Interview By John Harrison
Photographer: Sigrid Estrada
Omar Saif Ghobash is the UAE Ambassador to the Russian Federation. Ambassador Ghobash is also on the advisory body of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence at King’s College London. He recently published a book called: ‘Letters to A Young Muslim.’ In this interview, John Harrison asks him what the motivation is behind his work, and the wider problems of the misrepresentation of Islam.
Ambassador, please tell me what your motivation was behind your book?
The motivation goes back to my young sons beginning to pick up things from school about various religions that I found to be very worrying. I heard, through them, some hate-filled ideas which were anti-sematic, Anti-Shia, anti-foreign, and anti-western. When I heard them, I felt that there are all sorts of unresolved issues which go back to my own childhood that I needed to tackle. I also felt that there is no one text that more moderate, flexible and open minded people could point to and say: ‘here are the principles that I can hold on to.’ So what I have tried to do is to provide in a simple manner a structure that younger people can hold on to whilst they figure out their own beliefs.
Islam appears to be being presented to non-Islamic populations as an extreme religion. There seems to be a kind of binary understanding. I’d like to ask you – is Islam really that black and white?
There are some interpretations that are black and white, and they are supposed to be. I tie that to the particular interests of a particular era, and a governmental clerical class that wants to be able to determine everything. These people want to say that there are black and white answers to every single question that a person can have. So that does exist. Is that the entirety of Islam?, not at all. There are many many different branches of Islam, some of them are incredibly spiritual, and disconnected from the practical world. Others are much more focussed on engaging with life. And then we have this radical, aggressive reductive Islam which is actually a small proportion of the entire global population of Muslims. They are very aggressive in getting their message out, and claiming that only they represent the truth, and the other thing is that they, for one reason or another, have greater funding than any of the other groups. So I think they have purpose and they have ammunition. Which is why it seems as though they are important.
What proportion of Muslims are we talking about?
It is a tiny percentage. There are 1.7 billion Muslims in the world, so we are talking about under one percent; tens of thousands, no more. The problem here is not that they are radicalised, the problem is how extensive is the lack of clarity on certain moral issues amongst Muslims in general. That’s where I, personally, find a big problem. A lot of Muslims don’t know why they are not radicalised. So they can’t stand up to the arguments of the radicals. That’s where the key problem is.
The stereotype of Muslims that I am exposed to is that they are unable to live in a multicultural world. Is this just rubbish?
I think it is rubbish. I come from the Emirates where 90% of the population is foreign, where we have representatives of all the major religions. True, we don’t have a synagogue yet but Judaism, Islam and Christianity are protected by law. So that’s an example of a country right at the centre of the Islamic world that is multi-cultural. The reason why I would say that some of us are stuck in a homogenous world is that going back to the 7th century that is pretty much how we lived. We were in charge and we were the majority. We didn’t need to think in terms of living with others. As we move into a globalised world it is impossible for us to conceive of not living with others. Otherwise we are going to live in tiny villages with no water.
So I think that we need to think in terms of our ancient theology, and that theology needs to take into account fundamental changes in the way that people live. So we have countries that try to be absolutely Islamic but yet at the same time technologically and intellectually they rely on other countries. They rely on the West for technology, for economic reform and advise in all sorts of spheres. It is impossible to now say that we can now live separately from other cultures. We are now so deeply intertwined that it is a nonsense to say that we can live separately.
What is so amazing is that elites still seem to be able to create a narrative that all Muslims are dangerous, despite what you are saying. Is this because of political reasons; the need for the West to have an ‘other.’ Perhaps the time for ‘othering’ Russia is coming to an end, and we need a replacement?
I’ve heard that argument as well, and my response is that for as a Muslim it is too easy to say well, the West is targeting me. That the West is targeting my community. I would say, why would anybody have an excuse in the first place to look at us in that way? Why does anybody want to portray us in the movies, on television as terrorists or sexual predators, or whatever it is? There are reasons. It has something to do with the way that many Muslims behave in public in the West. I think that we need to take away that excuse by looking at our own behaviour, by asking whether these foreign claims are actually unjustified? If you look at the so called proposed Muslim Ban in the U.S., there are a list of seven countries, and many of those countries are under similar bans in their own region. Because neighbouring governments are very worried. So the ban shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody in the Arab world at least, because we already monitor each other’s behaviour all the time.
So the way forward is for Muslims to sort out their own problems? But in today’s world these issues have become truly international and have become part of the global society agenda. Is what you are saying enough to solve the problem?
We as Muslims need to be clear about two things. Firstly, Islamophobia should not be an excuse not to look at our own problems. But we should really look at what elements within our faith are causing problems in the West. There are some open philosophical questions, very difficult ones, which we need to actually address. We are not doing it at the moment, I hope through my book and in conjunction with other people we will begin to do that. I think that the globalised community, particularly the West, because of its interest, needs to understand that what happens in the Arab world will not stay in the Arab world. Whether it transmits itself through the global network of radicalism, because of the centrality of the Arabic language to Islam, or whether it simply transmits itself through acts of terrorism and acts of hate and frustration, it will be transferred to other countries. The Arab world needs the rest of the world to consider this and say how can we help? Because we are in this awful cycle of incredible violence. This has been going on in one way or another since the 1970s at least.