NEW YORK (IPS): The United Arab Emirates is cracking down on hate crimes with tough legislation that prescribes up to 10 years in prison or the death penalty if convicted of “takfirism” or Sunni Muslim extremism, according to the text of the decree distributed by the official WAM news agency.

The new law includes provisions to “safeguard people regardless of their origin, beliefs or race, against acts that promote religious hate and intolerance” and also “makes it illegal to discriminate against individuals or groups on the basis of religion, caste, doctrine, race, colour or ethnic origin.”

Islam is the majority religion in the UAE, with a division of approximately 85 percent Sunni and 15 percent Shi’a.

The nation’s Constitution already provides for freedom of religion in accordance with established customs, although Islam is the official religion.

The new legislation has received broad support from UAE academic and experts. The chairman of the board of directors of Emirates Human Rights Association (EHRA), Mohammad Salem Al Kaabi, said that the law allows the people of 200 nationalities in the country to “live in peaceful co-existence”.

“I think the existence of such laws is an urgent need for all countries, especially amid many messages of concern that incite racial hatred on social networking sites,” he told The National.

The Islamic European Council (IEC) also hailed the move and?called on the governments of Islamic countries, members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and member states of the United Nations to follow suit in order to activate U.N. Resolution No. 65/224 on Combating Defamation of Religions.

In a statement, D.r Mohammed Al Bashari, Secretary-General of the IEC, said that under the rapid regional and international changes that threaten global peace, it has become necessary to pass a law criminalising the defamation of religions in all the Islamic countries.

The Anti-Discriminatory Law also prohibits any act that would be considered as insulting God, his prophets or apostles or holy books or houses of worship or graveyards.

Writing in The National, Dr Hasan Al Subaihi and Taryam Al Subaihi, journalists and political/social commentators, note that “Religious discrimination was – and still is – a worldwide problem. The Arab world has had its fair share of internal conflicts because of religion, and many of these fights go far beyond the struggle between Shias and Sunnis.”

To name just a few, they said, the Middle East has communities of Alawites, Berbers, Copts, Druze, Kurds, Jews, Yazidis, Assyrians, Shias and Sunnis.

“The new anti-discrimination law issued by President Sheikh Khalifa has put into writing what the people and leadership of the UAE have practised since before the birth of the nation and what is, in fact, not only part of the UAE culture but also the religion of Islam: tolerance.”