International Day for Tolerance, 16 November


Imagine you grew up and spent your whole life in a society with a common religion, language, customs and traditions, but then at some point found yourself surrounded by people – individuals or groups – that didn’t share your language or religion or the same customs as you.

Or imagine there were circumstances – maybe study, work, seeking asylum etc. – where you found yourself in a different society, among individuals and groups who didn’t share your religion, your language or your culture.

Would you view these individuals or groups positively, as an important sign of diversity, or would you find them disturbing, maybe annoying?

Would you support their right to follow the customs and traditions they grew up with or have chosen, and their right to belong to their own religious or cultural institutions (of which there are many, just as in the society you yourself have come from), which help them to practise their beliefs or the lifestyle appropriate to them?

Tolerance can be defined as “a fair and objective attitude towards those whose lifestyle differs from yours”.[1]

In 1995, to mark the 125th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth, the United Nations created the UNESCO-Madanjeet Singh Prize for the Promotion of Tolerance and Non-Violence, which is awarded every two years on the International Day for Tolerance, 16 November. The creation of the prize was inspired by the ideals of UNESCO’s Constitution, which says that “peace, if it is not to fail, must be founded on the intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind”.[2]

In this age of remarkable and increasing diversity and individual differences within communities, with efforts being made to promote the values of tolerance, the UN General Assembly in 1996 invited member states to observe an International Day for Tolerance on 16 November.[3]

Today the world is seeing unprecedented cultural diversity on a global scale because of large numbers of people being forced to migrate from one country to another, or from one region to another, often in pursuit of work.

Societies around the world nowadays comprise individuals and groups of different religions, languages, cultures and traditions. This remarkable diversity has led to a need for tolerance as a theme running alongside, or contained within, the law, in order to ensure the correct handling, without extremism, of every kind of difference between individuals within the same society.

This represents a major challenge, which surfaces from time to time as people arriving from various places, or the populations of the places they come to, sometimes succumb to feelings of hostility and behave in harsh or discriminatory ways, which may on occasion lead to violent clashes.

Oman is a richly diverse society in terms of language, culture and traditions.  In many regions across its vast geographic expanse there are people and communities who speak a variety of languages, such as Swahili, Shahri, Baluchi, Zadjali etc. Although this pluralism has enriched society and produced patterns of integration and partnership throughout history, quite a lot of Omanis are still concerned about losing ties of solidarity and equality. The reason for this can be traced to the government’s approach, which has not been to erase the differences between members of society, but to allow the dominance of traditional tribal factors based on feelings of superiority over people of different origins.

The state needs to actually remove these differences instead of making claims that are not in fact true. According to information reaching the Omani Centre for Human Rights Omani courts often separate married couples on the grounds of “incompatibility of status”, where one spouse’s tribal pedigree is not matched by the other’s. This practice obviously shows complete contempt for the idea of tolerance, by failing to recognise the human dignity of someone who is different. But privately, and in secret, it’s a widespread practice in Omani society, and it won’t go away without the government taking a firm and clear official stance, making all Omanis equal in fact and in deed, not just in word.  Strict laws must also be passed in this regard to maintain the dignity of all without distinction, giving everyone their freedoms as prescribed in international treaties and conventions, so that society becomes genuinely tolerant.

Furthermore, there are no schools in Oman for Omanis who speak languages other than Arabic. Such communities are forced to go along with the rest of society and learn Arabic in schools and universities. Learning Arabic should certainly be something that applies to all citizens, because it’s the official language of the country, but speakers of other languages are also entitled to have the right to learn them in state-recognised educational institutions. This would show receptiveness and tolerance; prohibiting it shows the opposite.

Some social media activists have been arrested or summoned for questioning and forced to stop their social media appearances because of what the authorities call a violation of Omani values! 

What do you think – has the time come for Oman to reap the benefits of its cultural diversity and allow some official non-Arabic speaking schools?




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