• Book Title:
 Letters To A Young Muslim
  • Book Author:
Omar Saif Ghobash
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I have two sons. My older son, Saif, was born in 2000 and my younger son, Abdullah, in 2004. Their presence in my life has provided me a framework for living. If I thought I had purpose as a bachelor, I discovered much greater purpose and meaning through my children, and with my wife. Whereas life as a bachelor meant looking out for myself, starting a family brought a sense of balance and responsibility that I could not have imagined.

The responsibilities that come with building a family enable you to take a step back from yourself and see that the world consists of other people with greater claims on your energy and time than you yourself. Their existence provides the ground for my actions in the world.

I feel an infinite obligation toward my children, who are still dependent on me and their mother for guidance and protection. I used to think that ideas and attitudes were something of interest but of no great importance. Matters would resolve themselves, things would work out. Now that I have children, I see the world through a broader lens.

Now what happens in the world matters very much. And whose ideas dominate matters. In coming to this realization, I also recognized that the obligation of care and protection that I owe my children extends further. It extends more generally toward those of us who do not have the means to control their lives or who depend on others for the structure of our communities and societies.

I am the ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to Russia. The United Arab Emirates is located on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula, just south of Iran and east of Saudi Arabia. Our population was traditionally a mix of desert dwellers and seafaring pearl divers and goods traders. Today, we have a population approaching ten million, with over 180 nationalities represented.

 People live, work, and worship in peace alongside one another. I have been ambassador from January 2009 until today. I have had the privilege to be an observer of international relations from at least three very different perspectives. 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.

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

The world I grew up in was one where ideas floated around but had little connection with reality. I would hear about dreams of a new world order based on a very straightforward type of Islam. We were taught to pray and how to read the Quran.

We were always told that certain actions were haram. Haram and halal are terms used to describe things that are prohibited (haram) or allowed (halal). Strangely though, most of the time we were told things were haram—not allowed. Eating pork and drinking alcohol seemed to fill people with horror.

These were definitely haram. What else was haram? Lying and stealing—or taking things that were not yours—were haram. Hurting others or yourself were also haram—since the body and life are gifts from Allah. Suicide in particular would send you straight to the fiery Hereafter, since this was taking what did not belong to you but rather to Allah. We were taken to the mosque on Fridays for the communal midday prayer.

The sermons would be shouted out and people would stare into space until it was time for the short prayer. It was a pleasant feeling. You were surrounded by all types of people from laborers to millionaires. All lined up in orderly rows praying the same prayers and shaking hands with one another at the end of the ceremony.

Then there was what I would call fundamentalist Islam. What did this mean? It meant that the world would go back to what it was like at the height of the Islamic Empires of the seventh and eighth centuries. These ideas were repeated in school and after. The ideas always contrasted strongly with the world that surrounded us.

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This was a sense of their weakness in the world and their destruction at the hands of others. This was the time of the Lebanese civil war that began in 1975, and then the Iran-Iraq war, which lasted from 1980 to 1988. The return to the practices of our seventh- and eighth-century Muslim forefathers we were promised would bring us back the power, the glory, and the success that they enjoyed. There was another layer to the things we were taught.

 It did not always surface, but it was always there, I realize now. It was all the ideas that seemed to contradict earlier lessons. Ideas like suicide bombing. People would say that it was a great sacrifice to give your life for the community or the country or the Islamic Ummah, the global community of Muslims. My friends and I would ask how it was possible that committing suicide was seen as a great sin against Allah if done for reasons such as sadness, or unhappiness; and yet it was the greatest sacrifice a Muslim could make if it was done to fight the “enemy”?

This question was relevant in the 1980s when I was a teenager, and is still relevant today.

Words in the air, until September 11, 2001. When the Twin Towers in New York were destroyed in the most shocking terrorist incident of my lifetime, I realized those words had now become a reality. The words that I had listened to and absorbed when I was a child had now taken on meaning in the world around me. These words were now creating a reality with consequences not just for Americans and Europeans but also for me and my fellow Muslims in the Arab world.

My first son was born in December 2000. I remember carrying him in a child sling on my chest in the summer of 2001—as we visited Manhattan. A few days after we got back to Dubai, we witnessed the terrible events of 9/11 on CNN. I felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility toward this 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.

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 us than the limited fantasies of deeply unhappy people.

My 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. When I hear of different value systems and how they are going to clash, I see the values of human beings striving for a better life.

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. I want to show them that there are questions that have persisted from the first beginnings of human thought, and that there is no reason for the modern Muslim not to engage with them as generations before them did.

 I want 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.

I want them to understand how to be faithful to their inherited religion of Islam and its deepest values, as well as to see how to chart their way through a complex world. I want 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. Not all that is presented as part and parcel of religion is necessarily the case. Much is presented as divine instruction but in fact reflects choices that other people have made for us. As I say in one of the following letters, there are structural principles in Islam, such as the search for knowledge and the command to use one’s mind and think about the world around us.

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I want my sons’ 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. It is their burden to bear whatever decision they make.


You often ask me why I am writing a book and what it is about. Sometimes I tell you that I am writing it for you, sometimes for young Muslims like you. I watch you as you grow and I think of the challenges you have faced and will face. Sometimes I know that I am writing this set of letters for myself.

I remember when you realized that you were a Muslim. You were tiny. You were sweet and round and friendly. It was at an event at school. Your schools so far have been English-language curriculum schools and the student body came from more than a hundred nationalities. One day the students had to identify their religion and you came back “aware” of your religious identity.

You took this identity very seriously. You began to ask me what you “had to do” to be a Muslim. I explained as best as I could the simple steps of knowing that the big Guy in the sky, who created the world, was really called Allah, and that hundreds of years ago, he had sent us his Messenger Mohammed with the Quran.

I told you that we prayed five times a day and I reminded you of Ramadan, when we would not eat all day until the evening. Soon you were coming back from school telling me what I had to do to be a “good Muslim.” It seems your Arabic teacher and his colleague, your religious studies teacher, had a better idea of what being a Muslim meant. You became a little aggressive and I began to realize that your mother and I were not the only ones bringing you up.

 I saw that we had competition for your attention. I panicked a little. I had images of you running away to Syria to fight in a war where people would exploit your good nature. I imagined you cutting yourself off from us, your family, because we were not strict enough Muslims according to the standards that you had picked up from these so-called teachers of yours.

 I had the urge to go to your school and punch them and tell them they had no right to teach you these things. Instead, I spoke to your mother repeatedly and at length. She is seven years younger than me and grew up three streets away from where I lived with my siblings. Unlike me, both her parents are from the same town in the Emirates—Al Ain. Her upbringing was more uniformly Arab and Muslim than mine could have been, given that my mother is Russian and descended from Orthodox clergymen. Your mother had also been through similar experiences.

I know because we had gone to the same school. It was not that we were taught to hate groups of people in a formal way. It was the offhand comments that a teacher would make, or the playground gossip about the Jews or the Shia sect of Islam. The assumption was that you could condemn people you had never met, and who had themselves never done anything wrong. Your mother was, and is, adamant, as am I, that we are not going to let our children be educated to hate.

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One by one, we spoke to you about the people you were “meant to hate.” There was no reason to hate anyone. There is no reason to react to the world around you with hatred. You have to understand that someone has made the choice for you when they say you have to hate. The choice is yours and the only way you can make the world a better place is by doing the opposite of hating. It is by loving. It was not easy to change your mind. Your teachers had done a good job. This made us more determined than ever to win you back. Eventually, you came back to us and decided that hatred was unnecessary and unfair. In fact, hatred is many more things.

Recently, I celebrated my forty-third birthday. I had been waiting for this particular birthday for a long time. From the age of nineteen. Both years were of immense importance to me as I grew up and matured. As you know, your grandfather Saif, my father, was killed in a terrorist attack in 1977. My father was forty-three when he died. When I was your age, I used to think that forty-three was a big number. Now that I have passed forty-three, I feel that life is only just beginning for me. Before I go on, let me tell you why nineteen was also such an important birthday for me.

 When I was twelve I discovered that the man who killed my father was nineteen when he did what he did. Nineteen. When I was twelve I asked myself whether I would be able to kill a man when I turned nineteen. I waited for the day and then I asked myself the question. The answer was no. No way. Not in a million years could I lift a gun or a rifle and shoot another man. I felt like I was still a twelve-year-old.

I looked forward to the age of forty-three and I knew I would ask myself whether I could imagine my life ending at forty-three. When my birthday came, I felt the horror of having barely scratched life. I remember thinking how little time I had spent with you.

 I thought back to my father and imagined the horror he must have felt as he realized that his life was slipping away from him. My siblings and I, your uncles and aunt, were all under the age of ten when your grandfather died. I look at you and I know how much more time I spend with you because of this fear, and even this is not enough.

I am writing this book for you because I want you to have a piece of paper that will be there long after I am gone. I want to give you some of the love and guidance that I wish my father had been able to give me when I was your age and older. I am writing this set of letters to you because I want you to have some idea of the questions that you will face, and some of the answers that are out there. I do not want you to hear it from others.

I do not want you to learn the most important lessons in life from people who do not love you as I love you. I want you to hear the lessons from the person who loves you most. If you think that I worry too much about you, know that I worry only about you.

I want you to know about the things I believe after more than thirty years of thinking about my father’s death. His death forced me to try to answer a bunch of difficult questions; it shaped the way in which I view the world.

In these letters, I will tell you how I saw the world around me when I was younger, when I was your age and when I was a little older, and how I see similar things happening to you. I want you to know that the questions you face, and the solutions you find, or are presented with, are solutions that many of us were faced with as well.

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