The United Arab Emirates has officially banned religious gatherings scheduled without the approval of authorities as it supports moderate religious practices and cuts off potential recruitment of extremists.
The law, which was passed by the Federal National Council November 14, punishes anyone convening unauthorised religious gatherings, which include Quranic recitations and memorisation gatherings, with a maximum penalty of three years in prison and a fine of $1,360, local reports said.
Harsher sentences could be handed down to mosque employees who have ties to banned organisations or are found to be involved in political activities or the issuing of unsanctioned fatwas.
In the UAE and the wider Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) designated terror groups, such as al-Qaeda, the Islamic State (ISIS) and the Muslim Brotherhood, have exploited religious gatherings for recruitment and indoctrination purposes.
While the UAE is known as one of the GCC’s more moderate states, it has occasionally dealt with issues related to the Muslim Brotherhood, which advocates political Islam and has attacked the government for its religious tolerance.
Al Islah, the Brotherhood’s affiliate in the UAE, grew more active following the fall of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the election of Muslim Brotherhood member Muhammad Morsi as president in 2011. Al Islah attacked the government for religious tolerance and spoke out against it allowing churches on UAE soil.
UAE State Minister for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said: “Churches in the UAE have been part of our tolerant landscape for many years, even before the formation of the state. Given that we welcome so many non-Muslims to reside in our country, surely we must provide them with places of worship.”
The UAE officially designated Al Islah a terror group in 2014, following similar bans in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
The Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates are said to have continued to sow discord in the region and the dispute between a quartet of Arab countries and Qatar is largely tied to Doha’s suspected support and nurturing of the Muslim Brotherhood movement.
The UAE’s move comes when GCC member Saudi Arabia is making significant efforts to stamp out religious extremism.
In October, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz said: “We are returning to what we were before — a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions, traditions and people around the globe.”
“We want to lead a normal life, a life that reflects our tolerant religion and our kind customs and traditions. We want to coexist with the world and contribute to the development of our homeland and the world,” the crown prince said during the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh.
“Frankly speaking, we cannot spend 30 years of our lives dealing with extremist ideas. We will destroy them today, and immediately.”
Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have taken steps to crack down on online radicalisation, another method for extremists to recruit followers, particularly for lone-wolf attacks.
During US President Donald Trump’s visit in May to Saudi Arabia, Riyadh inaugurated the Global Centre for Combating Extremism, which is to confront extremist thought with the latest intellectual, media and numerical methods and means, an official statement said.
The centre acts to counter “hate and extremist speech and promote concepts of moderation, accepting the other and the production of media content that confront the content of the radical thoughts in order to defy it and reveal its promotional propaganda,” the statement added.
The UAE launched its fatwa council in May to issue Islamic rulings at the request of the public or government entities with the aim of eradicating extremism. The council also certifies Islamic scholars to counter online radicalisation.