H.E. Ambassador Omar Saif Ghobash
UAE’s ambassador to France, H.E. Omar Saif Ghobash discusses the issues addressed in his new book, Letters to a Young Muslim, and what mountains have taught him.
Your book, Letters to a Young Muslim, was published last month—congratulations. Tell us how the idea for the book came about.
Well, first of all, it starts off with a whole set of questions even before you come to the idea of writing a book. How to deal with all of those questions? I’ve been dealing with all those questions pretty much since the age of 12, trying to push them away, fighting them, holding on to them and then pushing them away again. And as time goes by, you realize you’re making some progress, but not the kind of progress you wish you could make.
In 2007, I really felt that I should start putting words on paper, so I did. Somebody at the Abu Dhabi book fair threw out the idea that I should write a book. That was the first time I felt that potentially this could be a work. And then I was sent off to Russia and I put all of that to one side, and I thought, well, maybe it’s too early for this—I have another job to do, so let me focus on that. And then it was 2011, 2012, the Arab Spring; I wish I had written the book then because it’s essentially all about youth and specifically where Arab and Muslim youth are going.
Four years ago, I decided that I really needed to take a stand and start speaking out on issues relating to Islam, and so I did a lecture at UCL in London and received a really great response. I thought, OK, what this is going to turn into is a series of talks and speeches or lectures, and hopefully I’ll be able to develop my ideas from speech to speech, and I discovered that in working in between the speeches, I was creating a lot of material.
It’s a bit surreal! I spent a long time thinking about the book and not writing it, and even as I worked through writing the book, I kept thinking it would never be good enough to be in print. It’s great to see something go from an idea to actually existing in the world.
And I understand that an editor suggested that you write the book as a series of letters to your son. This is what gives the book its accessible tone.
I really didn’t want to write anything personal. I didn’t want to talk about myself or my family at all. I in fact wanted it almost to be a manifesto of sorts for young people to be able to structure their thoughts to a certain extent and then move on. And also a track to give people a little more confidence in their natural state. Rather than being told that they were guilty of all kinds of sins and crimes just by being ill-educated in religious affairs. I put together about 120,000 words on that, and when I spoke to the publisher and the editor, they felt that the themes were great and a lot of the suggestions were great, but they believed that if I wanted to get my message out to the people I was most concerned about, who are youth, then I should actually address it to them; and the best way, or one of the best ways, they thought, in which to do this was to imagine that I was speaking with my son. And actually that’s exactly what happened when I imagined I was speaking to this guy right here behind you who’s not listening at all [laughter]—I felt that the words were just flowing from my fingertips.
Would you say that the book embraces an idea of moderate Islam?
I think being moderate is a by-product of living in the age we live in. It’s a choice that we make, but it’s also a choice that we’re pushed towards, given our circumstances.
I don’t go out of my way to say, this is how we should be. I make certain assumptions about wanting to live in a community, recognizing that we have our own identity but we are also a product of Western and Eastern influences. We’re living in a world where we use technologies that were created by non-Muslims in faraway countries, and so to suggest that we can think of Islam as separate from the outside world is ridiculous. Now that idea of Islam as separate from the outside world is very closely linked to extremist thought and violence and radicalization and radicalism.
There’s another thing that I don’t think I’m involved in, and that’s the idea of reforming Islam, because reforming Islam suggests that there is one fixed idea of Islam, and now we can change bits and pieces to suit something else, and I’m not really sure that’s it at all. I think that Islam is an evolving set of approaches and ideas that we have access to. I’m interested in clarification of our own position in the world and clarification of our relationship to our faith.
Tell me about the UAE and moderate Islam. Is it a reality or an aspiration in this community?
We are living in a particular experiment in the Middle East, in the Arab world, and in the Muslim world, which are precisely the two overlapping areas of Islam—it’s an Arab religion and it’s a religion for the world, so it’s a universal religion. And I feel that what we’re living here is not in opposition to Islamic principles, but an expression of Islamic principles.
A lot of the press out there about you and your book, you’re presented as a new voice, a fresh voice, a voice that’s somehow breaking off from a certain ideology or tradition of this region, when in fact what you’re saying, and what I think is the more interesting story, is that you’re continuing a legacy in a sense that has existed in the UAE for some time.
I think so! Yes. When you speak to some of the older generation, they will say, when we were in the desert it was very different! You had to get on with things, there was no time to be pouty about the veil and hiding yourself, people just got on with things because life was hard. And so when we think about our culture and traditions today, I know there is an overall bonding effect, but we shouldn’t exaggerate, and we have to recognize where there is serious historical culture and tradition and then when we are actually making things up or importing certain ideas from elsewhere.
Your book is addressed to Muslim youth. What are your thoughts on the youth in the UAE?
I do not agree that youth in the UAE are not affected. I think it is a generalized kind of issue that we have here. What young people need is a sense of meaning, a sense of purpose, and a sense of contribution. Also, we have a community spirit, community with other Arabs, community with other Muslims. And we do see suffering. What’s happening in another country today affects me; it upsets me that Muslims are being treated in that way. But the question is, how do we respond to all of these injustices that we perceive taking place? Some people will say, the radical solution is the answer.
What are some of your suggestions for how to create meaning in the lives of Muslim youth?
Some of the conclusions that I’ve come to boil down to the individual. We need to develop a sense of what it means to flourish as an individual. I know that term has been used in the West a great deal. It is people like Amartya Sen who have come up with that idea, that we really need to look at not just alleviating poverty but giving people chances in life and assisting them to further define what it is that they want out of life and where they want to go.
The meaning is the meaning you create in your own life and in your own actions—that’s something that I prefer. I think it is much more difficult to make the sacrifice of raising a family and building a life for yourself and contributing to a community than it is to think radically. If you really think you’re making a sacrifice in the name of religion, then you should sacrifice your time and energy on earth for the betterment of the society around you.
You’re an avid mountain climber; you’ve said in the past that it’s an activity into which you’ve escaped and from which you drew personal strength and empowerment.
The mountains were a place where I felt the idea of having an objective. When you’re climbing a mountain, your objective is to reach the top. There are a number of different routes to the top, but you have to get to the top, and that taught me a kind of focus of moving from A to B. It also taught me something else, which is that when you get to the top, you’re only really halfway there because you need so much more energy and so much more willpower to actually get back down safely. Achieving your objective is only one thing; you later have to survive having achieved your objective. But you know it also taught me something else: there’s no point to climbing mountains really, right? It’s a bit of an empty purpose, it’s a test of yourself, and I like that because it occupies a tremendous amount of energy and focus and it teaches you without harming anything; and so you are able to develop as a person without getting in anything’s way.
“I think that Islam is an evolving set of approaches and ideas that we have access to. I’m interested in clarification of our own position in the world and clarification of our relationship to our faith.”
You’ve mentioned in the past that you believe Arabic-language fiction to be a sort of vehicle or venue through which there could be alternative narratives made available to youth in this region. Is this something you continue to support?
I was and continue to be involved with the International Prize for Arabic Fiction I’m one of the trustees. I realized when my book was coming out that there is a fantastic opportunity to link up this world of Arabic-language novelists who are writing about all of the psychological and existential issues that Arabs and Muslims are facing with the religious clerics and experts in Islamic issues. To see if the clerics who have all of this moral knowledge, but they speak in seventh-, or 10th-, or 13th-century terms, understood the questions coming out of contemporary Arabic fiction.
Do you think the format would be taken seriously by the clerics? You’ve mentioned before that traditionally in Arab culture, poetry is prized and considered by many the only acceptable form of literature.
Poetry is what is associated with Arabic literature. The idea of Arabic literature is poetry. Arabs are famed before and after Islam for their poetry. I have a different approach. I value poetry, but I find myself much more in the novel, and I felt that maybe there was a need, a possibility, to move people over to reading novels, more linear kind of narratives rather than what I perceived when I read Arabic poetry as kind of disjointed drops—you could change the order and it wouldn’t really make any difference. I’ve been told there are certain poets who have now started writing novels in order to attempt to win the prize. So I think that’s an interesting development. And so yes, I am very much in favor of the novel.
So the Arabic-language novel, verses poetry or religious text, is in its context a truly contemporary medium?
There is a battle between the classicists and those who speak only in the colloquial dialects and then the issue of how knowledge is created in the Arab language. As far as I can see, the real experience of Arabic is being created by those who aren’t experts in either the language or the religious tradition.