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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Amid the mayhem of religious fanaticism, and the rise of a perilous intolerance, there is but one book you should read to avert a 2017 winter of discontent. It is Ambassador Omar Ghobash’s Picador volume, Letters to a Young Muslim. Ghobash is Ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to Russia, a diplomat, scholar and advocate oaf literacy, an entrepreneur, and outdoorsman. Excerpted in Foreign Affairs Magazine, Letters to a Young Muslim is a collection penned from the ambassador to his son on the meaning of being Muslim in contemporary society. The book was among Time Magazine’s most anticipated of 2017 and deservedly so. A reinterpretation of Islam that is as bravely soothing as it is forward thinking. The book is an ode to peace, a meditation on soulfulness, and yet a call to mindful action. In these elegant short essays, Ghobash grapples with the intersection of his faith, familial identity, and the question of global citizenship that binds us to collective self-preservation. He’s here with me to expound on his most virtuous volume. Ambassador, you can see I was quite taken with your book.
GHOBASH: Thank you very much.
HEFFNER: It’s an honor to have you here.
GHOBASH: Thank you.
HEFFNER: What do you most want to impart of all the lessons here.
HEFFNER: Familial and religious. In terms of this… reconciliation of faith and civilization today, what was the most important thing you wanted to tell your son?
GHOBASH: Well I think uh what I really wanted to get across to him was to, to have confidence in himself uh, and, and really not just himself, for, for, for, for people of his age to have confidence in their own selves. To trust their instincts. To trust their good nature, um and, and to maybe be a little skeptical about uh you know what uh older people, adults, uh tell them about what to do. Uh. And I wanted for him to have the confidence to maintain a sense of identity, a sense of personality, uh and to have the ability to step back uh from uh the demands of society or, or, uh, or, or, uh religious authorities, and to ask himself whether it really all made sense. Um. The other side of that is to have the confidence to uh, uh… uh deconstruct, to, to, uh take apart uh a set of beliefs and to put them back together uh with the confidence that um, uh, uh he would be able to do that successfully. So. I, I really wanted him to be able to uh, uh, uh, em-em-em-embark upon you know, uh adulthood with a sense of, of confidence and um… uh, a courage really.
HEFFNER: What do you think is key to… salvaging the courage in this day and age?
GHOBASH: You know it’s uh, it’s, the, eh… it’s very disappointing in some ways, um, to be a Muslim these days. Um eh, it’s, yes, you look into, you look at the media, you see all of these terrible things happening across the, uh, the Arab world in particular but more broadly across the Muslim world. Um. And, and then you have the reaction in the west, and, and in, in places like Russia and China. You know the rise of Islamophobia. And you begin to wonder well, you know, why do people uh not like Muslims? Why are we being targeted in this way? Um and then there is the other side of it, which uh which is that you know, you begin to think, well, uh what is wrong with us? How is it possible that we have so many acts of violence declared in the name of, of Islam? Um and how do you react to that? Uh, that’s, that’s a, a very, very tough question that I think uh we’ve, I’ve personally dealt with for the last few years. Um of course we would like to be able to say look, these acts of violence are committed by people who don’t understand the religion, who have hijacked the religion, who uh, who use the name Islam and, and, but, but have no legitimacy whatsoever. But then once you begin to delve into some of the theological sources that they look at, it doesn’t be, it’s not so clear anymore. And my position would be that we need to take responsibility for the entire range of actions that are declared in the name of Islam. In order to then be able to pull back to a, a kind of a theological uh basis, that says… actually, you cannot do that. These actions that you’ve committed are completely out of touch with basic humanity, which is what underlies uh the religion of Islam. And if that is the case then, you know, uh, you, you really don’t have anything to, to add to Islam.
HEFFNER: There were moments in your life that were particularly formative in shaping an outlook that is more pacifistic in nature than militant. 9/11 you reflect on that here and… in other literature that you’ve written, and the impact that had. Of course, your family, your father… can you tell our viewers how this became a personal story so they’re familiar with–
HEFFNER: …your livelihood, and how you came to write these letters.
GHOBASH: Sure. My father had a very tough uh upbringing, tough uh childhood. Um and, and essentially a very poor one. Uh but that was you know sort of the same for everybody in our region in the 1930s and the 1940s, the region being the Arabian Peninsula. Um and uh he managed to uh… scrape together an education. Uh and um he became very well educated in comparison with the rest of uh his generation. He was appointed Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, uh in the early 70s. Of at the beginning of the foundation of the United Arab Emirates. Um. And in 1977, uh as is uh… uh common uh with uh diplomacy and, and uh foreign sort of political visits, uh there was somebody who always escorts or greets uh visitors to the country. Uh and my father was escorting the Minister of Foreign Affairs of uh Syria. Uh and uh the Syrian foreign minister was the target uh of this assassination, and unfortunately my father was killed uh, and, and now, you know, almost 40 years later, I find that I’m still working with the uh, the consequences of that, that event. Um. So I, I take that, that idea of, of a violence committed. And in, in the case of my father, even more tragically, accidental, uh violence. And I um think about how violence affects so many lives in the Arab world in particular, but also in the Muslim world. And that violence can be you know politically inspired violence. It can be violence with weaponry. Or you know on a more sort of mundane level, it is the violence of domestic violence. It’s the violence of, of um, you know the psychological violence that we do to each other. So that that’s really the kind of broader field that I’m looking at. Where are we using violence as a means of expressing ourselves? And how is it that we can perhaps um for, think of different ways in which we might be able to express ourselves? I think the violence that we see in the political sphere in, in the Arab world um is, is an indication of the, the, the generalized violence that we see in our lives.
HEFFNER: And the reality today… in response to… contemporary acts of terrorism is that… there are some coordinated attacks, but there are a lot of lone wolves. That seems to be the, the predominant strain of that virulent form of extremism. You tout a message, “not in God’s name” which was the title of another author we had here…
HEFFNER: Jonathan Sacks, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks… how do you ultimately remove that impulse?
GHOBASH: One of the um… potential areas in which we could start working on this is by um eh changing the relationship between our religious leaders, our clerics, our scholars of Islam, uh and the people that they address. Uh the, the relationship has traditionally been framed in the following way: that the scholars of Islam have a particular um, uh, authority and a right to interpret and to make judgements. Uh and their attitude to those who don’t have that same level of scholarship is that you know, you are um eh… you, you are the masses. You don’t understand. You have an inability to really uh comprehend uh the, the true meaning of, of Islam. And so essentially it’s uh, it’s a kind of authoritarian relationship. Uh and they give instruction. Uh and for the most part I think, you know, uh people, people go along with that idea. And so I’ve seen some very, very well educated, intelligent, and cultivated people uh turning to uh, um, a so-called scholar of Islam to ask him their uh, opinion uh of what they should do. Uh and it’s uh, that in it, itself, uh needs to change I think. And I think many of the scholars will actually agree with this as well. It, it is one thing to be um, a, a literate scholar of Islam in the 7th century or the 10th century or the 13th century uh where you know illiteracy was widespread and you know people were living hand-to-mouth. Today the nature of knowledge has, has changed radically. Uh we understand that, you know, religious knowledge is, is one area. Uh and although some, some scholars uh insist that religious knowledge actually encompasses all kinds of knowledge, uh, we, we can see sort of from, from recent sort of scandals and events that uh, religious knowledge has a certain way of dealing with the world. But then there is psychological knowledge. There’s uh economic knowledge. There’s knowledge of politics. There, there, there are a whole set of ways in which we can complement um uh the, uh, the, the, the language and the methods of analysis that the religious scholars use. So what I’m suggesting is that the religious scholar needs to widen, uh and that they are male—so they need to widen the scope of, of, uh, or their understanding of, of knowledge. Um and once we get to that position, then we can see that we don’t need necessarily to use violence. Violence is a very basic tool to achieve a, uh, a, a certain end. Uh and in fact you know, if, if you don’t have… uh an advanced culture uh and educational system where you’re actually producing a fantastic technology, then your violence is going to be very, very basic.
HEFFNER: Yeah. Would you say the per, the, would you say Ambassador, that the preponderance of violence, the majority of violence, is inspired politically, and that class of… zealots is… in, in some ways, seeking to define the Muslim or Islamic creed through… theological evidence? That they’re… that they’re making an argument based on their own literary reading? Or would you say that dating back to centuries ago that the problem of illiteracy is still a grave one?
GHOBASH: Well the problem of literacy uh and illiteracy is, is actually a very grave one in the uh Muslim world. Um and you know, I, I, I been given information that 70% of the Muslim world is illiterate. Um you know what are the long-term consequences of that level of illiteracy… How do these people acquire knowledge? How do they get uh their information? And uh, uh who structures that information for them? Um so, so, that, that’s uh always kind of one set of problems. Uh the other set of problems I think is related to the idea that um to be a good Muslim uh is to make sacrifices, uh and not to think of yourself but to think of the glory of Islam and the community. Uh and in fact uh you um a couple of days ago I came across a, a comment uh on one of my um positions. Where I put forward the idea of… um, re-re-reviving and, and regenerating our, Islamic culture through focusing on uh individual, the individual and individual responsibility. Uh and this was pointed out you know uh as to be, I, I, being as un, unnecessary and uh a western concept. So this negation of the self um uh that, that is being promoted by a lot of people. I find the negation of the self uh is a kind of a, a manipulative uh technique to acquire power over other people. Uh so that’s a, another kind of element that I really um, I don’t want to scare young people, but I—they must understand that manipulation is part of, of the game.
HEFFNER: Manipulation is more… dangerous in the hands of an uninformed 70%, but in terms of rectifying—
HEFFNER: that basic problem of illiteracy… do you think it’s necessary for the Sunni and Shia sects to embrace eh more fully reconciliation.
GHOBASH: That is a great question. And that is actually a great point. Um uh, I would actually say that it’s vital. Um that the two great branches of Islam come together at a, uh, at a, a very high level. Uh to really sort of just… pose the question. If both sides wanted to settle the issue of what happened at the prophet’s death, how would that resolution look? What would it look like? Uh and… and if, and if there is no resolution, then what is the future for the Muslim world? And so you know, it, it, it would be great if we could organize. Um if we could get the idea out, that, that Sunni Islam and Shia Islam are two uh great branches of Islam. Uh and they’re almost kind of, uh, mirror images of each other. Um. Representing sort of different, different uh… eh… gosh… I think that that would be a fabulous idea if we could do that.
HEFFNER: Speaking as a scholar of the book but also as an ambassador, what is the most significant geo-political obstacle to achieving that?
GHOBASH: You know I’m not sure it’s, it’s, it’s uh an obstacle. I mean you know you have the two uh, uh countries that represent Shia and Sunni Islam. You have Saudi Arabia representing Sunni Islam, which is very close uh, geographically, to um, uh Shia Islam, uh in Iran. Uh and actually maybe that, that geopolitical proximity um, it, it may be the reason why would could actually uh push to some kind of resolution. I mean the, the, the rising levels of tension between uh Saudi Arabia and more broadly the gulf states on the one hand, uh and Iran uh, uh on the other hand. Um. Is, is reaching sort of critical levels. Uh and how do you diffuse that? Um, you can, you can think that it is a purely political thing, or an economic issue. But if you uh go to the heart of it, um you, you might be able to see that it is actually uh a Sunni Shia um issue. Um and you know perhaps one day we will see uh somebody coming forward some kind of a, at least the first steps of a reconciliation. That would diffuse tension right across the region. It would be a remarkable thing.
HEFFNER: In your negotiations, in listening to the youth of Russia, the youth of your native country, the youth of Qatar and surrounding, the surrounding region… what… most… resonates with you that this next wave of, we call them here millennials but it’s a…
HEFFNER: … an international term. What are young people demanding in terms of geo-political reconciliation not just between Sunni and Shia, but in terms of the ongoing… escalation and de-escalation in Syria, and the connected problems that the US and Russia…
HEFFNER: Are going to have to tackle alongside partners in the Arab world.
GHOBASH: My understanding of, of the way young people looking at the world, uh, uh from the region, is that… their minds are still unformed about um how things should be. Uh I think that that’s one of the great things. And it’s one of the great opportunities that we have. Their minds are not set in stone. Uh they haven’t become uh, uh, attached to very strict ideas of the way the world should be. Uh and you know they’re, they’re really the internet generation, uh and so they’re exposed uh to… so many ideas. Um but you actually could, you, if you, you no longer know whether these ideas are sort of regional, local, uh, uh, you know somebody historically associates with our region or whether are uh, you know, ideas from very far away. Um and that becomes very interesting because it pushes against the traditional ideas of eh, of Muslim identity. That there is an ability that we can reject the outside. Reject the foreign uh and, stay true to our, our own um uh concepts and uh, and historical kind of uh intellectual tradition. Um and so because of this um uh exposure to ideas across the internet uh, I see that you know our identity and our personal understanding of ourselves has actually changed radically. Uh and so we are already hybrid. And that there was so turning back from that hybrid nature that we have become. Um and so this is, this is like as a starting point. Um. I’m very hopeful and very optimistic about youth in the region. Um and you know it’s, it’s, it, we saw that in the Arab Spring uh 2011, 2012, that there was this great uh um rush of, of, uh youthful energy. Uh and, and the worry was that I think that ultimately they weren’t confident enough in their own perspectives. Uh and they essentially handed over back to the people that had, they had, that had just given it up to them.
HEFFNER: Right. And it, and it is rooted in the Quran… this idea of carpe diem. Uh destiny of man is determined by man, woman, child, not some higher power. And I think that the Abrahamic faiths have the tendency to dispel a notion of camaraderie when in fact there is some real consensus.
GHOBASH: Mhm, sure.
HEFFNER: And you tell your son and stress that the warrior is one of the, the sadder figures in our modern Muslim society, which I think is such a critical point especially given the rise of the totalitarian.
GHOBASH: The warrior is different from the strong man. The. The, the the warrior is, is again, uh I feel like, I kinda, uh, uh a lone wolf without a, a sort of a backup team, without an organization, without an institution to, to, to base themselves on. Uh so, when I say warrior I’m not saying a soldier.
GHOBASH: See these are two very, very different ideas. Um and uh you know this, the rise of strongmen seems to be taking place across the globe uh in, in democracies and, and in more authoritarian states so… perhaps there’s just a, a, kind of an innate desire. Um that has surfaced uh to uh to, to have a sense of order, uh to have somebody else make the decisions for you. Um… there…
HEFFNER: You, you suggest a, a redefinition of the warrior, uh as someone who embraces life in its complexity, and fights for the social and economic justice.
GHOBASH: Yes because I, I actually think that those are much more uh challenging um ob-objectives. I, you know, when I, I think of suicide bombers and the way that they talk about, you know, prior to, to going and committing their terrible acts. Uh they, they give the impression that they think they’re making the biggest sacrifice. And I, I’ve said this a couple of times to, to my friends. You know it, it…giving up your life may be the biggest sacrifice, but it’s certainly not the most difficult thing to sacrifice. Uh you know uh to, to spend the next 30 or 40 years um… well, help, helping uh educating people or, or teaching uh, young Muslims how to read and write. That is a much greater sacrifice, and a much more interesting sacrifice than to go and blow yourself up in a market place. It’s just nonsensical. And I think we need to, to, we need to hear even the radicals, uh, uh answer the question of why, you know, that kind of uh contribution is, is greater than uh you know the contributions of, of, to our economy and to our society.
HEFFNER: And in the same way you imagine a new, as you were alluding to yourself, a new definition of personal responsibility. And it is… an entirely progressive vision of equality, understanding, and tolerance. Given your own… pedigree, uh, of—
HEFFNER: Arab and Russian roots.
HEFFNER: How can you take that… founding document, in essence, um of a Quran… um and… bring to… the Arab world a sense of… ownership… not just of the document, but of human rights that it can enshrine for this generation?
GHOBASH: It’s uh interesting, interesting question. And, and, you know in my book, what I try to do, is I try to talk about the responsibilities of the Muslim individual. Uh, and again you know people have complained about this idea and said you know, it’s the, it’s, the group is more important than the individual. The individual is a foreign concept. Uh and, you know, my response to that would be well when I stand in front of the mirror I see an individual, I don’t see a community. Uh even though I do have, I recognize the, the, the responsibilities that I have towards the community and I, I recognize the, the beauty of the community. But to have a community that is based on um, uh destroyed individuals, that means that you have an impov…, impoverished community. Um so, I, I, think that, that’s a very, very important thing to it, to be clear about. Personal responsibility is also very difficult if you’re living in patriarchal societies. Uh where you know, the, the, the father is the boss. Where the, the, the, the big um… uh the, the, the tough guy, the uh, uh the leader is the, the boss. He takes all the responsibility. He takes all the decisions. And most people will then fall in line and say, well OK, you know it wasn’t in my hands, so I did what I was told. And so you know you’re going to have to change the way in which you begin to delegate authority for example. And once you begin to delegate authority, uh, you know whether it’s in, in government or, or in, in economics, uh, or even in the family, then you might begin to see more of an expression of personal uh responsibility.
HEFFNER: And, and how do you… you use the… what we could call here the constitutional, the textual tradition…
HEFFNER: to infuse that shared authority? How, how do you take… the origin of faith, of, of the Islamic faith—
HEFFNER:… and blend it into a tradition that is a shared authority?
GHOBASH: Well I would say that I mean, first of all, it’s, it’s going to be a function of our changing kind of social uh, uh world. Uh we aren’t living in desert villages anymore. We are, we uh live in countries where we have three generations. Uh the older generation that grew up in the desert, and may be illiterate to uh their grandchildren who are completely eh you know eh uh connected globally. Uh and who speak uh a number of different languages. Uh and so, the, these, this, the fact of these uh generational changes, uh means that the, the conversation must take place. Uh and many young people are uh already challenging uh authority. But you know, to challenge authority is not to uh disrespect uh authority. It is to ask for a, a different kind of uh relationship. And I think that can also be done uh quite uh in accordance, both with our traditions and with uh, with the uh, you know the, the values of the Quran. Uh but most importantly I think that if we want to be uh ethical, um it’s very difficult um for us to be ethical if we are always thinking about the community. Um and this is another issue that is very important. When we focus too much on the community, and the protection, uh, in eh almost in a kind of a gang like manner, of all members of the community wherever they are around the world, uh then we’ve well, then we face a problem of politicizing our ethics. Um uh, how do I know that the, the group that uh is um… you know being uh… uh persecuted is really deserving of my, uh energy, time, money, and protection. Uh perhaps they aren’t deserving, you know, and so I prefer that we get away from this idea of uh, uh communal protection. Uh and begin to think more of you know the, um the, the more worthiness of particular actions. And whether I can support a fellow Muslim in a particular case. Uh as opposed to, you know, whatever crime he commits, because he’s a Muslim I’m going to protect him.
HEFFNER: Are they assigning this book, Letters to a Young Muslim in your son’s classroom in the UAE?
GHOBASH: [LAUGHS] Well it’s uh early days. Uh I…
HEFFNER: Yeah, and I just would wonder, Ambassador, if you think that… the schools… in the UAE and Qatar and maybe even now in Iran and, and Saudi Arabia would be… responsive to this message?
GHOBASH: Well, you know I think that—I, I know for a fact that uh there are many people who are responsive to the message. Uh they may not agree with everything. But this was never meant to be a, a kind of a set of doctrines. Um this is a, a, an appeal to… uh discussion, to debate, uh to doubt, to uh, to patience with each other. Uh and very importantly I, in my own personal life, I don’t like to offend people unnecessarily. Um and so here… you know, uh, uh the clerics can be denounced, easily. But I don’t want to do that at all. Because I believe that the clerics perform a fun—a fundamental role, uh a vital function within our own societies. And actually, uh they have so much to give. Perhaps the problem is simply that they aren’t aware of what they need to give because they don’t know us as well as they should. Um perhaps they don’t understand that the flock that they have been taking care of has actually evolved and become much, much better educated and much more able to engage with them on these more uh delicate questions. So that, that’s what I’m trying to do.
HEFFNER: Well I think you do it… magnificently and you are opening up a really critical dialogue that I’m sure you’ll take on the road here in the US, and of course abroad. Ambassador…
GHOBASH: Thank you very much.
HEFFNER: Thank you for being on the program today.
GHOBASH: Thank you very much.
HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/openmind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.