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How to Survive in an Age of Extremism and Islamophobia

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Advice for Young Muslims

By Omar Saif Ghobash

Saif, the elder of my two sons, was born in December 2000. In the summer of 2001, my wife and I brought him with us on a visit to New York City. I remember carrying him around town in a sling on my chest. A few days after we got back home to Dubai, we watched the terrible events of 9/11 unfold on CNN. As it became clear that the attacks had been carried out by jihadist terrorists, I came to feel a new sense of responsibility toward my son, beyond the already intense demands of parenthood. I wanted to open up areas of thought, language, and imagination in order to show him—and to show myself and all my fellow Muslims—that the world offers so much more than the twisted fantasies of extremists. I’ve tried to do this for the past 15 years. The urgency of the task has seemed only to grow, as the world has become ever more enmeshed in a cycle of jihadist violence and Islamphobia.

Today, I am the ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to Russia, and I try to bring to my work an attitude of openness to ideas and possibilities. In that spirit, I have written a series of letters to Saif, with the intention of opening his eyes to some of the questions he is likely to face as he grow ups, and to a range of possible answers. I want my sons and their generation of Muslims to understand how to be faithful to Islam and its deepest values while charting a course 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 must make. I want my sons’ generation of Muslims to realize that they have the right—and the obligation—to think about and to decide what is right and what is wrong, what is Islamic and what is peripheral to the faith.


Dear Saif,

How should you and I take responsibility for our lives as Muslims? Surely, the most important thing is to be a good person. And if we are good people, then what connection could there be between us and those who commit acts of terrorism, claiming to act in the name of Islam?

Many Muslims protest against and publicly condemn such crimes. Others say that the violent extremists who belong to groups such as the Islamic State (or ISIS) are not true Muslims. “Those people have nothing to do with Islam,” is their refrain. To my ears, this statement does not sound right. It seems like an easy way of not thinking through some difficult questions.

Although I loathe what the terrorists do, I realize that according to the minimal entry requirements for Islam, they are Muslims. Islam demands only that a believer affirm that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is his messenger. Violent jihadists certainly believe this. That is why major religious institutions in the Islamic world have rightly refused to label them as non-Muslims, even while condemning their actions. It is too easy to say that jihadist extremists have nothing to do with us. Even if their readings of Islamic Scripture seem warped and out of date, they have gained traction. What worries me is that as the extremists’ ideas have spread, the circle of Muslims clinging to other conceptions of Islam has begun to shrink. And as it has shrunk, it has become quieter and quieter, until only the extremists seem to speak and act in the name of Islam.

We need to speak out, but it is not enough to declare in public that Islam is not violent or radical or angry, that Islam is a religion of peace. We need to take responsibility for the Islam of peace. We need to demonstrate how it is expressed in our lives and the lives of those in our community.

I am not saying that Muslims such as you and I should accept blame for what terrorists do. I am saying that we can take responsibility by demanding a different understanding of Islam. We can make clear, to Muslims and non-Muslims, that another reading of Islam is possible and necessary. And we need to act in ways that make clear how we understand Islam and its operation in our lives. I believe we owe that to all the innocent people, both Muslim and non-Muslim, who have suffered at the hands of our coreligionists in their misguided extremism.

Taking that sort of responsibility is hard, especially when many people outside the Muslim world have become committed Islamophobes, fearing and even hating people like you and me, sometimes with the encouragement of political leaders. When you feel unjustly singled out and attacked, it is not easy to look at your beliefs and think them through, especially in a public way. Words and ideas are slippery and can easily slide out of your control. You may be certain of your beliefs about something today, only to wake up with doubts tomorrow. To admit this in today’s environment is risky; many Muslims are leery of acknowledging any qualms about their own beliefs. But trust me: it is entirely normal to wonder whether you really got something right.

Some of the greatest scholars of Islam went through periods of confusion and doubt. Consider the philosopher and theologian Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, who was born in Persia in the eleventh century and has been hugely influential in Islamic thought. His works are treasured today, but during his own lifetime, he was so doubtful about many things that he withdrew from society for a decade. He seemed to have experienced a spiritual crisis. Although we don’t know much about what troubled him, it’s clear that he was unsure and even fearful. But the outcome of his period of doubt and self-imposed isolation was positive: Ghazali, who until then had been esteemed as a scholar of orthodox Islam, brought Sufism, a spiritual strain of Islam, into the mainstream. He opened up Islamic religious experience to spiritualism and poetry, which at that time many considered foreign to the faith.

Today, some of our fellow Muslims demand that we accept only ideas that are Muslim in origin—namely, ideas that appear in the Koran, the early dictionaries of the Arabic language, the sayings of the Prophet, and the biographies of the Prophet and his Companions. Meanwhile, we must reject foreign ideas such as democracy, they maintain. Confronted with more liberal views, which present discussion, debate, and consensus building as ancient Islamic traditions, they contend that democracy is a sin against Allah’s power, against his will, and against his sovereignty. Some extremists are even willing to kill in defense of that position.

But do such people even know what democracy is? I don’t think so. In fact, from reading many of their statements, it is clear that they have little understanding of how people can come together to make communal decisions. The government that I represent is a monarchy, but I feel no need to condemn proponents of democratic reform as heretics. I might not always agree with them, but their ideas are not necessarily un-Islamic.

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