by Alex Manzoor
On Tuesday 28th of March the Henry Jackson Society welcomed Ambassador Omar Saif Ghobash, the UAE’s Ambassador to Russia, to discuss his book ‘Letters to a Young Muslim.’ He began by outlining the topics of his lecture which were why he wrote the book and the reaction to its publication. When Ghobash was fourteen to fifteen he was deeply religious and spent four weeks in everyday study of the Koran; this devotion led him to reject many of those who were not pious as himself, including his mother. After realising that his fervour was no longer healthy, he attended a boarding school in the United Kingdom. September 11th was a key turning point as Ghobash saw religious rhetoric acted upon whereas previously it had only been discussed.
His book ‘Letters to a Young Muslim’ is aimed at answering questions that Ghobash himself had, when he was a deeply devout fifteen year old, which were unanswered at the time. He had noticed that there was a tendency for many in the Middle East to offer a simple and binary choice between whether someone was a good and devout Muslim or a bad Muslim. Ghobash decided that there needed to be more space to look at history, language and philosophy and other subjects not necessarily through the prism of religion or clerical opinion. It is easy for an individual to be radical if you exclude yourself, and Islam in the Gulf is very insular perhaps because of the desert landscape, but now that Islam and the Middle East are on the global scene this exclusion is no longer possible.
There are a lot of Muslims in the Gulf who are very uncomfortable with anti-Western attitudes and he seeks to bring the two sides together. This is a possible explanation for the positive reaction to Ghobash’s book among a wide variety of groups and individuals which demonstrates the existence of common ground. There is a prevailing idea in the Middle East that only the clerical elite have expertise and even moderate clerics maintain their right to decide upon matters based on their authority. The book argues the need to go beyond clerical declarations and to separate, if it is possible, politics from ethics. It further argues that individuals should reject ethical advice when they sense manipulation, for example when in the name of devotion to religion an individual is being manipulated into ending their own life.
Ghobash stressed the fact that the problem with many extremists was that they were highly idealistic but failed to rely on their own intelligence. In the UAE itself, the different groups that reacted overwhelmingly positively to Ghobash’s book included the Royal Family, the Government and the young people that the book addresses directly; the Education Ministry of the UAE has shown an interest in having all sixteen to seventeen year olds read the book. In response to questions concerning the radicalisation of individuals involved in acts of terror, specifically converts, Ghobash described the pride that many Middle Eastern clerics had in the large amount of Western converts to Islam and suggested that many clerics should focus less on the quantity converting and more on the quality of converts and their susceptibility to extremism. Ghobash highlighted the fact that his book places a bet that Arabs are like everyone else in the world, where the young have questions that we must avoid people offering answers to, and then not allowing any further discourse. That kind of approach, Ghobash warned, may have worked in a village but would not work in today’s globalised world.