Omar Saif Ghobash: Letters to a Young Muslim

Omar Saif Ghobash' series of self-reflective letters to his son, a 16-year-old boy trying to make sense of his Islam in a tumultuous time, are a guiding force for faith 

Letters to a Young Muslim explores the many facets of modern day Islam, as a faith, but also a culture and a series of principles. By encouraging young Muslims to explore the role of Islam in themselves and wider society, Ghobash aims to encourage a “generation of Muslims to realize that they have the right to think and decide what is right and what is wrong, what is Islamic and what is peripheral to the faith.”

With Ghobash’s diplomatic status as ambassador to the UAE in Russia, the memoir is particularly bold in its exploration of contemporary society, and its brave call for both the current and the next generation of Muslims to look deep within themselves for understanding and, ultimately, reform.

In a frank conversation with Vision at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, Ghobash unpacks some of the complex principles that lie at the heart of his memoir – the principles that shape our contemporary society.

“I felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility towards [my first child]. I decided that the time had come for me to take action in the limited ways that I could. I involved myself in the arts, in literature and education.”

I first turned to literature as a child. My mother is Russian, and so she directed me to what she knew, which were the classics of Russian literature. As I was growing up I asked, “Where are the classics of Arabic literature?”, but it’s not organised in the same manner. There’s no canon that you can point to, even though the word canon actually comes from the Arabic qanun, so it’s a bit ironic.

The timing coincided with the time I had my first son. I was puzzled by the Middle East. Our women wear veils, but in a sense everybody is veiled. We dress in uniform, and we don’t distinguish ourselves in any way, and so it became very difficult to see the difference between people, and what their opinions were. I got into the arts, and literature in particular, as a verbal expression. I also set up a gallery, for visual expression. For the most part I’ve been pleased – this way you feel like there are human beings behind the masks.

“Because I speak English, Arabic, Russian and French, and have friends and colleagues in the United States, Europe, Russia and the Arab world, I have had access to the thinking that takes place within different cultures and political systems.”

English is my strongest language. It’s a decision my mother made when we were children; she insisted that we speak one language properly, and she decided that English was the language that was going to take us furthest. And now that I look back, it’s very true – so much knowledge is created in the English language.

If I compare what I read now in Arabic, or in Russian, or in any other language, you can see the limitations – you can see the ways in which dialogue is restricted, specifically in Arabic. We have all these silences imposed on us, and that becomes a real handicap. It becomes a permanent silence.

“I want my son’s generation of Muslims to realize that they have the right to think and decide what is right and what is wrong.

 A few days ago, in the context of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, I was invited to speak at a school, where they had 200 students between the ages of 15 and 18 – typical Arab Muslim males. You look at them and you think, ‘these guys are going to be arrogant, closed-minded, rowdy, hormonal, all these different things’. They scare people like me! Well, they were the greatest kids out there; they were so curious. We spoke about everything from science and faith, to atheism. They’re in a technical college, so I wasn’t expecting these kinds of responses. It just demonstrates that if you give people the space to begin to talk, they will.

“The longer I perform my job, the more I am convinced of the power of ideas, of language, to move the world to a better place.”

I went to the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi to get permission before I even began thinking about writing. As an ambassador, there should be limits on what you can say or do – and it’s funny because there were no limits. I felt absolute freedom, but also a certain sense of responsibility as well. We need to use speech to be as critical, but as constructive as possible. It’s very easy to use language to demolish systems of thought, but it’s not so easy to build them. I’m trying to massage our set of thoughts into a slightly different perspective.

“It is their burden to bear whatever decision they make.”

I looked around myself when I was in my ‘30s and I thought to myself: the world is constructed by others – by powers, by authorities, by money – and all I need to do is find my way through this. But then I began to realise that the world is constructed through each individual’s actions.

I tried to look for the smallest possible action I could take, with the biggest effect. The initial step I took was my art gallery. All it required was a decision to fund a space, and all of a sudden I had a platform for artists to express themselves. It’s was a very simple step, but it had serious implications.

I also gave a small sum of money to establish a prize for Arabic literature, and focused, rather than on the prize money, on the governance of the prize. A whole bunch of people began dropping poetry and trying to write novels because they wanted to win the prize, because they knew that the prize was credible. You don’t need a billion dollars or a government institution behind you – credibility doesn’t cost you anything.

When I was writing this book people would be say, “No, no, don’t write a book, go in and become Minister of Education and change the educational system.” Well, if you don’t have an idea of what an educational system should look like, you’re playing with fire. Hopefully this is interesting, and it’ll provoke some kids into thinking about things differently.

“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.”

I talk about the idea of the individual because a lot of people find that their ideas are incoherent, even to themselves. What I am trying to do is provide a little structure, so that individual can become really productive and validate themselves. They don’t have to go to the Mosque to be told they are a good Muslim; they can look in the mirror and say, “I’m a perfectly fine human being. I have the right to exist, I have the right to make mistakes.” I wanted to take away that idea that you need legitimisation from somebody else; you can read a book and discover that you legitimise yourself.