International Day of Human Fraternity and the lessons of the life of Sheikh Zayed.
We can all work in harmony as one human family without uniformity, indeed as South Africa’s national motto reminds, “u:! ke e: /xarra //ke”, diversity is an inherent strength, not a weakness – if we approach it with humility, respect, and an overwhelming purpose of strengthening our common humanity. Knowing that we can is one part of the challenge, actually doing that is the other. I believe that with initiatives like the Zayed Award, the Abrahamic Family House, the Higher Committee for Human Fraternity and the International Day of Human Fraternity collectively can guide us and inspire us to do better and to be better.
Mahash Saeed Alhameli is the UAE ambassador to South Africa and the dean of the Arab diplomatic corps in Pretoria.