Hamza Yusuf, vice president of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, said the UAE was 'committed to tolerance'
Rights group have criticised Hamza Yusuf, a prominent US-born Islamic scholar, for describing the United Arab Emirates as a country that champions civil society and is "committed to tolerance".
Yusuf, once dubbed as the most "influential Muslim scholar in the western world," made his remarks on the sidelines of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies on Wednesday in Abu Dhabi.
"The Emirates-inside the country-is a country that is committed to tolerance; they [even] have a Ministry of Tolerance," said Yusuf, who is also the forum's vice president.
"This is a country that is committed to civil society...it is one of the safest countries on the earth, and so at essence, the Emirati people are committed to that message."
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The forum, founded in 2013, has been held annually in Abu Dhabi and is bankrolled by the UAE.
Critics have denounced the forum as a PR initiative to boost the UAE's image abroad and deflect criticism by human rights groups.
Hiba Zayadin, a Human Rights Watch researcher who focuses on the UAE, said that the Emirates regularly attempts to "present itself on the global stage as progressive".
She also criticised Yusuf for using his platform to give credibility to the UAE government.
The UAE arbitrarily detains and forcibly disappears individuals who criticise the authorities within the UAE's borders
- Hiba Zeyadin, Human Rights Watch
"For someone as influential as Sheikh Hamza Yusuf to call the UAE 'tolerant' contributes and gives credibility to the authorities' carefully tailored, yet false image as a progressive and rights respected state," Zayadin told Middle East Eye.
"The UAE arbitrarily detains and forcibly disappears individuals who criticise the authorities within the UAE's borders. Emirati residents who have spoken out critically are at serious risk of arbitrary detention, imprisonment, and torture."
She added: "Funding a forum for promoting peace in Muslim societies stand in stark contrast to the fact that expressing the slightest degree of sympathy with the Muslim Brotherhood in the UAE could put you at serious risk of detention and abuse."
According to several human rights groups, the UAE has the most political prisoners in the world per capita.
It recently pardoned British academic Matthew Hedges after they charged him with spying. Hedges denied the charges.
In an interview on Wednesday, Hedges said the Emiratis had given him a cocktail of drugs and asked if he would be a "double agent for the Emiratis."
The UAE also arrested scores of Emirati activists who called for reform in the Gulf country following the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011.
Joe Odell, from the International Campaign for Freedom in the UAE, described Yusuf's comments as "flying in the face of reality".
Describing comments that the UAE is a tolerant society as "absurd" he said: "The Emirati authorities have clamped down so heavily on freedom of speech to the degree that there is no longer even a proper civil society to speak of.
"The supposed ministry [of tolerance] have not come in aid of Ahmed Mansoor, Dr Nasser bin Gaith or Tayseer al-Najjar, all of whom have been imprisoned in the UAE for merely expressing opinions.
"It is time that the international community see through the veil of PR and wake up to the realities of systematic repression in the Emirates."
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.