New Voice

An Interview with Amb. Omar Saif Ghobash

Omar Saif Ghobash serves as the United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to Russia. He is also the author of a slim and provocative new book, Letters to a Young Muslim. In it, Ambassador Ghobash takes up through a series of letters addressed to one of his sons some of the most crucial challenges facing the Muslim, and especially the Arab Muslim, world. We spoke with him about Islam’s contemporary self-image, the roots of radicalization, and how lay Muslims can reclaim authority from clerics.

Ktal Haru. The Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi is a monument to Islamic. pluralism.

Ktal Haru. The Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi is a monument to Islamic pluralism.

Octavian Report: Can you talk about your background and what inspired you to write Letters to a Young Muslim?

Ambassador Omar Saif Ghobash: The important thing here is that I don’t claim any special theological expertise, and that was one of the reasons I wrote the book. I’m trying to claim a space for lay people to engage in religious debate in the Muslim world. That’s extremely important because a number of people asked me about the book and said, “Did you get this checked by a cleric?” I said, “No, I didn’t.” I’d done that on purpose because I’m actually engaging in discussion with them, I’m not asking them for their approval of my approach. I’m actually sketching out an approach to the clerics, as well, in the book and hopefully outside of the book.

About the motivations behind the book: they have partly to do with my two sons coming of age. They are 12 and 16. Watching the news, they come back to me and say, “What’s going on with us? Why are we Muslims always either involved in acts of violence and terrorism or blamed for acts of violence and terrorism?” In their minds, it’s not as clear-cut as “We’re being targeted.” The international coverage of terrorism, as it’s related to Islamic extremists, has an effect on our self-perception as Muslims. I’ve seen this not just from my own sons; I’ve seen it with colleagues who have said, “We’re no longer sure what the tenets are and what is acceptable and what isn’t acceptable within our faith.” There’s a lot of doubt and self-questioning that’s taking place behind the scenes, simply because of the international coverage of radical kind of Islam. That’s a motivation.

I wanted to push forward with an idea for how moderate Muslims — who don’t have 30 years of education in Islamic theology and philosophy — might have a rough-and-ready approach in order to be able to test their own faith and verify what they’re being told and what they’re hearing. Often I hear people say to each other, “So, what imam do you follow?” The implication being that whatever that imam says, or whatever that scholar of Islam says, you follow what they propose without question.

I think this is not a particularly healthy approach for the 21st century. It made more sense in the 10th century and the 15th century where levels of literacy and knowledge were minuscule. But it makes very little sense in the 21st century, where all of us have this massive amount of information and are confronted with many different perspectives — and not only so many different perspectives generally, but particularly as Muslims being faced with our own diversity. It makes for, first of all, a lot of confusion, but it also creates a space for a much broader discussion. In many cases you’ll find that laypeople are better informed than religious scholars on ethical issues, on moral issues, on the latest developments in technology and the political situation around the world. To have to listen to self-appointed ethicists who are clearly not fully informed is a problem.

OR: You raise in the book that idea that the rapid-fire economic modernization of the Arabian Peninsula after the discovery of oil is in some senses a cultural shock still not fully digested. Can you talk about the implications of that?

Ghobash: The discovery of oil basically took a marginal — and I’m a member of that society — community in world affairs and put it really at the front line. In a sense, it turbo-charged our world view with petrodollars. This is something we just have to accept. It is a fact. Even if it’s not governments necessarily funding particular worldviews or particular movements, there are a lot of individuals who believe that this oil is a blessing from God, and therefore, that they should then promote the word of God. The closest philosophical or religious schools are the ones that are right at hand, and that’s precisely why, I think, we’ve had a spread of our kind of worldview. A harsher, less philosophical, less colorful, more ritualistic approach. It doesn’t mean that those are the only approaches possible in Islam. That’s just the way things developed.

Economically, we were shoved into the late 20th century and that caused another kind of conflict. All of a sudden we discovered that far from being small-time traders with the neighboring countries, we had the ability to influence what was happening in the region. Obviously, it meant infrastructural development, which allows us, today, to project a certain kind of power around the region.

There’s another economic shock to our system where we’ve had very high expectations amongst our populations in the Gulf. Now we see a lowering of the price of oil and the challenge of renewable energies. It’s becoming very interesting to see where this is going to take us next. I think all of the governments of the region are actually looking at the changing economics as an opportunity to introduce cultural change as well. The empowerment of women is going to be a direct consequence of that, and increased rights to join the labor force are going to be a consequence of that. When that happens, it’s going to have, again, social and cultural effects immediately.

I suppose economics has forced us to do that, but it’s also something that people are now thinking about and taking advantage of. If you live in a society where most activities are prohibited, it diminishes your economic productivity. If you allow for an entire entertainment industry to be established overnight, if you allow for women to begin to participate in the workforce or work from home and set up companies, then you’re going to see a lot more economic activity. The other thing is that there is the moral argument even within Islam that economic productivity is in itself an important element of a healthy Muslim community. I think that’s the kind of argument that can be made.

OR: What are the imperatives allowing the version of Islam you mentioned in certain cases actually to develop into radicalism or even armed militancy?

Ghobash: I think it’s a conflation of different kinds of Muslim thought. The violence and the political activism seem to come from the Muslim Brotherhood, established in 1928. Then their star thinker, Sayyid Qutb, who really promoted hatred of the West and anti-Semitism and somehow kind of separated the possibility of human beings making practical decisions about their lives from our religion. I think that had a very powerful effect. And if there is a trend in the Gulf, it was always towards a quietist, non-political Islam, but with a very traditional, basic view of the importance of ritual and a focus on the moral quality of our neighbors. That’s what explains, for example, the existence of morality police.

If you take these two strains and you put them together, then you get a very reductive, simplistic approach to the world, armed with a philosophy of violence. This is something that we worry very much about in the Arab world and the Gulf region in particular. The Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates have still not separated themselves from or rejected the thinking of Sayyid Qutb. There’s a very good reason for that. He was executed in 1966 but his books still sell very well. He’s an exceptionally powerful writer. He had a background in Arabic literature and he was a critic and he has such a powerful way of writing. I’m afraid to read his works. Even though they’re filled with hatred, they are very, very powerful.

OR: In your book, you suggest that a dynamic of sin and repentance can contribute towards individuals being willing to sacrifice themselves through acts of religious violence. Could you talk more about that?

Ghobash: These are impressions that I’ve gathered over the years from my own personal experience when I was in my teens to the way in which some people respond when any sort of violence is attributed to Islamist terrorism. People will say, “Ah, but you know, the person wasn’t a good Muslim. He didn’t pray, he didn’t fast.”

This idea being that, “Oh, well, he wasn’t a devout Muslim before he committed these acts, and, therefore, we can say that this had nothing to do with us now.” Actually, I think the problem is that the radicals prey upon precisely this kind of individual. Many of us have experienced this pendulum movement in and out of great religiosity and then a kind of weakness. It reminds me of Tolstoy, who was both decadent and extremely pious up until middle age. It’s a very human thing.

OR: Can you talk about Islam’s self-image in the world, and the good and the bad that you see there?

Ghobash: We have this idea of the global Islamic ummah. This is very clearly stated in the prophetic tradition, that the Prophet regarded his followers as an ummah, as a nation, as brothers and sisters in the faith. That’s an essential part of our self-understanding, and I accept it wholeheartedly.

What I think is missing is the role of the individual in this. The idea of the ummah and the nation has been twisted into a way where we are no longer able to ask the ummah what exactly we are meant to be doing for it, and what, in return, we are to take from it. It’s presented as a system where those who (like me) are lay people are servants of the nation and are instructed by the clerics in what to do.

That’s why you have clerics saying, “All right, jihad today,” and then two weeks later they say, “Well, everybody come back from the jihad, it’s over now because things have changed.” This is what makes me very puzzled. I think this is why we need clarity within our own faith about a central question: namely, is the ummah a political entity? If so, let’s a get a bit of shape around it. It’s been hijacked by the loudest and the most radical voices. Or is it an ethical community? In which case, how are we going to be ethical if our ethics is politicized by the clerical leadership?

OR: Is there room, in your opinion, for Western democracies to play a role in this discussion?

Ghobash: I do think it is an issue of global concern. We Muslims shouldn’t be surprised when the West or Russia or China expresses great interest in the positions taken by leading Islamists and other Islamic figures. We are a part of the global community and we should accept that, just as we are interested in what the U.S., Russia, and China do, and Western Europe. We’re often ready to criticize them. We shouldn’t be surprised they’re interested in how our societies are developing and what threats poor management — whether religious or economic and political — in our societies might represent to them. The world has become a much smaller place, as we know. We, in the Islamic community, need to begin to accept the world as a small place.

What specifically can be done? In the U.S., the American Muslim community has, by my reckoning, seemed hesitant to involve itself in the global Muslim debate. Even though, I would say, that the American Muslim community is at the cutting edge of what it means to be a Muslim in a multi-cultural society and to be a minority within a particular political system. These are very interesting places for us to define ourselves, to put forward creative ideas about how to deal with minorities, and how to be consistent in this regard. For example, when in the Middle East there are certain very powerful strains of anti-Semitism, I’d say that we need to think, “Well, if we are accepting of anti-Semitic, anti-Jewish expression in our own part of the world, then by what right do we complain of Islamophobia in the West?” I’d like a kind of consistency there.

I also think the great divide between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam is something that should concern the world. Perhaps we in the region, in the Arab world in particular, haven’t got the political imagination to think of how we can begin to work on a reconciliation. This is something that, I think, would be of interest to outside powers. I know that the Russians have proposed repeatedly such a mechanism, not necessarily one for a Shia/Sunni reconciliation but for Saudi Gulf Arab/Iranian relations. Now, do you put it in a political context, or do you work on the religious context? I personally think that the religious context is something that we would prefer to avoid, but it actually needs to be faced. I think some kind of mechanism should be set up to begin to look at how we can resolve that.

The Sunni/Shia divide goes back to a historical incident or a set of historical incidents right after the Prophet’s death. Let’s be honest: there’s nothing we can do to turn back time to change the events. We need to work on a system whereby we can actually agree with each other to disagree, but do so politely, rather than hurl abuse at each other on social media and on TV every single day.

OR: You point out high levels of illiteracy and high youth unemployment globally among Muslims. What are some immediate, concrete steps that can and should be taken to ameliorate that?

Ghobash: That’s a massive question. People are conceptualizing large infrastructure projects for the Arab world in order to mop up some of that unemployment. I’m not sure how much success they’re having, but they are pushing, and I wish them all success. The other big worry is that with the progress of technology and artificial intelligence, the question of unemployment is now becoming a global question — perhaps we’ve already missed the boat on employment in the Arab world. I don’t know. Maybe we need to think more broadly about what are we going to do with young people’s energies.

One of the things that the Emirates has done, in particular, is introduce conscription in order to create a certain discipline, a certain focus, a certain patriotism. We’re also focused on broader programs, which may not necessarily all be feasible. We’ve got a space program and we’re working on a Mars probe. Interestingly, we had a team of 16 soldiers — men and women — who summited Everest last year. That was a point of great pride: it was the type of physical activity where the immediate tangible benefits are not evident. Climbing mountains because they’re there rather than because it actually produces something is an interesting way of doing things. I sometimes think that if our jihadis, those young men and women who go off to war, could find other physical activities, it might mop up some of their own intensity.

OR: How has the catastrophic civil war unfolding in Syria shaped contemporary Muslim self-definition?

Ghobash: I think it’s had a negative effect in the sense that people think that Sunni Islam is under attack by Iran, by Russia, and by the West through its inaction. There’s a lot of questions that are being posed, but not many productive answers. I look at the situation in Syria as something that started out between two sets of Muslims, and two sets of Arabs, and see how this has morphed somehow into a global competition between the United States and Russia. For me, it just shows how poorly we’ve managed our own political processes within the Arab world but also how brilliantly we’ve managed to involve the global community in them. It’s amazing.

OR: How optimistic are you about solutions being found in the medium term for the challenges you outline in your book?

Ghobash: I’m an optimist. One of the things that I was accused of growing up was being a pessimist, and actually, what I wanted to do was try to identify the problem. I figured that there were problems that we weren’t talking about. What I tried to do in the book is actually put words onto the problems and give them shape. Once we have a better handle on the problems, maybe we can begin to push forward. To try to be as clear as possible about the problems is one thing. But to be bold enough to actually state them in public is another thing. I’m getting a lot of positive feedback from people who have said, “Thank you for writing the book. Thank you for speaking my mind for me.”  If that’s the case, this is fantastic. I’m basing my position on a wager: that there is a silent majority out there that is interested in living a different kind of life and is interested in feeling justified and confident in that other kind of life. Hopefully, I’ve achieved that to a certain extent. I would very much like for young people and older people in the region and in the Muslim world to take some of the contributions I’ve made and to build on them — or to scrap them and try their own hand at it.

OR: What other advice would you give to young Muslims — and non-Muslims — who want to better understand Islam in all its massive diversity?

Ghobash: I’d say to Muslim and non-Muslims that I think one of the issues that we’re facing today, and one of the reasons why there’s so much uncertainty both in and outside of Islam is that we are — because of globalization and technology — faced with our own diversity, and we cannot seem to make sense of that diversity. We have a great push by some among the traditional authorities and the radical clerics to say, “This is the truth. I have the truth; you must come to me if you want to know the truth.” Then we have another set of people who I would say form the silent majority. They don’t have that abstract knowledge or abstract understanding of the truth and are simply saying, “You know, I’m a Muslim, the way I live my life is what Islam is. There’s a basic set of human values and that if you tell me to do something that offends my humanity, then I’m not going to do it.” The massive diversity of our own faith is what is shocking to us. Trying to build a coherent picture out that is a big challenge.