Letters to a Young Muslim: Raising a Son to Understand the Pull of Extremism

Diplomat Omar Saif Ghobash wants to challenge rigid interpretations of what it means to be a good Muslim in the modern world.
Omar Saif Ghobash

Omar Saif Ghobash. Photo © Sigrid Estrada.

Omar Saif Ghobash was six years old when his father, then minister of state for foreign affairs for the United Arab Emirates, was assassinated. The killing was carried out by a 19-year-old Palestinian refugee, who had aimed for the Syrian foreign minister with Ghobash, but the assassin’s bullet struck the wrong man. Ask Omar Saif Ghobash about it today, and his response moves in an unexpected direction. “I can hardly blame him for the action he took,” Ghobash says of his father’s killer. He doesn’t blame the young man who pulled the trigger, but rather blames a “political rot” that, he says, has settled in and taken over some Muslim nations.

“If we lose the connection between our faith and humanity, we’ve made a mistake.”

Ghobash followed his father into politics, and now he is the United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to Russia. But he’s also a dad; his son is not much younger than the man who killed his father. In his new book, Letters to a Young Muslim, Ghobash writes as a parent and politician about Muslim life in the 21st century and about raising children who have felt the pull of religious extremism.

His letters are personal—he tells of wanting to punch a conservative Muslim teacher after seeing signs of aggression and radicalization in his son—and broadly political. As a diplomat Ghobash has a platform, and he is outspoken. He knows his brand of moderate Islam can be mistaken for Islamophobia in the United States and Europe, or interpreted as lacking religious conviction in the Islamic world. He speaks out, anyway, to change the perception of Islam as an ideology of violence and to build “new ground rules for communication” within the Muslim faith. 

I Skyped with Ghobash while he was traveling in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, and asked him about moderate Islam in contemporary politics, parenting, and the attraction of extremism to youth around the world. The following is a lightly edited version of our conversation.


Christopher Zumski Finke: Your book is very personal, but it’s casting a wide net for Muslims around the globe. How do you marry those things when raising your son? 

Omar Saif Ghobash: The responsibility I feel to my son is actually transferred to a much more general responsibility. Today, I spoke to about 600 students at the American School of Dubai. They were a mixed audience of Arab, Christian, Muslim, Hindu. You don't have to have a particular faith to operate like an ethical human being. That’s what I’m trying to say: I’m trying to invert our ethics as human beings. If we lose the connection between our faith and humanity, we’ve made a mistake.

Finke: You wrote about the need some Muslims have to defend Islam as peace, a statement that you think is too narrow. Can you talk a little about having room in Islam for a moderate perspective, which you mention in your book?

Ghobash: I understand how “Islam is peace” was a natural reaction after Sept. 11. But it’s a statement that has emptied itself of any value. No one has defined for us in a public manner what, exactly, we mean when we say Islam is a religion of peace.

Some people think Islam is a religion of peace as long as we’re winning. When we’re under attack there is no peace. But this whole idea of Islam as a religion of peace already reflects the mentality of war and peace. I’d like to see us move beyond that. It’s not a question of war and peace. It’s a question of what are we doing with our daily lives. What are we doing at the individual level, rather than reinforce this idea of us being under attack.

Finke: What’s the challenge of communicating that to Muslim youth?

Ghobash: One of the reasons I wrote the book is that I felt I would take the responsibility upon myself to put into words what I believe many of my fellow Muslims are thinking. What happens is you think it, but you’re afraid to say it, so it never clarifies itself. I’m not saying what I did was a perfect work; it isn’t. But it could challenge the authority of certain people if taken on board by young men and women.

“This whole idea of Islam as a religion of peace already reflects the mentality of war and peace.”

I look at something like the horror of ISIS as an upstart line of thinking against the traditional clerical authorities. ISIS is a reaction of the voiceless. It is horrible, and it is disgusting, and it is a terrible expression, but it is in certain ways a rebellion we need to think about. If you are going to rebel against traditional clerical authorities, you need to do it within the confines, the parameters of the religion itself.

Finke: Where do you think the proper space for that conversation is?

Ghobash: Going online and speaking out in the West is extremely important and extremely valuable. If I look at the Muslim community in the United States, I think they’re in a fantastic position. They’re being tested at the moment, obviously with the Muslim ban and the general tone in the United States, but they have the legal and constitutional space to think out loud about Islam.

That’s something we aren’t allowed to do in the Arab world or Islamic world more generally. Rather than import the kind of dead-end intellectual paths we have created in the region, they should be looking at what we’ve done, looking at what’s coming out of the traditional Islamic world, and re-exporting more progressive interpretations.

Finke: You were exposed to political violence very young. Did that shape the way you consider Islam, especially when raising your children?

Ghobash: I can hardly blame [the killer] today for the kind of action he took. I look at his life, and I think, if we as Arabs had taken more responsibility for the refugees in our part of the world rather than letting them rot in refugee camps as we continue to, unfortunately ... [trails off]. We do take some efforts but I don’t think we’re taking full responsibility for them. If this is what happened in 1977, [and] the number of refugees is much smaller than today, then where are we headed?

“We Muslims are simply like any other people.”

We really need to be moving to a stage where we can communicate with each other in more interesting ways. No longer just political violence. There has to be some kind of ground rules as to how we communicate with each other.

Finke: Is there something unique about the Arab or Muslim world’s use of political violence? Or is that something that manifests everywhere?

Ghobash: I know we in the Arab and the Islamic world try to separate ourselves from the rest of the world and say that we are special and unique in some way. I remember in the 1980s and ‘90s, I used to watch what was going on in various African nations on TV and I thought, oh my God, these people are barbarians. Then one day I watched TV, and I realized we were way worse. My responsibility as an Arab and a Muslim is to communicate with my community, not to say there are other communities with similar or worse conditions. I have to take responsibility for where my community is going.

Finke: How do you think the anti-Islam sentiments in the United States and Europe are likely to play out for Muslim youth defining their faith right now?

Ghobash: If you’re in the midst of this kind of constitutional and legal battle, there’s no space for philosophical reflection. But I would hope the push that is taking place in the United States on the Islamic community would help us clarify our internal communal position on these interesting questions, like questions of homosexuality and questions of women’s rights.

Finke: Do you think there’s room for acceptance of women’s rights and homosexuality in the Arab world?

Ghobash: One thing I’ve been following is the rise of atheism in the Middle East, Muslims leaving Islam, and also the discovery that we have identities that we don’t have a choice about. [There’s] an insistence on the right to make one’s own choices and decisions. For me that’s very interesting to see that happening.

Finke: Obviously social media is changing the landscape of how youth interact with each other, and with adults who are trying to reach them. In your book, you talk about the realization that you are not the only person trying to raise your children. There are other forces, teachers at school, social forces.

Ghobash: I was speaking to a friend of mine who as a child had been taught to sing revolutionary songs calling for jihad and death. She’s in her 30s and she says, I can’t believe we were taught that. Maybe this is universal, but kids in our part of the world need to be very careful about who is trying to manipulate them and use them for their own ends. There’s almost no respect in certain communities for children.

Finke: In the United States, we hear a lot about radicalization that takes place online and the access to ISIS recruiting. How do you think that kind of messaging can be combatted before it becomes attractive to youth?

Ghobash: There are genuinely good people taught [that] if you don’t have enough theological knowledge to judge, then you must hold your tongue. I think that we need to move to a different position, where with a minimal ethical understanding, we should be able to condemn such obvious, obvious crimes. This is something to think on. I’m not sure how to go about doing it with the background worry that I’ll be accused of promoting Islamophobia.

I want everybody to understand that we Muslims are simply like any other people. We should stop pretending we’re any different. We have the same kind of arguments that other people have had in other faiths, but we haven’t had the confidence to actually attack each other through argument.

Finke: Do you feel personal risk from speaking up about these things?

Ghobash: It’s far too late to worry about it now. If you’re going to take on taboos you might as well do it properly. I’m not attacking people and saying you’re all fools. I’m saying these are things you should all be thinking about, and my interest is to raise our own self-respect.