An Interview with Fresh Air's Terry Gross

Terry Gross | NPR | January 4, 2017

Omar Ghobash was 6 when an assassin killed his father, who was a diplomat from the United Arab Emirates. His new book, Letters to a Young Muslim, is a collection of letters to his sons, urging them to reject extremism. 



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest wants to remind his sons and other young Muslims of the duty to think, question and engage constructively with the world, and to understand that we live in a world full of difference and diversity. Omar Saif Ghobash has written a new book in the form of letters to his two sons about embracing moderate Islam and rejecting extremist Islamist expressions of hatred and calls to violence. The book is called "Letters To A Young Muslim."

Ghobash was exposed to political violence when he was 6. His father, the United Arab Emirates First Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, was assassinated, but he wasn't the assassin's intended target. We'll hear what happened a little later. Ghobash followed in his father's footsteps and became a diplomat. He's the UAE's ambassador to Russia. We'll talk about that, too.

Omar Saif Ghobash, welcome to FRESH AIR. So your sons are growing up in an educated, prosperous, internationally-oriented family, yet you're still worried about their exposure to radical Islam. And you're worried about their vulnerability to radical Islam. And you express your concern in your book that your sons have been exposed to certain radicalizing influences...


GROSS: ...And you fear that they might be vulnerable. So do you feel like they've been exposed to radical videos or to teachers who want to radicalize them or friends who have become radicalized?

GHOBASH: Well, it's funny - all of those, to be honest. My sons have seen - particularly my older son has seen videos of people being beheaded because they're freely available. I've asked him why he's done it. And he said, look, you know, we all do, everybody sees these videos including his friends at school in England so people who are not even Muslim.

So, you know, the fact that, you know, you can be exposed to this and then it can be put into an Islamic context in a positive manner, it's quite scary. Both of my sons have come back from school complaining about what they'd been taught in religion class or in Arabic lessons. And, again, this is not part of the curriculum, but it is part of the unfortunate impulse of the - a certain mentality.

GROSS: Can you can you be specific about a couple of things they complained about being taught, and where what was the school in which this happened? Was it in the UAE or someplace else?

GHOBASH: No, I mean, schools in the UAE, but, I mean, you know, this applies right across the Arab world, I mean, the questions of anti-Semitism certainly. And this is potentially a conflation between, you know, sort of a position on the Jewish faith and a position on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. And I'm not going to take a position on it, but I think that, you know, you need to be very careful about what you say on these issues. And you can suddenly have a political position, but you shouldn't convert that into some kind of general statement against all people of Jewish faith.

So, I mean, you know, this is a very, very important marker I think for where we're going forward. But then also, you know, the question of nonbelievers in Islam. I mean, you know, this is a very basic kind of category that is propagated today, even though my personal belief is that it should not apply anymore. It's not really relevant, the idea of the insider or the outsider to the faith, friend or foe arguments.

GROSS: What is the insider and outsider reference that you're making?

GHOBASH: Well, who is a Muslim and who isn't? And according to certain traditions, there is a difference in the treatment. Certain traditions would actually tell you, well, you know, the Muslim must not dress like a non-Muslim. So if a non-Muslim decides to wear a certain kind of clothing, well, you shouldn't. You should avoid that kind of clothing.

You might have picked up some of the rhetoric coming out of sermons in Turkey in the run up to this terrible tragedy that took place on New Year's Eve where, you know, nightclubs and a celebration of New Year's was a kind of representation of a foreign religion and that therefore this would - could be looked down upon. That kind of rhetoric of the - what non-Muslims do should be avoided by Muslims is something that I think is very, very destructive. And it's also very distracting because, you know, non-Muslims may be engaged in really fantastic things, really useful things. Does that mean we must avoid those things ourselves? No.

GROSS: You point out that a lot of radical Islam is a way of erasing doubt. Things are clear cut, they're black and white. Here's how you - what you do. Here's how you do it. Here's when you do it. Here's who's on your team. Here's who you attack. And you say that Islam really has to find a way of dealing with doubt and of helping young people deal with doubt because it's - there's a lot of young people who fall under the spell of radical Islam.

So what are some of your thoughts about that, about how Islam can speak to the kind of doubts that we all deal with when trying to make our way through the world, but that particularly young people have to deal with when they're trying to find out who they are and who they're becoming and what their future will be?

GHOBASH: Yeah, doubt, it's a very interesting idea. In the Arabic language and theological kind of discussions and debates that I've witnessed, when doubt is expressed - when the word doubt is used, it generally translates immediately in people's minds to atheists. And there's no kind of middle ground there. There's no discussion as to what you mean by doubt. You're immediately accused of promoting atheism.

When I think of doubt, I think of the simple existential questions that kids face all over the world and even adults, too. But there is this huge weight of public kind of authority that insists that if any doubts as expressed, if questions are posed, then there is a risk that the entire edifice will come down. And so it makes me think sometimes, well, why are we supporting this very brittle intellectual structure of Islam when actually intellectually we could go out, take these doubts on, take all of the questions and really sort of re-express our Islam in a way that is much more robust and ready to deal with, you know, ancient and modern philosophical questions.

GROSS: Is part of the problem you face as an intellectual and, you know, as a diplomat who travels around the world, who speaks four or five languages, that some religions become - or some forms of religion become anti-intellectual? And you could argue that the more literal and fundamentalist some religions become, the more - the less tolerant they become of the kinds of questions and nuance that intellectuals tend to ask.

GHOBASH: The kinds of questions that I ask myself today were the questions that I asked myself when I was 12. And, you know, since I wrote the book I've been spending a bit of time with teenagers and people in the early 20s. And, you know, to be honest, even people of my generation who are saying to me, well, you know, thank you for raising these questions, these are questions that we still haven't really faced ourselves. And when it comes to teenagers today in the Arab world, the ones I've met with over the last few weeks, it's remarkable.

Kids have questions whether it's about dress, identity and very importantly sexuality that are simply not even addressed in a friendly way. I mean, you know, you can differ with all of these - with all the positions that the - these kids want to take, but you can differ with them in a way that is psychologically healthy. Or you can simply destroy their personalities immediately in the name of, you know, ethics and morality. And so I think we are at a kind of a crossroads in the Arab world. It's a crossroads of decades. We are in a situation where we need to be asking questions and yet we keep running away from those questions.

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