TIME: 13:00 – 14:00, 28th March 2017
VENUE: Henry Jackson Society, 26th Floor, Millbank Tower
21-24 Millbank, London, SW1P 4QP
Ambassador Omar Saif Ghobash
Author, Letters To A Young Muslim
UAE Ambassador to Russia
HJS: I think we will begin. Thank you all so much for coming. Ambassador Omar Saif Ghobash is ambassador of the United Emirates to Russia. In addition to this post, the ambassador sponsors the Saif Ghobash – Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation and is a trustee of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in collaboration with the Man Booker Prize in London. Ambassador Ghobash studied law at the University of Oxford and Mathematics at the University of London. His book, I think I would be right in saying, is a personal book not only in the sense that it is addressed to his son, but also as a sort of memoir reflecting on the assassination of his father. I would encourage everybody to buy a copy. It is on sale outside for fifteen pounds. I think that this book is not just significant for young Muslims, but really should be read by everyone and, if I might suggest, possibly on the syllabus of every country as a reading tool for helping people to sort of become resilient against extremism and any kind of binary thinking. Without further ado, ambassador.
OSG: Thank you very much. I have had a very interesting time over the last couple of days, telling people that I am coming here to speak and watching their reaction. You must be people of very forceful opinions, so I am looking forward to what you have to say. I just wanted to give you a rough idea of why I wrote the book and how I came to publish it and then maybe just sort of a few points about where I think things are going in the Islamic world. I think I have to speak [inaudible at 2:19].
Basically, going back to when I was about fourteen, fifteen, I was deeply religious. I had been to a Koran school for one summer, and it was actually very long, four weeks of studying the Koran every day. I was absolutely kind of engrossed by this, it was a very powerful feeling, and I then became really quite devout and religious and began to sort of reject anybody who was outside of the very strict confines of the faith as it was defined to me—which included my mother, actually, who was Russian. I dropped all of my friends that were Christian.
I reached the stage where I realized that things were not particularly healthy and I decided that I was not able to continue with this, so I opted out. I left school in the Emirates and went off to a Buddhist school in the UK, where for three years I essentially stopped speaking and all I did was observe, in a sense taking time out from religion. I left all of this for a very long time, and we would have fights about fundamentalist issues at university and after that. Never did we ever think that what we had heard at the mosques and the kinds of things that we were taught would be put into practice.
Then September 11 happened, which was a massive shock for me personally, and it made me realise that there was a turning point in the way that the Arab world was discussing religion and politics. So I decided that there was something that I needed to do. I spent a long time thinking about these issues. Then we moved fairly rapidly to the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring, again, was an opportunity. There was a chance for a regeneration and renewal of the Arab world and the Muslim world and, for whatever reasons, it failed.
Sitting there in Moscow, where I have been for eight years, I found that I had enough time after work, of course, and on the weekends to scribble a few ideas down about the issues that concerned me. What I thought was, I need to be able to answer the questions that I had when I was fifteen that remained unanswered. As you mentioned, there is a kind of binary approach to the world that is particularly forceful in the Arab world, I would say. You are either in or you are out, black or white, you are a good Muslim or you are a decadent person who should be condemned. We are continually sort of judging each other on that basis, and I decided that there really needed to be more space, at least from my perspective, to be able to look at things like history, language, philosophy, our relationship with the outside world, and to be able to kind of build a position on what it means to be Muslim in the twenty-first century.
Because, from my perspective, it is very easy to be a Salafi Muslim if you withdraw from society and you live in an enclave or a ghetto or you live somewhere in the desert in the Middle East. But I do not think that that was the purpose of our religion. Faith is not meant to be exclusive to the point where you become a hermit. The real challenge of being a Muslim is to initially find your faith in the most extraordinary of circumstances.
So I also thought to myself that Islam, in the way that we understood it in the Gulf in particular, [inaudible from 6:00-6:02], very insular, perhaps it is just a consequence of our kind of absence from the historical stage for centuries, the fact that with the help of the West we discovered oil, puts our Islam [inaudible from 6:17-6:20] what is essentially kind of a village Islam, or Islam of the [inaudible from 6:23-6:26] global environment, you expect there to be complications. So in writing the book, I was trying to place a bet on the fact that there a whole bunch of young Muslims out there, and perhaps even people of my generation, who are uncomfortable with the idea of being anti-the West, anti-the other, anti-the outside, and who actually believe that there might be some possible way in which you can bring these two sides together.
The response to the book has been very interesting. I have had all kinds of people come to me, from members of the royal families of various countries of the Middle East to kids, thirteen-year-olds, fifteen-year-olds, people in their early twenties, deeply religious people as well as people who have actually left Islam—all speaking about issues raised in the book. What I am trying to do here is trying build up a common ground. What people would say is ‘moderate Islam’, the vast majority of people kind of fit themselves into this area, but they do not necessarily know how to structure that position. So one of the key positions that I take is that I am not a theologian, and I refuse to even consider having to be a theologian in order to speak about ethics or morality in Islam. I am trying to build a position for the normal lay person, who is a professional, who is well-travelled, who has access to information through the internet, to be able to say, ‘You know what? I have the right to discuss ethical and moral issues within the faith, and I do not necessarily have to always go back to the clerical class to get permission, authorisation to do that.’
That is actually quite an important step, because in my discussions with members of the clerical class, there is a very clear idea that they are the ones who possess the expertise, and they guard that expertise. Even when you look at the way in which the moderate clerics are responding to the rise of al-Qaeda and ISIS and other extremist forms of Islam, they are very careful to maintain their right to decide key issues of Islamic law, of declaring someone a kuffar or declaring jihad. My point to them would be that, actually, we need to be discussing things beyond jihad and takfir and we should be really discussing really how to be ethical agents in our daily lives.
I also think that it is very important that we as lay people come to the clerical class and ask for clarity, given that they have this decades-long education in Islamic law and theology, clarify, what is ethics and what is politics? What happens when, all of a sudden, we are demanded to behave ethically, but we can clearly see a political calculation taking place? I am not entirely sure that it is possible to separate it out in any society, or in any sort of religious community, but there is a position that I take in my book, the position of the individual. The individual should actually reject the ethical advice when he feels that he or she is being manipulated. That manipulation is fairly straightforward in many cases. If you are being sent off to sacrifice yourself for supposedly a greater cause, you really have to ask why it is that you are being sacrificed while the person who is asking you to sacrifice yourself is actually off on holiday somewhere. These are fundamental questions.
Unfortunately, one of the things that I think we do not understand is that a lot of these people are very idealistic. Some of them are absolutely criminals and vicious, but a lot of them are idealistic and want to do good. Yet, they do not rely on their own intelligence to be able to decide what is good and not. Again, we come back to the responsibility of the political class, the clerical class, and generally the kind of patriarchal societies that we have within the Muslim community.
From the perspective of the Emirates, it is important to establish that the book is received with great support from the government, from the royal family, from kids. This may or may not happen, but I have been approached by our ministry of education and they have talked about having sixteen- to seventeen-year-olds, right across the system, have a look at the book and study it. This is a great kind of compliment. I am really encouraged by it. I prefer if we do questions and answers, if possible, if you do not mind.
HJS: So shall we take it straight to the floor and have a sort of prolonged period of questioning? The gentlemen at the back?
AUDIENCE MEMBER 1: My name is Daniel [inaudible from 11:43-11:49]. I think it is most important book that I have read in quite a few years.
OSG: I love you.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 1: [inaudible from 11:55-11:57] study group and took something you said in the book into that study group and applied it to Judaism. I think it is ground-breaking. The question I have is – I have been wondering for a long time – why does the Muslim community not speak up and say, ‘Not in my name’? You are the only person of significant authority that I have ever seen speak up. I don’t understand, why don’t the others do it? Look at the harm that has been done to Islam.
OSG: Well, I differ in that I am speaking up and saying it is in my name, and I cannot accept it and therefore I take responsibility. I want to take responsibility for even the lunatic who [inaudible from 12:51-12:53] Westminster a few days ago. His example – the way in which he was pulled into the faith or the way that he was manipulated – is all something that makes sense to me. So I would like fellow Muslims to stand up and say, ‘We know what is going on. We understand this process’. Sure, if we want to avoid the responsibility, want to push it aside and get on with our own lives, we can say, ‘He was a criminal. He was not a good Muslim. There is no way in which this is…’ Of course, in an idealistic world, an ideal kind of Islam, yes, this is not the behaviour. However, there are places where we slip. We understand the faith.
Why don’t people stand up? I think partly because a lot of people are just hoping it will pass. The problem is, it has not passed. I realized this in the early 1990s – I think it was 1992 – the first time I had a fierce argument with a friend of mine over fundamentalist Islam and the threat that we felt, or I felt, was coming. His response was, ‘No, it is not a serious thing’. It is serious, it was serious, it will be serious, and this is going to continue. It took me a while to be able to persuade myself to think the thoughts that I put in the book, because there is great pressure from those who feign authority, demonstrate authority, but they do not necessarily have it. Demonstrate supposed knowledge. These can be some very aggressive people, you do not really want to get in their way. That is the only thing that they have going for them in a sense. So do you want to stand up and say, ‘Buddy, stop’.
I am also very lucky that at the time that I started thinking about writing the book, I found myself working with and for Abu Dhabi and the Emirates government, which, actually, is at the forefront of fighting extremism, even within the Arab world. So we have taken as a government very strict or very clear action against organised political Islam, which, you can say, is a corrosion of Islam, but we think is a really ineffective way of moving forward, both as Muslims and as human beings. We have taken those steps. When I write this book, it is in that context. It is in a context, I believe, that reflects in words some of the practices that I have seen in operation in the Emirates. At the same time, it is not a straightforward thing to stand up and put these ideas up there. But I have made a commitment, so I will continue. Second question?
AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: You were referring to last week’s event. Why is there no one in the community that stands up and says, ‘It is not in our name, it has got nothing to do with Islam’.
OSG: Well, some people have said that people do stand up and say that but they do not necessarily get covered by the media. I think that just generally, people are upset about it, people do not like it, but the immediate reaction is to say, ‘Who is this person?’ I myself have thought that the issue of converts and conversion to Islam is a big deal that we need to think about. We have a clerical class saying, ‘There are so many Europeans converting to Islam’. I think we should stop focusing on quantity, and think of quality. It seems very strange, but the number of people who have converted to Islam, and I have spoken to, they come across to me as slightly worrying. Not all of them, I do not want to generalize, but certainly there are some who find the violence, the potential for violence, as an opportunity to express themselves like that.
HJS: If I may, I would like to sort of pitch in with a question there, because I think it follows on quite nicely from what you were just saying. A lot of what you talk about in the book focuses on intellectual humility and questions rather than answers and issues of whom you accept information from and whom you view as a role model. I was wondering if you might say a bit more on that—the role of that in the Arab world and the importance of it.
OSG: The questioning approach is – there are a whole bunch of reasons for that – probably because that is the way I approach my own life on a daily basis, perhaps a little too much. Somebody asked me, ‘What was the worst time of your life?’ I say, ‘Every morning when I wake up and think, “What is the point of this?” or “What should I do with my time?”’ You look very worried. It is not that bad.
But I do think that we are very afraid of questions in the Arab world. We are always shut down in a way, certainly in the schools. The Emirates have gotten better, particularly, taking steps forward to change that approach. Why are we scared of questions? Because we do not know necessarily what kind of answers we might have at the other end. Very often, the kinds of answers we have are even more fundamentalist and more extreme, are more binary than the ones that we have currently.
One of the things I tried to do in the book is to encourage young people and policymakers, of course, to understand that critical thinking is not only about destroying, but it is also about imagining, and it is also about creating new approaches. So rather than being critical, I try to call on all the different elements of our society, of our Muslim community, to realise that we are all actually on the same page, in the sense that we all want an ethical society, we very much want to be good people, and yet we do not discuss the possibilities of how to be good.
For example, I gave a talk to two-hundred young Emirati men, between the ages of fifteen and eighteen, a couple of weeks ago. I had never spoken to that kind of group, and this is the typical group that in my mind, even as an Emirati and as an Arab, I would be a little sort of hesitant. A lot of testosterone. I said I didn’t expect they would be inquisitive or interested in anything I said. But I spoke to them, and I was surprised. This was possibly the best audience I have ever had. The number of questions that I had from them afterwards about the relationship between science and faith, the possibilities of atheism, how to deal with parents, fathers who insisted on them taking a particular course in life, it was really amazing.
Again, my book is placing a bet on the idea that Muslims, my fellow Arabs, are just like any other people in the world. Young people will have all kinds of questions. The worst thing you can do is to shut them off and to tell them, ‘These are the answers and you must not think anymore’. This is a kind of a model that perhaps may have worked in a village fifty, sixty years ago. It does not work in the modern world. I think that, in one way or another, the clerical class will come on board and understand that, actually, their ethical power or their moral power or authority will grow if they are able to juggle with ideas.
HJS: If you could also just state your name and the name of your organisation if you are affiliated.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 3: Nicholas [inaudible from 20:53-56] small questions. One is – one thinks back to the golden age of science and mathematics in the Arab world. Why did it all stop? Exactly the kind of questioning that you are recommending now was very much the basis for huge success for the Arab world six or seven hundred years ago. Another question is – what can one do to stop this civil war between Sunni and Shia?
OSG: The first question is – I have not spent too much time pondering about history. I actually think that we are burdened by history, and one of the reasons why the Emirates in particular are very lucky is that we have a fairly light history. Nomadic people – we know about the battles that we had with between each other and some of our neighbours going back two hundred years, but pretty much we do not have any sort of glorious architecture, we do not have any warriors of world renown, and so we are not burdened by that history. When I speak to people in Egypt or Syria or Baghdad, there’s a sense that ‘We have been around for a thousand years or longer, and even if it does not work in our lifetime, we will be successful in a thousand years from now’. Well, the Emirates do not have that opportunity, and so we are unburdened by history and have our future to take care of. And that’s what so exciting about it.
People will look at the golden age of Islam and say, ‘Well, that is because we were good listeners’. There are others who will say, ‘It was in spite of Islam that we actually got that far’. I lean more towards the enlightened dictatorship analysis, which says that people were Muslim, but the big boss was the one who decided on a whim that ‘I like education, I like knowledge, I like beauty, let us do it like that’. In a way it is funny, because in the Emirates now we talk about building a national library in Dubai. Again, it is under the framework of the magnanimous, wise leader who is pushing forward. I think it is going to be fantastic because the modern world is very different from ten centuries ago, and there will be many opportunities that arise within this new structure of a national library, alongside all of the other infrastructure.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 3: Shia-Sunni?
OSG: I think that there needs to be a political decision. I think that behind the scenes, there is the desire to put an end to this. It is a political decision taken by both sides that will then have a direct effect on toning down the rhetoric of [inaudible from 23:51-23:54]. I watch both sides and the role of the [inaudible from 23:58-24:01] – it is actually horrendous what we say about each other. Certain clerics, it is not all clerics, not everyone is committed to the Sunni-Shia war. But it is also something that we need to be public about. Imagine, what is it that we could actually say to each other that would settle the dispute that has been going on for a thousand and four hundred years? I do not think anyone has said that. How do you reconcile these two different views? Because they are almost structured against each other.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 4: My name is Linda Whetstone [inaudible from 24:35-24:37] Istanbul Network for Liberty. I am involved in a Henry Jackson Society event in May on a book that is titled Islamic Foundations of a Free Society. It is not exactly what you are talking about, but it is on the same sort of page. [inaudible from 24:51-24:52] you are doing, you are having to make a case for freedom for individuals to have opinions within Islam and I was wondering if you could talk a bit more about that. How do you square that with what seems to be the view of the elite in many Muslim countries – that they have a right to have opinions, but there is not a general freedom to it. You must talk a bit about Islamic philosophy in a way to make that case.
OSG: I think I fall more into a universalist approach to these issues. I do not think that we are particularly special. I think part of the problem is that we do think we are special and different. Knowledge is different when we talk about knowledge in Islamic societies. Certainly an example of this is the idea in the 1970s and 1980s of the Islamisation of knowledge, so there was a big focus on the sciences. I understand that this has now been debunked – there is no such thing as an Islamic mathematics or biology. So I think, increasingly, we are realising that we are no different from a lot of people and there will always be people who want to impose a kind of discourse on the others. I think there is a sense where people are beginning to realise – even within the clerical class – that things are changing.
What is simply not attracting people’s attention is [inaudible at 26:14] kind of a marketplace for people’s [inaudible at 26:16]. That is why you have the [inaudible at 26:18], ISIS and al-Qaeda, who have managed to salvage a different kind of authority. But then you also have people like [inaudible from 26:28-26:30] a preacher in the 1990s. He did not have a particularly illustrious education in Islamic theology. But he did have a very nice manner about him. I think his voice was a little too high pitched, but otherwise he was very persuasive. I thought it was interesting, because he kept talking about being a good person, and focusing on bettering yourself and that appealed to a tremendous number of people. I think that was an example of how you can begin to challenge the dominant discourse by coming up with something more interesting. It is as basic as that.
There is another way in which you can do that, and that is to challenge the idea that the clerics and religion covers all aspects of life. We often say, or often hear, that Islam is a comprehensive religion that covers all aspects of life. I actually think that no, it is a comprehensive religion in itself as a religion, but it does not necessarily cover all aspects of life. These are two separate things. I do mention that argument in the book, that we need to begin to think openly, even though it sounds blasphemous, but we need to begin thinking openly about the limits of religion – where does it end and where does the rest of life begin?
I do not actually quote the Koran in the book, but I do quote a couple of sayings of the Prophet. One of them is where He was essentially giving farming advice. The advice turned out to be incorrect. When the farmers came back to him, He said, ‘Listen, you guys know you work [inaudible at 28:15]’. So that is very interesting. He said, ‘I understand. Even though I am the Prophet, I do not actually know everything, and I cannot advise you on everything’. This is an opportunity to actually say, ‘Okay, well, on that basis, let us put up a limit where religion ends and where other kinds of life begin’.
One of things that I have noticed is, for example, in the Emirates, we have two new ministries, one for [inaudible at 28:43] and one for happiness. The immediate thinking is George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty Four, where are we going with all this? But what is very interesting is to see the actual effects. What looks like a gimmick can represent fundamental opportunities. Because now we are talking about people’s mental life, their social life, their work life, their sense of well-being. We are not referring to Islam here. Under normal circumstances, this is the sphere of the cleric. The cleric will come to you and say, ‘Pray, read the Koran, read these verses, repeat these verses, and pray again’. [Inaudible from 29:24-29:25] we are saying, no, [inaudible from 29:25-29:26] meditation, communication, friendship. All of a sudden you establish a completely new area of discourse that is displacing what is traditionally the sphere of the clerics. That is just an example, I think, where instead of taking the power of religious discourse head-on, you are side-stepping it and creating something completely different – which people have not sort of questioned. They say, ‘Well, fine, that is not my form of Islam’.
HJS: The gentleman in the middle?
AUDIENCE MEMBER 5: Did you write your book in English, and has it appeared in other languages?
OSG: I wrote it in English, yes.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 5: Will it be translated into other languages?
OSG: German is coming out in May, Spanish a little later. Turkish has been done, and I am not sure when it is going to be published. Then there is Mandarin, I believe. Arabic is coming out at the end of the summer.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 5: Russian?
OSG: Russian – I have had some friends say to me that I need a publishing house, not an oligarch. That would be one of the most interesting languages for it to be published in.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 6: There has been since 1948 no [inaudible at 30:58] of distrust and war and unpleasantness between Israel and the Arab countries. Is there a way that you could find, you think, a theological narrow bridge between the return of the Jews to Israel and, shall we say, the Islamic world? Maybe it is not a recognition, maybe it is a kind of consular arrangement, like Taiwan has with many countries. Can you think of any way that one can find that narrow bridge to make a good, cooperative relationship for the benefit of the Middle East? Because that goes against, of course, the old-fashioned divide and rule.
OSG: I should be very careful speaking about this issue. But there are a couple of approaches I have taken in my life to the issue of Arab-Jewish relations. I feel very strongly about the anti-Semitism that I was educated [inaudible at 32:02]. I have spoken about this in public and in private – back at home, on the radio in the US about it. We need clarity about this issue, we need real moral clarity, we need some bravery as well. We are still confusing the idea of Zionism with Judaism and condemning one and sort of slipping into condemning the other as well. There certainly is an anti-Semitic strain in certain [inaudible at 32:34] of Islam.
There was an incident when I was asked by an audience in the Emirates. It was on a chapter on anti-Semitism and how we should fight it. For whatever reason, in the final edition, it was not included. But it has always stayed in my mind. I was really surprised because it was the male members of the audience, the Emirati young men who started shouting in the audience, ‘You should have left it in’. So there is a desire to move beyond this idea that we must hate anybody.
I also think that if we want to be consistent about fighting Islamophobia then we really must look at the ways in which we demonise and condemn other groups, whether it is on a racist basis or on a religious basis. I would prefer that rather than complaining to the world about how we are viewed and treated, we should actually look at our own behaviour and make sure that we are consistent in our behaviour with the kinds of demands that we make of the rest of the world.
When it comes to the Arab-Israeli issue, for me, as a middle-aged Arab diplomat, I was always surprised that King Abdullah had made that massive peace proposal, bringing all the Arab states, all the Muslim states to the table – he had the political, moral authority to bring us together – and that the Israelis have never responded to it properly. I always like to give the other side the benefit of the doubt, even in the case of the Euphrates. They have this amazing economy, tech centres of the world, all these fantastic intellectual traditions, and yet they do not seem to possess the political statesmanship to come to the table.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 6: This is King Abdullah of Jordan?
OSG: King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Once in a while I will call up my ministry, or I will speak to the Saudis and say, ‘Is that still on the table?’ And they say, ‘Yes, it is still on the table’. I do not know if that is because we have got [inaudible at 34:45], but that is a wasted opportunity from the perspective of the Israelis. It makes me, as somebody who is always willing to see the other side – this is a side I do not understand. It is almost as though the structure of the state will fall apart if you are not at war, or if you are not scaring each other with what is happening outside.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 6: Certainly they have relations with Egypt and Jordan. I think it is a lot to do with, probably, some kind of historical paranoia. Just because you are paranoid, that does not mean you are about to be destroyed. I suspect that there is a kind of theological issue – not, perhaps, for you, but for many of the Islamic countries – to recognise the return of, say, an ancient people, post-Islam creation, to their ancient land, which was under Islamic jurisdiction for, say, 1,300 years.
OSG: The longer we let it go, the more that interpretation will take hold – the Islamisation of this issue. The Arabs are increasingly losing control of the narrative, so you have the Iranians getting involved, you have the Pakistanis. You have a whole bunch of different groups. I mean, I am not a state, but I am saying this as people who are looking at it as something that is of significance. All I can actually say is that the opportunity was there. As far as I can see, the opportunity is still there, but not even a conversation has been started.
HJS: Should we take a question from the gentleman in the middle, he has been waiting for a long time.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 7: Thank you, Your Excellency. A lot of questions but I will focus on the one that, perhaps, you are most qualified to answer as an envoy of the UAE. I have only been to Dubai once, a few years ago, and I was interested in the local politics. My impressions are that the UAE is not democratic, does not really defend secular values, [inaudible from 37:27-37:39]. The legal system seems to be quite Islamised [inaudible from 37:43-37:56]. About the laws, there are cases when people get arrested [inaudible from 37:57-38:00].
OSG: Having sex on the beach in public is probably pushing it.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 7: [Inaudible from 38:04-38:09]. There seem to be [inaudible from 38:10-38:20] have quite a heavy, closed, non-secular, non-open – also, you have got a lot of people working – a large number of people live, many generations in the UAE, do not have basic access to rights, do not have citizenship, [inaudible from 38:38-38:47].
OSG: Sure. The nationality issue is a very complex issue. You have to take into account that 90 per cent of our population is foreign. If we were to give them nationality, we might as well hand them the country. You also have to understand that we are a traditional society [inaudible at 39:05] in many ways. Even citizenship is viewed – different degrees – we are still a personal society where your standing in society allows you to do things and your lack of standing, or your youth, does not allow you. So the idea of importing a whole bunch of foreigners into this system would really make things very difficult and complex. You also have to understand that we are a federal state. My nationality is actually Emirati, but from the Emirate of [inaudible at 39:42], which is a relatively poor Emirate. So before we can begin to invite others to become nationals, we actually need to understand our own relationship with Emiratis from different Emirates. I do not think we are saying no to foreign nationals. In fact, a friend of mine is a Lebanese Christian who has a UAE passport. So it is not impossible. But it is because we are a small country that we cannot just open the doors.
I wanted to focus on some of the other stuff that you were saying—leaving Islam and being in the Emirates. If you take a loudspeaker and declare it in the streets every day, that you have left Islam, then somebody will come along and say, ‘Well, wait a second, surely we have Islamic law somewhere’. You would embarrass the authorities into taking at least some stand. As I say, I was at a talk at a very Islamic school a few days ago in the Emirates. After the talk, I had coffee at Starbucks with two Emirati atheists – ladies in their twenties – and they were quite happy talking to me in public about the existence of God and the lack thereof and we had a mature discussion as to why they had left Islam and all the private factors. Nobody was punishing them. Their parents know that they are not Muslim. There is a group of them. Nobody persecutes people for that. There is a relationship with the public and private in the Emirates, particularly in the Emirates. As far as I can understand, we have this heritage where we do not condemn others for personal behaviour – stuff that you do on your own, in private. We are all human. That is the recognition that drives the policy of the country, that we are all human. What you cannot do is stand up and scream at the top of your voice, ‘I don’t believe in it’. It does not work, socially.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 7: It is a new country, relatively new. It takes pride [inaudible from 42:05-42:08]. You did not address the other issue about social norms and particularly about [inaudible from 42:15-42:16] talking about immigration, Islam, and social attitudes. There is a big question about who I can or cannot marry. So if I am an Emirati woman [inaudible from 42:26-42:32]. What is the deal there? Do I need to marry him? Do I come back? Do we live together? [Inaudible from 42:36-42:51]. My impression of it is that there is a limit on freedom.
OSG: Well, I will tell you, this is an issue that has gone on for some time. My sister, for example, is married to a Frenchman. He is from Nice, and they have been married for eighteen years now. Eighteen years ago, it was not something that was acceptable – now it is. There was not a demonstration, there was a petition from 14,000 Emirati women who had married foreign men. There was a discrepancy in the way they were treated. Their children could not get a passport at all, their husbands could not get a passport at all. This had come to the attention of the authorities. You have to understand – it is a dynamic society, we are continually observing how society is changing. We are not putting up blocks, we are saying, ‘How can we solve this problem?’ Because, ultimately, these are children anyway, who, genetically – if you want to take, I supposed, I think it is the German model – they are still Emirati. We are giving them passports, we are supporting them. We are taking this issue seriously.
Two people [inaudible from 43:54-43:56], ‘Did your husband convert?’ Okay, fine, he converted. And then what? Do we observe how many times a day he prays? No. Occasionally, you have to go through the forms. We do not actually necessarily monitor every day of your life to make sure that you follow the rules.
HJS: The gentleman in the middle at the back?
AUDIENCE MEMBER 8: Good afternoon, Your Excellency. [Inaudible from 44:21-44:22] general member of the public. You are ambassador to Russia and I believe I heard you say out loud you have a Russian mother. How would you describe your role as ambassador as Russia is inserting itself in the Middle East and aligning itself with countries that are known as traditional [inaudible from 44:37-44:38]?
OSG: I think that I am doing a brilliant job. One of the things that I hope I have done is to keep the door open and to maintain relationships when it looks like the Gulf states are not happy with the behaviour of Russia. But it is also educating both sides as to how to communicate with each other. On the Arab side, faith is exceptionally important – on the Russian side, pride. These are two very fundamental things. There are certain things that the Arab states have gotten used to – that money can open doors in certain countries. It certainly does not work in Russia. I think a couple of mistakes were made in the past, not by the Emirates, but other countries. For example, the idea that you can actually buy your way into a different political position. That is simply not the case.
One of the things that is probably more important is not just what Russia can and is doing in the Middle East, but the relationship between Russia and the United States. We were very much hoping that under a Trump presidency, there would be a much better relationship between the Russians and the Americans. Unfortunately, so far, that does not look like it is really happening or that it is an option. Unfortunately, we think that the Gulf or the Arab world will suffer more due to this friction.
HJS: The gentleman there?
AUDIENCE MEMBER 9: Sir, [inaudible from 46:14-46:15] stated that the UAE would taking in 15,000 migrants from Syria over the next five years. Compared to the vast numbers sweeping into Europe, it seems a rather pitiably small number for such a wealthy set of kingdoms. Do you have any observations about that in the context of Islamic morality?
OSG: In the context of Islamic morality, yes. I think we should be doing a tremendous amount to help the refugees. I also think that the Turks should stop using them as a lever against human rights. One of the things that drove me to write the book was that I never [inaudible at 46:52] my father’s killer – grew up in a refugee camp. Over the years I wondered if I could blame that young man, because he was nineteen when he killed my father. I realised over the last few years that he was not necessarily to blame for what he had done. What choices did he have? What choices did we, as the Arab world, give Palestinian refugees in the 1960s, the 1970s, the 1980s, even today?
I worry very much that the way in which we deal with refugees is something that generally, as societies [inaudible from 47:32-47:34] we have incredibly wealthy individuals who can put money into these [inaudible at 47:36-47:39]. What are we doing to help them? For the most part, it is very difficult.
I do have one example of what somebody is doing. There was a family in Dubai, an incredibly wealthy family. They set aside one and a half billion dollars of their own money to help educate young Arabs. [Inaudible from 47:57-47:59] kids from refugee camps. [Inaudible from 48:02-48:06] Canada and the US. I, personally, have much greater faith in the individual and the private sector. Government is always going to be a complex environment, and bureaucracy is a great strangler of initiative. I look to the private sector in the Arab world – there are billions, hundreds of billions of dollars of wealth that are there that can be put to refugees and assisting people.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 9: They would not be allowed in without the approval of the governments anyhow, would they? [Inaudible from 48:39-48-41].
OSG: [Inaudible from 48:41-48:44]. There is quite a long way from us to the refugees. I think the refugees are also, if you do not mind, voting with their feet. When Merkel says, ‘Our doors are open’, I wanted to go.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 9: If your doors were open, they would go there.
OSG: She had the right track. The reality is that our doors are not open. We are happy to help them where they are. The reality is that we cannot take that many. We simply cannot.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 10: Saudi Arabia is just not [inaudible from 49:15-49:19].
OSG: I honestly cannot speak for Saudi Arabia.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 10: I wanted to ask if there is any way that you could, with your influence, bring some clerics together. [Inaudible from 49:31-49:35] many years ago, while trying to create a forum of mutual ethics [inaudible at 49:44] and he said, he just was not interested, he just was not open – the leaders were just not interested in it. Do you think that there is a bit more openness now, if it is possible for them to try and move the religion in a theological way in such a way that it would come to be – as you say, address the present world. [Inaudible from 50:09-50:11] not being able to carry the New Testament. There are so many prohibitions on – how can we publish, how can we help convey the message if the television is so badly controlled. Saudi Arabia is pretty closed.
OSG: Saudi Arabia has the highest per capita consumption of YouTube videos. They have pretty much everything possible. Virtual private network, everybody has it. You can see anything you want.
HJS: Should we take a question from the gentleman at the end?
AUDIENCE MEMBER 11: I want to [inaudible from 50:52-50:53] this issue about the relationship between the [inaudible at 50:56], mosque, and state. You are advocating a society where religious is more in the private space and people are not beholden to the [inaudible from 51:05-51:06] clerics. But to the clerical establishment – and I am talking in the Arab world generally – that is clearly a threat to their power. How do you think they will react? Do you expect to see much evolution over the next five years? The role of religion in the public space –
OSG: I think that, first of all, some of them are beginning to realise that it is a marketplace of ideas, not a marketplace of rhetoric. At the moment, it is more of rhetoric than appeals to people. I have been looking for the ideas and I do not feel that they are really there. [Inaudible from 51:47-51:50] one of the people who demonstrated that. I think there is a worry among the clerical class that the traditionalists have lost authority and have lost persuasive power to the radicals. The radicals are appealing to a certain group of people but they are also pushing back because there is a lot of people are rejecting that radical message – simply as human beings, not even as Muslims. They are simply horrified as human beings by the demands that are being made of them. They do not necessarily have the theological argument to reject those demands. But they know that they reject it, instinctively.
Going forward, I would expect there to be more clerics who will break ranks with the traditionalists and become more interactive with people in a constructive manner. That is my hope – that is something I would like to take up with clerics. We need to engage with more open-minded clerics, those who are interested in the twenty-first century; to pull them into a discussion with writers, novelists, students, philosophers, sociologists, psychologists; to pull them into a broader discussion about what it means to be a human being, the kinds of questions that people and normal human beings in the Arab world face on a daily basis.
A lot of the things I also touch on in the book, but I did not really expand on because I do not know how to expand on it – look at all these problems within these societies and clerics tell us, ‘These problems exist because we are not strict enough, so we must enforce piety to an even greater degree’. So what I wonder is, if there are not psychological parameters or constraints that we can build into our interpretation of religion, that if you push too hard and people simply break down, then maybe we are no longer in the space of a moral and ethical society. We are in an unhealthy society. That is something that I would like to take up with clerics. But I would like to work on that idea first myself.
HJS: Should we take one final question from the lady at the back?
AUDIENC MEMBER 12: How does it feel to have people’s frustrations projected onto you?
OSG: I love it. I enjoy the fact that I am forced to think. I do not think that I answer all of the questions very well. But it makes me think, and I will go back later and write some notes about what I might have said. Because I know that lady, could we have one more question?
AUDIENCE MEMBER 13: Is your book seen as a threat by some of the establishment in the UAE and Saudi Arabia? It is quite a [inexplicable from 54:52-54:54].
OSG: The book is not in Arabic yet. I do expect a different kind of reception when it is in Arabic. There are other languages in which people have expressed an interest: Urdu, Pakistan, [inaudible at 55:07] from the Muslim state in southern India – eighty per cent of our Indian population comes from [inaudible at 55:15] and they speak [inaudible at 55:16] – and Bengali. I have been invited to Bangladesh and I have had conversations with different people in the government on the rise of extremist Islam in Bangladesh, and they are wanting this book to be translated. Those three languages, plus Arabic, would be very interesting. And, of course, Turkish, so it is five languages, then. It would be very interesting to see the reaction to the book in those languages. I am looking forward to it.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 13: Is it in French, by the way?
OSG: The French have expressed some interest.
HJS: I think on that note – we are unfortunately out of time. I would encourage you all to buy the book.
OSG: Thank you very much.