Hardly anyone would disagree that Islam is at war. But who defines what it is to be a Muslim? And who exactly are the combatants? These two questions are almost impossible to answer, and without answers it is nearly impossible to solve the global problem of Islamic-fueled violence.
Many non-Muslims are convinced that Islam is at war with Western civilization; that Islam is hopelessly retrograde and that violence is an inherent, inseparable aspect of Muslim belief. Some Muslims believe this too, no doubt, but others believe that Islam is at war with itself; that the Ummah (the worldwide community of Muslims) is in an epic struggle between those who hold a harsh, fundamentalist view of the faith and those who believe that Islam is flexible and adaptable, capable of addressing 21st century issues like women’s rights, democracy and “alternative” sexualities.
Ironically, this bitter, internecine conflict is intended to unify the Ummah; one side seeking to enforce an unyieldingly narrow interpretation of the Quran and Islamic history; the other side by creating a culture of tolerance, where many ways of being Muslim are recognized and tolerated, and where differences of religious opinion are resolved by discussion rather than bombs and beheadings.
This war will not be over soon; indeed, its resolution (if there ever is one) will rely on future generations. But the seeds of victory are being planted today, by both sides. Which seeds will flourish remains to be seen. While the fundamentalists plant seeds of hatred and intolerance, others–like Omar Saif Ghobash–are planting seeds of a more hopeful sort.
Ghobash is currently Ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to Russia, and the author of the new book Letters to a Young Muslim (available in hardcover or for Kindle). Addressed primarily to his older son, Ghobash’s letters are part memoir, part history and part fatherly advice. Ghobash recounts his difficult childhood: his mother was Russian; his father (UAE’s first Foreign Minister) was assassinated when Omar was only six years old. Growing up as an English-educated “halfbreed” who spoke imperfect Arabic, Ghobash struggled to find his place within the Arab world. He expresses his heartfelt desire to be a good father, to raise his two young sons to be responsible, thoughtful Muslims in a world literally terrorized by horrific violence perpetrated in the name of Allah.
Letters to a Young Muslim, given its intended audience, is necessarily not as deep or as definitive an exploration of the problems currently plaguing the Islamic world as an adult reader might like. But it’s a good and necessary start. Ghobash repeatedly emphasizes the need to think, to empathize, to doubt authority and to be suspicious of those who insist that they have the answers. Islam, Ghobash insists, is capable of embracing modernity and all its controversies. What he doesn’t fully address is how Islam might accommodate issues like women’s equality, democracy, homosexuality and rapidly advancing science. In short, can Islam modernize in the ways that Christianity and Judaism have? Can “moderate” Muslims defang their rabid coreligionists? It won’t happen in this generation, but Ghobash hopes to pass a torch of tolerance and enlightenment to his sons.