Omar Saif Ghobash is one of the authoritative voices calling for a change in the global approach to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Most of the public debate about the ISIS has been tactical: How to bomb them out of existence. Ghobash believes that the battle should really be fought at a strategic level in the realm of ideas and by getting moderate Muslims to speak up and take a stand.
In this wide-ranging interview with Knowledge@Wharton, conducted during the ambassador’s recent visit to Wharton, Ghobash also speaks about the situation in Ukraine and the potential of Western education in the Middle East.
Knowledge@Wharton: You have come from the UAE. These days, everyone who’s thinking about the Middle East is concerned about what’s happening with terrorism. We hear news reports all the time about yet another beheading by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). I wonder how you see the situation from your perspective from within the region.
Omar Saif Ghobash: We’re all obviously very concerned about the recent developments with the emergence of the ISIS. In a sense, the ISIS has presented a real development — a kind of qualitative one, in a negative sense — of extremism in the region. The fact is that they seem to have what looks like an army and revenues from oil. What’s probably the most dangerous thing about them is they have a very attractive, reductive view of how Islam should progress. One of the worries is also that in the realm of ideas they provide all the correct references. So, in a sense, they legitimize themselves by making references that are very common in the Muslim world about the khilafat [originally, the 1920s movement to support the Caliphate of Turkey], about fighting both the Persian empire through Baghdad and Iran and then the West, presumably representing historical Rome. In a sense, they’re playing to all the themes that we’ve been educated in. That’s what’s extremely worrying.