UAE Ambassaor to Russia Omar Saif Ghobash addresses 'Letters to a Young Muslim' to his son Saif
by Susannah Tarbush, London
[an Arabic version of this article appeared in Al-Hayat newspaper on 20 March 2017]
The book Letters to a Young Muslim by Omar Saif Ghobash, ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to Russia, has received much acclaim in the weeks since it was published. The book takes the form of 27 letters written by Omar to his elder son Saif, who is 17 this year. But the intended readership is much wider: “I write these letters to both of my sons and to all young Muslim men and women, with the intention of opening their eyes to some of the questions they are likely to face and the range of possible answers that exist for them.”
The book, written in English, is published in the UK and US by Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan. There is also a digital audio version read by the author himself. The book is being translated for publication in German, Spanish, Turkish, and Complex Chinese for Hong Kong and Taiwan. Ghobash hopes it will also be translated into Arabic.
Omar Saif Ghobash studied law at the University of Oxford and mathematics at the University of London. His letters to Saif are eloquent and beautifully written, their prose crystal clear. They can be seen as an antidote to the propaganda messages of ISIS (Daesh) and other organisations that use violence and destruction in the name of religion.
Ghobash aims to “reaffirm the duty to think and question and engage constructively with the world. I want my sons and their generation of Muslims to understand that we live in a world full of difference and diversity.”
And he urges them “to discover through observation and thought that there need be no conflict between Islam and the rest of the world. I want them to understand that even in matters of religion, there are many choices that we need to make.”
Ghobash launched his book at a tour of four venues in the USA, and has been interviewed on leading US TV and radio shows. The book has received many highly favourable reviews. The author and his book have also been making made a considerable impact in the UAE. On the evening of 8 March Ghobash appeared at an event at the Emirates Airline Festival in Dubai, discussing his book with another prominent Emirati intellectual and promoter of the arts, Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi. The event was a highlight of the Festival and many positive comments about it were posted on Twitter.
The festival’s director Isobel Abulhoul, who founded the festival in 2008, tweeted to Ghobash and Al-Qassemi: “You two made me so proud tonight. I had been waiting 9 years for this. The best session!” And the prominent British arts journalist and interviewer Rosie Goldsmith tweeted “Listen to this man: one of the most open, honest and important speakers I’ve ever heard on UAE, Islam.” Many other members of the audience issued similarly enthusiastic tweets - such as “Interesting (and funny!) talk by Omar Saif Ghobash”. “inspiring and vivid”, “amazing talk”. There were similar reactions to his appearance at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYAD) Institute. The internet magazine “The Dubai 100” featured him in its “local hero” series.
Ghobash was born in Ras Al Khaimah in 1971, “the same year the United Arab Emirates was founded, which has always been, to a certain degree, a point of pride and symbolic of my sense of self.” One thing that makes his book so compelling is that it is in part an autobiography. He writes with remarkable frankness about his experiences and struggles when he was growing up.
In 1977 when Omar was only six years old political violence entered his life in a terrible way: his father Saif Ghobash was assassinated. Saif Ghobash, then 43 years old, was the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs. He was saying farewell to a Syrian delegation at the airport when a 19-year-old Palestinian shot him dead, mistaking him for a Syrian minister.
“The violence that destroyed your grandfather in 1977 continues to warp relationships and emotions in our family today,” Ghobash tells his son. “The effects of that violence continue to motivate me and color my view of the world.” Omar's father met his Russian wife when they were both studying engineering in Moscow. A Russian cousin of Omar’s recently told him via Facebook that “many of our male relatives had been Orthodox priests who had been killed by the Bolsheviks in 1918.” The fact of being half Russian is very important to Omar. For example his mother introduced him to the great Russian writers, and in his book Omar mentions the internal turmoil of Tolstoy and of Dostoevsky. But growing up half Russian also caused him some difficulties when he was a boy.
Ghobash is very aware of the pressures on young Muslims these days, especially given the rapid change to which they are subjected, including in means of communication. “In today’s world, you have access to all the information you could want about the most obscure ideas, events, and movements”, he tells his son. “You, and I, are overwhelmed by the media coverage of Islam and Muslims, intertwined with the constant linkage with terrorism and religiously inspired violence. You find that it is difficult to be a Muslim and live in societies that seem to be made up of lonely, sullen, and isolated individuals.”
Omar Saif Ghobash (credit Sigrid Estrada)
He adds: “Certain dominant strains of Islam demand that it be placed at the centre of world politics. And supposedly you are obliged to be its servant. Why? Well, because we have a series of well-funded and persuasive voices who tell us daily that Islam is under attack and that we need to be on the offensive. Is this really the case? I do not believe so. These are shrill voices that have a warped view of the world and have managed to acquire finances and credibility.”
He criticises the education to which some young Muslim are exposed, which can lead to an atmosphere in which there is hatred towards those of different sects or religions. He gives advice on how to counter hatred, and live a worthwhile life. “You should know that for every action, there is a reaction. Your perseverance, kindness, or humour creates a ripple effect in our culture just as much as your indifference, violence or negativity.”
Ghobash constantly stresses the need for individuals to take responsibility; he writes “Saif, I think you have noticed by now that I see the world through the prism of responsibility.”
When crimes are “committed by lunatics who claim they are acting for Islam” he often hears it said that “those people have nothing to with Islam”. But he has a different perspective. Though he does not like what the terrorists do, “I realise that according to the minimal entry requirements for Islam, they are Muslims. We can take responsibility for demanding a different understanding of Islam. We can take responsibility for making it clear, to Muslim and non-Muslim, that another reading of Islam is possible and necessary.” Young Muslims should “take back the definition of responsibility from those who would claim that responsibility is demonstrated by declaring violent jihad, or by carrying out suicide bombings.”
Omar repeatedly stresses the need to uphold the rights of women. In a letter entitled ‘Men and Women’ he reminds his son that has been brought up in a household where women are “strong, educated, focused and work hard”. All around him Saif sees women taking the lead, pushing on, striving to better themselves, and contributing to society in multiple ways. “We cannot claim women in Islam are unable to face the big, wild world out there if it is us who have deprived them of the basic rights and skills to do so…Our women need to be trusted and respected.”
Omar Ghobash is known not only as a diplomat but as a lover of, and promoter of, Arab arts and especially literature and the visual arts. In the preface to his book he explains how the shock of the 9/11 attacks in 2001 had a major impact on his thinking. Just weeks earlier he had been with Saif in Manhattan, carrying him in a baby sling. After the attacks “I felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility towards this child. I decided that the time had come for me to take action in the limited ways that I could.”
He therefore involved himself in the arts, in literature and education. “My overwhelming desire was to open up areas of thought, language, and imagination in order to show myself and my fellow Muslims that our world has so much more to offer than the limited fantasies of deeply unhappy people.”
His work in diplomacy came later, “and I have approached it with the same attitude of openness to ideas and possibilities. Through travel and interaction with all kinds of people, from the deeply religious to the highly knowledgeable, from the deeply uneducated to the hyperconnected, I see the common humanity that we all share.” He began his career with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a diplomat at the UAE Mission to the United Nations and was then appointed ambassador to Russia in 2008.
Prior to becoming an ambassador, Ghobash founded The Third Line, Dubai’s first international contemporary art gallery showcasing artists from the Middle East. In the field of literature, Ghobash and his family sponsor the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation, named in memory of Omar’s late father. This prize, awarded annually since 2006 was established by Banipal Magazine of Modern Arab literature and is the first prize in the world dedicated to rewarding translations of Arabic literature to English. The Ghobash family’s sponsorship of the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize was last year extended to include an Annual Lecture.
Omar was a founding trustee of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction – often known as “the Arabic Booker prize” - when it was launched in Abu Dhabi in 2007 with support from the Booker Prize Foundation in London. It was hoped that the prize would encourage recognition of high quality Arabic fiction, reward Arab writers and lead to increased international readership through translation. In the field of education Ghobash was instrumental in bringing New York University to Abu Dhabi. New York University Abu Dhabi admitted its first students in 2010.
The many warm responses Letters to a Young Muslim has received suggest that there is a thirst among Arab and Muslim youth, and Western audiences for positive and hopeful, yet challenging, ideas such as those contained in Ghobash’s book. At the end of his final letter to Saif, on the theme of ‘The Muslim Individual’, Omar writes: “In ending these letters to you, Saif, I want you to promise yourself that you will always maintain your dignity, your individuality, and your independence of mind… Now go and write your own letters.”