By Peyman Pejman
Since the September 11, 2001 attacks against the United States, there has been much criticism in the West that the Muslim world, collectively speaking, has not done enough soul searching, and that it has shied away from discussing taboo issues.
“Letters to a Young Muslim” addresses those criticisms in more ways than one. Penned by Omar Saif Ghobash, the United Arab Emirates ambassador to Russia, the book contains qualitative arguments provided by a progressive, educated, and well-connected member of the Arab community who has an ability to communicate with many young Muslims. It is the author’s hope that his arguments will help deter youths who might be tempted to buy into radicalized interpretations of Islam and join militant and terrorist groups such as the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and the so-called Islamic State.
Ambassador Ghobash spoke to Kayhan London from Moscow.
Who is the audience for your book, and what do you want to say?
My audience is evolving. Initially I thought I wanted to speak to myself and to my children. Then it evolved into addressing some of the concerns that have appeared in the West. I made a bet that there were young people in the Middle East who would be interested in having someone with my position and access speaking about these issues. And I am getting a great response from people in the Middle East, particularly in the Gulf area but more broadly as well. So I am feeling really excited about that.
The questions I ask are the questions I asked when I was 15, and I think they are universal questions in all societies. I feel very strongly that we in the Arab and Muslim world should not be afraid of [asking] these questions, because there are ways of answering these questions which are not heretical or threatening [to] our belief system.
You present these questions as a letter to your son, a young Muslim. Are these actual letters that you wrote to him?
No. I started with the idea of clarifying my own ideas to myself. My initial text was almost like [Karl] Marx’s Das Capital. My editor said they were great, but that no one would read them. She gave me the idea of converting them into a series of letters as a tool – the idea of addressing my son directly – and it paid off. When I started thinking like that, I completely rewrote my original text in this new framework, and it took me about two months.
Did you even ask your son what was on his mind?
I have spoken to him on occasion. When I read it, I sometimes feel that I am writing it to myself – to the 15-year-old that I was, but also to his generation. Of course, it is a personal book directed at him. He is actually much more mature than I ever was or will be, so he is very lucky. In a sense, the book has passed by him, and other kids are benefiting from it, I feel.
You seem to be saying to some young Muslims who could potentially be radicalized that you understand some of their concerns, and that the blame rests with governments and religious leaders. Is that right?
I always try to ascribe as much responsibility to myself in personal and professional life. Even if 99 percent of the blame rests with the government or society or the economy, I still think we need to focus on that 1 percent that is our responsibility. What I am asking the young and older people to do is to take responsibility. There are many things that we talk about behind closed doors and we all know that we are doing it. We don’t talk about it in public.
Is this book being translated into Arabic, or should you have written it in Arabic?
I was brought up speaking English as my first language, and that was one of the key issues I faced growing up, which made me very aware of different perspectives. The book is being translated into Arabic. Kids and adults in the Arab world are asking when the Arabic version will come out.
By writing it in English and addressing it to Muslims everywhere, I think I was trying to reach a broader audience than simply in the Arab world. It is being translated into Turkish, German, and Mandarin as well.
Did your book have to be vetted by the government? In most countries, that would be mandatory for senior government officials and diplomats.
I assumed that I had to do that. That’s why I went to my boss and members of the royal family in Abu Dhabi and asked specifically for permission to write a book. Permission was granted immediately, without any further question as to what I was going to write about. I volunteered information on [the book], and throughout the process, although I kept them fully informed on the writing and the publishing contract, at no stage did anyone ask me for a copy to verify what was in it.
After publication, I did some 20 or so interviews in the West and the U.K., again with no guidance, instructions, or restrictions about what I said. I have been very lucky. Maybe I said something so inoffensive and uninteresting that it didn’t offend anybody.
So the messages in the book are not messages from the UAE government indirectly transmitted through you?
Someone without much information about the UAE asked me, “How can you write something that is so open and tolerant and modern when you come from this backward Wahabi state?” I responded that the book actually comes out of a context. The context is the experience of the Emirates.
I am writing to explain the kinds of freedoms that I feel – intellectual, physical and social freedoms – but I want to provide a kind of a framework that gives it grounding. We have a great tradition and experiment in the UAE that allows for this kind of openness, but we don’t necessarily have the words to describe it. So I was describing something that is a reality in our part of the world and that could be a reality for other people in the region.
You ask in one of the chapters about the essence of Islam. So what is the essence of Islam in the 21st Century? How much of a clash is there with the “closed-minded” religious leaders of whom you speak in the book, and how do you think it will turn out finally?
I am very optimistic. Whereas other religions went through incredible turmoil, and I know we are also going through turmoil, there is so much additional information. There is the historical experience of other people and other faiths, where we can learn from the kinds of arguments that have already taken place. These are similar to the kinds of arguments that can place within Islam. We come out of these with a deeper understanding of our own faith.
When I talk about closed-minded clerics, I am not picking on any particular group to say, “You are the problem.” In fact, I think clerics are as much partners in the future of Islam. These are people who, for one reason or another, have dedicated their life to learning and education in the Islamic field. Where I think some of them have not quite made the jump is to really understand that if you are really interested in greater ethical meaning for the lives of people in the Middle East and the Islamic world, they need to make the effort not just to understand the 7th, 10th, and 14th centuries, but also to understand how life has changed for the normal Muslim, the uneducated, the lay person, and to have respect for those members of the society that don’t have the education that they have.
I still hear in the sermons of some leading clerics talk about the “non-specialist” as sheep to be led, to be told, to be educated, to be instructed. I think that that’s simply out of date. There is no harm in admitting that it is out of date and engaging in a more equal conversation.
On the essence of Islam, I would take a slower approach to defining what Islam is. Obviously, [with] the Koran and Prophet Mohammed, there is a historical tradition around all of that. But to say, “this is what it is and it is not that” is a debate that we need to be having now.
What I hear is just statements and principles shouted at each other. We not looking at the dynamics behind the principles and statements. One of the things I have noticed as a lay person is moderate clerics denouncing extremist clerics, but insisting nevertheless that decisions should stay with the clerics. That is something that they need to be aware of. Are we really just trying to reestablish clerical authority, or are we more interested in taking the conversation to a more interesting place? One of the reasons that traditional clerics have lost a certain amount of authority is precisely because they have not engaged with the 21st century.
You attribute a level of radicalization to individuals who revel in too much freedom and then try to repent by embracing a stricter version of Islam – what you call the debauchery – repentance cycle. But the message out of groups like ISIS, Taliban, and Al Qaeda is political: invasion of Iraq, presence of US soldiers in Saudi Arabia, etc. How would you explain the seeming discrepancy?
I am not generalizing about all forms of religion. I am saying that if I can make a contribution, it would be at the level of the individual. The problem with groups like Al Qaeda and maybe ISIS is military people looking for a new job. What do you do with them, what do they do with themselves? They are committed to a lifestyle and it has its own dynamics. I doubt that they believe every single day that this is a fantastic choice.
In the political world, I also see people who made choices early on and are now committed to those choices, whether they like it or not. Many of them would like to remove themselves but cannot. I see the same commitment on the part of the jihadists.
We have to break that cycle in some way. Part of it is the search for justice at the political level, but that’s something only we in our societies can insist on. And part of it is the immense psychological stress that I believe is taking place in Muslim societies.