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Say hello to the new Global Comment podcast!

 

We’re delighted to announce that we’re launching a podcast series featuring interviews with interesting, engaging, thought-provoking and progressive thinkers, artists, and decision-makers in the Arab world and beyond. You can subscribe on iTunes and Soundcloud, and you’ll always be able to catch transcripts of episodes here at Global Comment.

In the first interview of the Global Comment Podcast Series, we interview His Excellency Omar Saif Ghobash. Omar has been serving as the Ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to Russia since 2008. Omar is a patron of a number of literary and art projects in the Arab world. He’s a graduate of law from the University of Oxford. Omar has recently published a highly acclaimed book, Letters to a Young Muslim, which came out last month. The book is a series of letters from Omar to his oldest son, in which Omar gives advice on how to approach Islam and Islamic teachings in these difficult times. Omar addresses Islamic customs and history, and provokes deep questions that need to be explored by Muslims of all ages. The book is also highly valuable for readers around the world who want to understand Islam better and the contest of ideas that aim to define it today.

Global Comment’s Nasser Ali Khasawneh, a lawyer and friend of Omar’s who has known him since their time at Oxford, interviews Omar in this provocative exploration of Muslim identity and culture.

Omar Saif Ghobash and Nasser Khasawneh in conversation.

Please be sure to rate, review, and subscribe on iTunes — it’s how other people find us! And we’re always interested in hearing recommendations for people you’d love to see us interview; drop a note in comments here or email us: podcast at globalcomment dot com.

Transcript of Episode One: Omar Saif Ghobash

NASSER ALI KHASAWNEH, HOST:

Welcome to the first interview in the Global Comment dot com podcast series. In this interview, we aim to interview great, interesting enlightened, progressive thinkers. I’m your guest interviewer today. My name’s Nasser Ali Khasawneh, and we are starting with a bang. Our first guest is Mr Omar Ghobash. He’s the U.A.E. Ambassador to Russia, he has a long list of achievements, but most importantly—and the reason why we have him here with us today—is his book, which is causing waves in the Arab world and beyond, a book called “Letters to a Young Muslim” and published by Picador.

Omar, first of all, a disclaimer: I’ve known you for about 27 years, we met at university. I think we’re friends, but it’s not sure. (LAUGHS). But on that note, let me start by asking the obvious question: why did you write the book? How did it come about? I mean, I’ve always known of your interest in the issue, but what made you focus and write this wonderful book?

OMAR GHOBASH, GUEST:

Well as you know, we have actually known each other for 27 years or so, and one of the great drivers in my life is the fact that I wait for you to do these great things, but you don’t.

(BOTH LAUGH)

GHOBASH: And so I felt that I had to take up the mantle—

KHASAWNEH:

Thank you.

(BOTH LAUGH)

GHOBASH: —I had to take up the mantle of responsibility there and do it myself. And that’s why you’ll have to forgive the quality of the work. It’s not as good as it would have been had you done it.

KHASAWNEH:

Of course, of course, of course, yeah. But otherwise, you would have had to wait forever, yes.

GHOBASH:

Well, and, forever’s a good thing to wait for.

KHASAWNEH:

Excellent. No, but genuinely it is a really, really good book and I’ve enjoyed it tremendously. I’ve read a lot of the interviews, seen also the interviews that you’ve done on various networks. First of all, we’re proud of what you’re doing. But actually this has been, really, a continuing stream of thought for you, because you’ve done a lot of lectures in the U.K. and the U.S. and here in the U.A.E. around this theme.

If I were—I mean, someone asked me the other day, “What is the purpose of the book?” And without wanting to sound dramatic, the sense or the theme I get reading the book throughout is that it’s a book about saving young Muslims.

GHOBASH:

Well, I would not be that ambitious, to be honest. Actually, in fact, the book is much simpler. What it is, is that I’m trying to provide guidance to my son, and through writing a series of letters to my older son (who is now 16), I’m trying to provide a kind of a framework with which to approach not just the religious text but how to approach life in general. And the kinds of problems a child, or a young man, or a young woman will face in trying to determine the quality and the type of faith that they have, they will face the same kinds of questions that anybody else would, in any other part of the world.

And so, they are dealing, I would say—particularly in the Arab world and the Muslim world—young Muslims are dealing with a great number of ideological pressures, political pressures, and economic pressures. And therefore I would say that they are prey to manipulators of faith. And it’s—to fight against the idea of being manipulated into a certain situation that I wrote the book.

KHASAWNEH:

I really feel that, this worry about losing people to extremists. What I liked a lot about the book is that it’s very honest. I mean, a lot of us say and repeat that acts of terrorism and extremism around the world have nothing to do with Islam, they are a hijacking of the religion, and of course that is the case. But you also want to get deeper than that and actually tackle the type of thinking that is quite pervasive at times, and that the youngsters could fall prey to or at least be misguided by it.

GHOBASH:

So I’ll take the idea of the religion being hijacked. It is our religion. There is no hijacking, as far as I can see, taking place. There are dominant voices within the religion who are taking the lead, both in terms in kind of physical organization and intellectual organization. And so I would like to say that—rather than saying that all these acts of terrorism have nothing to do with us, and nothing to do with Islam, I’d rather say, let us take responsibility for everything that bases itself on our holy texts. And in that way, we will actually be able to regain control of the dominant narratives. We will be able to now finally explain to ourselves and to others why violence doesn’t have the same role, or shouldn’t have the same role, in 21st century Islam, as it did in the 7th or 8th or 10th centuries. Or even the 13th century, at the time of Ibin Taymieh.

There are very, very important reasons why we shouldn’t be focusing on those arguments. And so, when people say, “Look, this has nothing to do with us,” or they come up with the hashtag #notinmyname, or, you know, “Islam is a religion of peace”: all of that is fantastic, but it’s very much wishful thinking. Today, if you want to be an activist in terms of liberal-type Islam—a more open, accepting, understanding, more coherent Islam for the 21st century—then you’re going to have to stand up and say, “These are the principles I believe in”, “This is the approach I take to the text.” Rather than saying “This is the true Islam, or not true Islam,” how have I approached the text in the first place?

KHASAWNEH:

And that underlies what seems to be, for me, the most memorable principle or premise in the book, which is the one around individual accountability. And that really struck home, right? And that, I think, actually, covers more than just religion in our region, but the sense that in a perhaps odd way, in religion, we’re being told to think as a collective, as part of the Ummah as you say, as part of the nation in an Islamic context. And because of that, not only do individuals abdicate personal responsibility, it’s also the case—in many cases—the clerics or the current strand of Islam in many ways wants them to take things literally and not exercise their minds around it. And I think that is a great concept and I think that really underlies many of the thoughts in the book.

GHOBASH:

Yeah, you’re right, I actually look at the individual, the Muslim individual, as the kind of basic unit with which, then, to regenerate our ethical and moral life, but also to regenerate our communities and ultimately to regenerate them against the idea of the Ummah. Of course, I can’t be against the idea of the Ummah that doesn’t make sense. It’s like being against the idea of a community in general. Communities exist. They, you know—denying their existence doesn’t mean that they go away.

I recognise that the Ummah is a central concept within Islamic theology. And I also recognise that individual responsibility is an essential element of Islamic theology as well. What has happened in the last few decades is that we have taken the idea of the Ummah, we have abstracted it away from the people. And it has become this object to be manipulated, or at least as far as I can tell, it is manipulated by very sort of specific ideologies, very specific political targets, very specific nationalist targets. And what I’d like to say is, we need to take back the concept of the Ummah to the actual people who are, who make up the elements of that Ummah And you know, if people continually complain that the nation or the people of the Islamic world, or the Ummah of Islam, is in a sorry state, well, we need to recognise that building solid, strong, muscular-type young Muslim individuals is going to contribute to a strengthening of the Ummah

We also need to think a little more about the idea of unity. There is this idea within the Arabic language, with our political culture, and Islam, that we must be united. But this idea of unity comes at the expense of any particular local individual quality.

KHASAWNEH:

Or flavor, yes.

GHOBASH:

Absolutely. So we are united in our inability to move forward. Well, fantastic. Maybe we need to think in terms of networking rather than building a monolithic block of Islam.

KHASAWNEH:

That’s brilliant. United in our inability to move forward. That’s (LAUGHS) that so sadly represents in many ways the predicament in our region, not just (LAUGHS)—

GHOBASH:

Unfortunately yes.

KHASAWNEH:

—in our region at times, and that’s a very good way to put it.

I want to turn a bit to the personal story, for those who don’t know you as well as I do. I remember when we met at university, and now I see it throughout the book: I mean, the role of your father, the role of the missing father. Your father, Saif Ghobash, was Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, sadly assassinated in 1977. And I remember, as I said, at university, it was—I don’t know how to put it best, but—it was the framework of your life. And the most moving part of the book is going through that story, and from what I’ve known of your dad, an incredible man, ahead of his time—

GHOBASH:

Thank you.

HUSANI:

—and ahead of, in many ways, actually. So I wonder if you can talk a bit about that, in terms of its influence on you. Because it’s also directly related to the subject matter of the book.

GHOBASH:

Yes, it is, and it’s interesting, because I’ve mentioned this now a couple of times. My father was 43 when he was killed. And when I—it was the day after my 43rd birthday that I went to my boss and I said that, you know, I’d like to start writing, I’d like to start talking about certain issues relating to the Arab world and the Islamic world. And I said specifically, because now that I have reached the age at which my father had died, I feel that very day I have is a gift to him. And I’d like to be able to do that in his honor. And that’s exactly what’s happened as a result.

You know, turning 43 gave me a certain freedom to think beyond my own kind of personal needs and desires. And so what I’ve done in the last two years is I did continue to write, and I did continue to do public talks, and I did put the book together. So it’s extremely important, it’s a kind of homage to my father, and also it’s a kind of passing on of a certain kinds of message to my sons and their generation, if they find that it’s of value. So yeah. The whole effort has been incredibly personal for me. It’s something I’ve been working through and on for almost 40 years now. Because, yeah, it’s almost 40 years. And to be honest, it’s a really wonderful feeling that I’ve been able to do this, and for my mother of course, to whom the book is dedicated. So it’s really important that she feels my love for her, and all the gratitude I have for the lessons she gave us as her children in the absence of our father.

KHASAWNEH:

She’s been an incredible influence, and you note that a lot in the book.

But to talk actually a bit more in terms of their story—your father and mother—it’s incredible, your father, how he, you know, the career he built, the education. They met in Russia?

GHOBASH:

Yes. It was in the 1960s, and my father had not been able to get enough money together to get an education in the different places that he wanted. He’d had one year of university in Iraq, but because of the political issues in the late 1950s, he wasn’t able to continue. But then, the Soviet Union provided scholarships to the Middle East, and what’s very interesting is that at the time, the British agent here in the Gulf area actually denied him the right to take up that scholarship. And he went to the ruler of Dubai at the time and asked him what he should do. And so he’s, Sheikh Rashid said, “Well, go and ask the Brits for a scholarship to the U.K.” Which he did, I’m told, and he was told he wouldn’t get one to the U.K. either. And so Sheikh Rashid then said, “Well just take up the Russian scholarship.” So he went there and studied there for four years.

KHASAWNEH:

In St Petersburg?

GHOBASH:

In Leningrad at the time, St Petersburg now. Four years, and came back with my mother.

KHASAWNEH:

Yes. And now, so many years later, you’re the U.A.E.’s ambassador to Russia. Lot of connections.

GHOBASH:

Yes! I like to think this was really far-sightedness on my father’s part.

(BOTH LAUGH)

KHASAWNEH:

Absolutely.

GHOBASH:

Absolutely.

KHASAWNEH:

Nothing left to chance, right?

GHOBASH:

Yes, absolutely.

(BOTH LAUGH)

KHASAWNEH:

Yes, that’s great, and as I said, I’ve always been fascinated by your father and what he’s managed to achieve—

GHOBASH:

Thank you very much.

KHASAWNEH:

It’s a great story. I mean, going back to the book. You touched on it earlier, there’s a theme that I really believe in. Maybe I’ll say it in simpler terms. (LAUGHS) But, a kind of, you know, with these extremist groups, or the not so extremist groups, who always talk of a type of Islam, or past Islam, that they want to go back to. And there’s so many ways in which what they’re saying is not true or disingenuous. I mean, to me, it starts in many ways. If you look at the extremist groups who want to say they’re taking us back to Islam, so many of their actions and horrific things are not—

GHOBASH:

Sure.

KHASAWNEH:

—do not in any way relate to Islamic history. Simple examples are the Ottoman Empire was a sanctuary for Jews and other persecuted minorities in Europe while these guys are going around killing anyone who doesn’t think like them.

GHOBASH:

Sure, yeah.

KHASAWNEH:

So there’s a lot of that. And it’s also deeper than that, and I think you mentioned that in the book, or in one of your interviews as well, about, you know, the older communities here, the older folk you speak to, who remember a time in the U.A.E. or in other Arab countries from the 40s and 30s—it’s not anywhere like what they’re telling us they want to go to.

GHOBASH:

True.

KHASAWNEH:

It was always more tolerant, it was always more patient. Would you agree with that? I mean, that’s my sense from the book, I would say.

GHOBASH:

My sense, I think I’m trying to make a big statement, which is that you cannot turn back time. And I don’t think that that was ever the idea of the Prophet.

KHASAWNEH:

Exactly.

GHOBASH:

That he received his message, he passed the message on, and therefore we should have been frozen in time in the 7th century.

KHASAWNEH:

Right.

GHOBASH:

And I think also there’s a deep inconsistency at work with the radical groups and wanting to turn back to a time which has been idealized and sort of selectively read. The fact is that we live in a technological world where many of the basic structures of our life are provided by a West that doesn’t have anything to do with Islamic kind of history. And so if you really want to turn back time, well then you must give up your electronic technologies, you must give up your reliance on automobiles, you must give up all of the different things that really pull us into the 20th century. And so I think it’s fundamentally inconsistent. But I don’t think inconsistency has ever been a really worry for them.

KHASAWNEH:

Exactly. Absolutely, yep. (LAUGHS) No, that’s very true. And just, I mean, no go ahead.

GHBOASH:

No I was just going to say further that I’ve been struggling with the idea of how it is, then, what is it exactly that you take from the 7th century and from the message of the Prophet, and how do you express that in the 21st Century? Certain groups, very, very powerful groups, will say that, you know, you must follow the Prophet’s behaviour in all things. And, you know, there’s, essentially there’s nothing wrong with that.

But as a friend of mine who is a Saudi cleric said, in public, is that you begin to fetishize certain behaviours. And he specifically said we shouldn’t create a religion out of our clothing. And actually we should remember that there are the values that the Prophet represented, that are the ones that should be transmitted. And that is actually probably a much more important and much easier way in which we can express Islam in the 21st century. Rather than thinking of specific behaviors and specific kind of modes of engagement with each other, we actually begin to think about, what was the purpose behind a certain act? What are the values being expressed here? And how do we then express that now in the 21st century?

And I think that one of the areas that’s quite interesting, and I haven’t mentioned this before, but the idea of punishment in Islam. And, you know, in the Emirates, you really don’t hear of, even though you hear of crimes of theft and whatnot, you don’t hear of hand-chopping or head-chopping. And so I wonder why we don’t do that. And I’m not sure, but I would think to myself that the whole purpose of punishment is not the specific punishment but punishment in general. That crimes are recognised as crimes against the community or crimes against an individual. And the logical thing, and the socially just thing, is for that person who committed the crime to be punished in some way.

KHASAWNEH:

So true.

GHOBASH:

Now, whether you need to detach a hand from a body, or whether you, you know, sort of arrest a person, and put him in jail, or maybe hold his assets: these are things we need to think about. And you know, also it’s quite interesting, I noticed that—I think it was ISIS, I’m not sure—but they were talking about the exact sum that needs to be stolen in order to have your hand cut off. And it was in the 30s. 30 dirhams or so. And I’m like, well, you know, there are people who steal hundreds of millions. Is it the same hand that is to be removed?

KHASAWNEH:

(LAUGHS)

GHOBASH:

What I’m saying is, you know, I’m not going to poke fun at the idea of the punishments that took place in the 7th century. But I want to add more, kind of, depth to it. There is much more work to be done when it comes to the ideas of crime and punishment.

KHASAWNEH:

That is very true, and the issue is really about, it’s going to the core values of the religion.

GHOBASH:

Sure.

KHASAWNEH:

I mean, at the risk of over-simplifying, I always I mean, I’m saddened by what’s happening and the extreme groups, et cetera, and their literal obsession with words or certain stories. But the reality, you look at it, I mean, the core values, I mean, just famous stories, et cetera. I mean, the Prophet came, and at the time when women were buried alive, he gave, you know, succession rights and registry rights to women.

GHOBASH:

Yeah, yeah.

KHASAWNEH:

That’s one great value. I mean, not just the Prophet, actually, also the immediate Sahabah, or disciples, their obsession with social justice—

GHOBASH:

Sure, sure.

KHASAWNEH:

—their obsession with giving to the poor. And that’s the core, and what gives me hope, I must say, is still, I mean, scores of moderate Muslims who see Islam as that, right?. I mean, the biggest manifestation of it is caring for the poor. I always think of a—

GHOBASH:

Sure.

KHASAWNEH:

—Saudi friend of mine, who whenever we go to a restaurant, makes it a point of any food left over, he has to gather, and then go around and see any homeless people in the streets of Riyadh and give them that, that food. And that for me, that’s the heart and core of religion, and this literal interpretation belittles those values, right? I mean, that’s the …

GHOBASH:

Sure, yeah. I suppose you’re right. And it’s this idea of the truth, truth with a capital ‘T’, that, you know, that it—and it also, it’s generally one person who does the interpretation and then it becomes the law for everybody. Which I find interesting.

But also there’s another idea here that I think is necessary to kind of throw out there. I’m not sure that it’s fully developed, but, you know. There is this understanding that the Prophet was morally perfect, or, you know, essentially he represented moral perfection. And he himself said that, “I have come to perfect your morals,” right? And this, this to me suggests a number of things.

Firstly that there was already a concept of morality, of right and wrong in pre-islamic Arabia. And so to perfect is it to add a few more elements, and perhaps to organise in a more interesting fashion. But then there’s the other thing, which is that, okay, morally perfect—and we need to continue, perhaps, in the 7th century.

And then the question then becomes, do we try to replicate everything he did, in circumstances that are very different to the ones we live in? Or do we think of the desire to be morally perfect in every era, as a situation of moral progress, or moral transformation, or moral—increasing moral complexity? This is where I’d like to take our attention, rather than to say “It was done like this, therefore we must do it precisely in the same manner.”

KHASAWNEH:

Yeah, and what’s quite fascinating, and you just touched on that, is this sort of concept that one man, you know, has the truth in terms of interpreting Islam, it is that, you know, he’s basing himself on the Ulama and that’s the only way to read it.

Something that’s fundamental in my reading of Islamic history is that it was never supposed to be like that. I mean, if you look at it, there was never a religious hierarchy per se in Islam, and there was the concept that you are entitled to your own views. Sometimes a bit—

GHOBASH:

Yeah.

KHASAWNEH:

—stronger than other religions. But I know it touches on deeper issues because when it became a state with the Khalifa, et cetera. But there was more sense of, I think, democracy in religious interpretation, originally, before it went down that path, I think—

GHOBASH:

I would say that I’m not going to, sort of, venture into that area, because that’s one where there’s been a lot of research, and I’m not, it’s not really what I’m talking about in the book. I’m trying to take a much more simpler, more kind of benign view. I’m not making judgments on history. I’m making certain observations about how our Islamic institutions and personalities are demonstrating their intentions today.

And so when I look at the clerical class, very often, you know, they come out with pronouncements, you know; they are the ones who have sufficient knowledge; they’re a kind of self-selecting group. You know, if you’re, say, 30 years into a training program with them and you, all of a sudden you decide that, you know, your wife doesn’t need to wear the full veil, then you’re no longer a member of the group, as happened with one of the leading clerics in Saudi Arabia. So, you know, this is a self-selecting group that continually kind of, um, impose a certain standard. Now the problem then becomes is, when you say, “Oh, well, listen, I’d like to speak to you about X, Y, or Z,” they’ll say, “Well, no, there is, there are no mediators between the individual and Allah. So we are nothing, we are just, simply—“

KHASAWNEH:

Yeah, exactly. (LAUGHS)

GHOBASH:

So there’s a kind of hiding of responsibility, of rushing away from responsibility when it gets interesting. And yet, the rest of the time, when you’re not posing the question, there’s a kind of a readiness and a happiness to impose a solution.

KHASAWNEH:

And to judge.

GHOBASH:

And to judge, yeah. So what I would say is, you know, we need to think more of our religious scholars and of ourselves, the laypeople. More in terms of a kind of a political dialogue. It’s a political religious dialogue. We need to, I would say we need to ask or pose questions to the religious class in a different way, and to actually say to them, “Well, look, once in awhile I’m going to ask you a question, but my hope would be that you would actually say this has nothing to do with religion; you should decide this for yourself. And, you know, I might guide you; here are a couple of principles you might want to think about; but there’s no clear-cut answer.” So there’s a certain kind of clerical authority that insists that given a question, there must be a clear-cut answer to it. And I’d like to pushback a little at that and say, well, maybe there are areas of gray. Or maybe there are areas that really fall outside of the realm of religion. And just concern, you know, psychology or sociology, or these kinds of things.

KHASAWNEH:

What fascinates me about that question is, and I’ve really often wondered whether this is about religion or something that’s a product of our history, I think Doctor Marwan Mu’asher has written a lot of articles and books, and he talks a lot about, sort of, the obsession more or less with excluding the other.

GHOBASH:

Sure.

KHASAWNEH:

That seems to be, and so in the way you describe, now, certain clerical classes seems to be sort of, you know, exercising that, that trait. And also I’ve seen it, you know, whenever you talk politics in the Arab world, and also we live in interesting political times on every front—

GHOBASH:

Sure, yeah.

KHASAWNEH:

—the Arab spring, and the aftermath, and all of that. I’ve seen this across social groups, across political persuasion, an immediate rush to exclude, and to sort of—

GHOBASH:

Yeah.

KHASAWNEH:

—immediately either completely belittle the other, or say they’re traitors, or, say they’re not worthy of debate. Isn’t that, is it bigger than religion in that sense?

GHOBASH:

Yeah, I think, I do think it is, I think it’s a human trait as well. It’s one of groups and control of groups. But I also think it’s very interesting, and this is part of what was, led me to write the book, which is that when you are in a society that is continually categorizing its members and excluding members, you’ll reach a stage where the excluder is actually the excluded.

KHASAWNEH:

Yeah.

GHOBASH:

That everybody else has already become deficient in some way, marginal in some way, and actually this is exactly where you find the individual. Because you’ve been excluded, then the only thing left to you, if you’re excluded from the group, the only thing left to you is yourself.

KHASAWNEH:

Exactly.

GHOBASH:

And that is where I find that, you know, that’s kind of the birthplace of human dignity, when you recognize that there is nothing: there is no group to protect you, even if you want to be a part of the group, you’ve been rejected. And therefore if we can think of ourselves as each in some way not quite sufficient for the group, then the group becomes a combination of all of the individuals within it.

So, very, very different kind of dynamic. And I think, because of the role of the internet, and specifically things like Facebook and Twitter and all these modes of social technologies that allow us to express our simplest kind of feelings, we’re actually defining ourselves continually through time as different from others, and there’s actually a historical digital record of our particularity. And this is something very new, I’d say, in the Islamic world in particular: the idea that we’ve moved from this kind of blind Umma-type situation, to all of a sudden this hidden individuality online, all the time. That’s why I think the individual needs to have kind of a focus, self-respect, and dignity, that allows them to pull themselves together in this coming period.

KHASAWNEH:

Absolutely right. I mean, you were quoted in one article recently, talking about “rock star clerics”. I don’t know, that sounded like (LAUGHS) a really nice phrase. (LAUGHS).

GHOBASH:

I think it was a compliment. It is.

KHASAWNEH:

No, it is (LAUGHS) I, and that’s what you meant, and it’s amazing the number of followers on Twitter and others—

GHOBASH:

It’s remarkable.

KHASAWNEH:

Places where these, some of the clerics have. And some of them have been, from what I’ve read, great forces of reason. I think in this article you seem to be saying that they have a responsibility towards society, in these difficult times.

GHOBASH:

I would say that they already know that they have responsibilities. So I’m not going to question that. What I’m saying is that perhaps the responsibility is a changing one and that some of them haven’t picked up on that.

KHASAWNEH:

Mm-hmm.

GHOBASH:

But, you know, you can appeal to the lowest common denominator, right? You can appeal to the animal passions, yeah? Or you can appeal to something much higher. And, you know, if you are engaging with people on Twitter or online, you have the option of appealing to instantaneous thoughts, and just moments of interaction, or you can think in terms of a longer-term kind of, a more narrative structure to your interaction with people.

And I think that, you know, I don’t think that the majority of those clerics who are actually online are aware of the different ways in which they could possibly interact with their followers. So, does—are they also—I mean this is a very important question—are they concerned, themselves, the clerics, in the number of likes that they get, or the number of retweets that they get? Because that would then provide a different dynamic to the kinds of things they are saying, right?

KHASAWNEH:

Hmm.

GHOBASH:

Do they want to also occasionally be provocative, in order to get their Twitter numbers up? So what I want to remind everybody is, the clerics are just as human as the rest of us. They are also psychological beings, yeah?

KHASAWNEH:

Yeah.

GHOBASH:

But they have a particular place in society, and therefore we should—if they’re not fully aware—then we should perhaps open a discussion as to what it is—

KHASAWNEH:

Right.

GHOBASH:

—that is going on.

KHASAWNEH:

I wonder this links to something that, I must say, that something is a self-criticism, I hear it more amongst Arabs and Muslims than in the West to be honest, is, is that, you know, in terms of going back to what you said to them realizing the effect of the words—and this is not just clerics, it’s across Muslim groups—there isn’t enough expression of outrage at terrorism or extremism, that people don’t speak up as much as they should. Or maybe, you know—when you—

GHOBASH:

Hmm.

KHASAWNEH:

—talk privately, people are, a huge majority is outraged, et cetera. But—and this is part of, goes back in a sense to your individual accountability point—do people have a greater responsibility to speak up? And are they speaking enough?

GHOBASH:

I would say that the absence, the relative kind of absence of outrage is partly because of the way in which our Muslim and Arab societies operate anyway. We’re not the most open of societies, and we’re not the ones where, you know, people would like to put their head above the parapet. So there’s already, there’s a certain set of restrictions on expression anyway.

KHASAWNEH:

Mm-hmm.

GHOBASH:

Now, when you, when it comes to these awful terrorist acts, there’s another angle here, where I think we’re missing some moral clarity from our religious leaders, and actually just leaders in general. Often you’ll find that a terrorist act can be explained away by saying, “Well, of course, you know, the political circumstances, and you know, in our part of the world, and the Muslims are suffering and therefore it’s acceptable,” Or if it’s not accepted, at least it’s understandable that certain individuals undertake these actions.

Now, I would say that we need the moral clarity that I’m going to provide right now, which is: we do not pay a crime with a crime. Right? We pay a crime with justice. And justice takes certain forms. It takes certain procedures. It takes a moral perspective. And I, I want to see that be the response of the Muslim and the Arab world in particular.

KHASAWNEH:

In your book, you touch on, sort of, examples, and I think you’re careful in the book not to sort of talk up one tradition or another, but I think you—

GHOBASH:

Hmm.

KHASAWNEH:

—you talk about a group of thinkers in the 10th century, I think in the Abbasid Empire, the Mu’tazila and their—

GHOBASH:

Yeah.

KHASAWNEH:

—and their sort of focus on reason and, and logic. As I said, I felt you were careful in the book not to say there’s one way that’s good, or one way that we must follow, or not, but you’re saying, I think you were fascinated by their focus on reason and logic as they looked at the—

GHOBASH:

Yeah.

KHASAWNEH:

—practice of religion at the time.

GHOBASH: Yeah, well, again, I mean, I’ve done a bit of reading in the area, but I wouldn’t kind of, essentially background reading. I wouldn’t suggest that I’m kind of an expert in it. But I can introduce you one who’s—

KHASAWNEH:

(LAUGHS)

GHOBASH:

—in Abu Dhabi. What I wanted to get across was the idea that there are who follow revelation as blindly as they can. And then there are those who promote reason in a certain kind of almost extremist sense themselves, to the extent that actually, you know, if there is a contradiction between the revelation and reason, reason is what applies. Now, you know, that’s an argument that is stuck in the 10th century, and it was ended then. The 10th or so century. And reason, those who followed reason, lost, for political reasons. And I think it would be, it would, it’s foolish of us to think that is the end of the argument.

And so, people today will tell you, “No, that argument was ended; a decision was made; and now, as a group, as an Umma, this is what we’re going to follow: the revelation route.” But what I also think is, that what we’re missing is, that in those traditions that follow revelation in a fundamental sense, they don’t recognise themselves: all of the assumptions, and all of the logic, and all of the reasons, all of the use of reason—that is sort of seeping through anyway.

So I actually, all I’m saying is that of course I believe in revelation, but in revelation as intermingled with reason. And how do you do that? Well, that become the job of another generation of scholars. But I just, I don’t see it as a dichotomy, as a kind of a black and white: either reason or revelation.

KHASAWNEH:

But I think in the book, and rightly so, you exclude one form of argument from the table, and that’s the language of violence. I like, I think in one part, you call it the “tool of unthinking”.

GHOBASH:

Yes.

KHASAWNEH:

It is essentially that. But it’s interesting how much we, we still see elements of that, and I think you grapple with that a bit in the book, with the, you talk a bit about the obsession with the warrior in, in Islamic sort of—

GHOBASH:

Yes.

KHASAWNEH:

—history and imagery.

GHOBASH:

Yes. I, I, there are a couple of points I’d like to make here. I don’t think that violence is, is only a feature of Muslim societies, or Arab societies. It actually, you know, I’ve been in Russia for the last eight years and I can feel, I know that there’s violence just below the surface, you know. If you look at U.S. foreign policy, just over our lifetime you can see how much violence is used as a means of essentially foreign policy or religious expression.

KHASAWNEH:

Yeah.

GHOBASH:

Now, there are different ways in which we regulate that violence, right? My great worry is that we are still at a very fundamentally basic level in our expression within our own community. Now I don’t want to talk about, you know, Arab or Muslim foreign policy and the use of violence there. Just within our communities. Within our communities we always seem to have the sense that, well, if we speak out about certain things, if we try to engage the others in a discussion, then we must always bear in mind that violence and absolute violence is one of the cards that can be played against us.

And, you know, I think of Lebanon, I think of Iraq, of Syria, of Libya, and you know it kind of, sort of, if there’s, if we—either if the state doesn’t come in and control that violence very closely, or if society and the religious scholarship and leaders don’t and sort of impose a moral standard that says that violence is absolutely unacceptable in the regulation of political and social disputes, then we’re going to have a very difficult time getting off the ground in this part of the world.

KHASAWNEH:

Yeah, I totally agree, and, I mean, my question is, the, is one maybe based on frustration. I mean, you look at the Arab world now, the sort of issues we have in places like Syria, Libya, et cetera, and the growth of these extremist groups that sometimes almost, I mean, it’s a bit of a cliché, but it is like a nightmare, you know? We couldn’t imagine (LAUGHS QUIETLY) this sort of happening now. As the world was, you know, going digital, as, there were also the beginnings of, you know, I remember a time sort of as you know, part of what I’ve done have been in the sort of technology law and whatever—

GHOBASH:

Sure.

KHASAWNEH:

So I remember in late 90s, early 00s, there was this sense of, lot of talk about entrepreneur, start-ups, this new culture in the Arab world. And this, is this a kind of a reaction against that (LAUGHS), what we’re seeing?—

GHOBASH:

No.

KHASAWNEH:

—Or what is going on?

GHOBASH:

I wouldn’t say that. Actually, I would say that, you know, I was at the World Government Summit conference today in Dubai. And one of the interesting things I found was that many people were talking about radical disruption of several industries. And you know, how the Arab world should have these radical disruptors, and tech guys, and, you know, superb companies that are completely online.

And I thought to myself, “Well, that’s very interesting, because we all know the next stage is artificial intelligence and getting things basically worked by algorithm. What will that do to these societies that are already barely making a living?”

KHASAWNEH:

Yeah.

GHOBASH:

And as we move to more of a digital economy in this part of the world, I get the impression that we’re going to have a much worse employment crisis, followed with social crises, as a result of, of the rise in technology.

KHASAWNEH:

That’s actually, that’s a brilliant point if I may say so myself.

GHOBASH:

You may, I appreciate it.

KHASAWNEH:

—how I characterise your idea.

(BOTH LAUGH)

KHASAWNEH:

It is.

GHOBASH:

Yes. Very good.

KHASAWNEH:

Yes, yes, I know, I know.

(BOTH LAUGH)

It is very—

GHOBASH:

I will not dispute that.

(BOTH LAUGH)

KHASAWNEH:

It is really brilliant, and actually we don’t want to go too much into the ongoing excitement of politics around the world, but, there’s a lot of talk of the sort of populist movements, and so what you’re saying, I mean, these ideas, these issues are affecting, you know, more advanced economies, so—

GHOBASH:

Yeah, absolutely.

KHASAWNEH:

So what will they do here? And also, a lot of talk about how these populist movements sort of look for easy targets such as immigration, et cetera, when actually digitalization—

GHOBASH:

Yeah.

KHASAWNEH:

—is the biggest source of challenge, as it were, to the—

GHOBASH:

Sure, yeah.

KHASAWNEH:

—economic status quo, right?

GHOBASH:

Hmm.

KHASAWNEH:

And what, and in our part of the world that’s got to be worse, right? (LAUGHS)

GHOBASH:

Yes, well.

KHASAWNEH:

Having thought about it, in that context, it’s a very interesting thought.

GHOBASH:

So yeah, you know, I think it’s great that we encourage young entrepreneurs to go out there, and we give them all of the, the government funding—

KHASAWNEH:

Absolutely.

GHOBASH:

—the government support to go off and do what they do. But while we do that, we forget that there is, there are many, many people who will be left behind. The kind—

KHASAWNEH:

And that is the big challenge, right? Yeah.

GHOBASH:

Exactly. And the kind of person who is going to be setting up a tech company has already clearly been one of the beneficiaries of, you know, a great, a great upbringing, right?

KHASAWNEH:

Right.

GHOBASH:

There are very rare circumstances of a young man or a young woman who has developed their own, on their own in difficult circumstances, but most of these entrepreneurs are essentially cosmopolitan kids of the elite.

KHASAWNEH:

Yes.

GHOBASH:

And so, you know, do we reward them for having done well? It’s kind of a double whammy, you know—

KHASAWNEH:

Yeah.

GHOBASH:

It’s really one. Now if we can also persuade them that they have a huge social responsibility—

KHASAWNEH:

Yeah.

GHOBASH:

—and a responsibility towards those who are really less privileged in our society, then that’s fantastic.

KHASAWNEH:

That’s, that’s really the key. And. But I know you’re also interested in, in, don’t know the best way to characterize that, but I think you’re interested in, in sort of campaigns that are aimed to encourage free thought, as it were. I mean, we’re, we’re, we’ve gone retro in our technology—so we’re doing a podcast without video—

(BOTH LAUGH)

—that’s all, actually, some podcasts have a video recording, we don’t. But if you were here with us, dear listener, we’re sitting in Omar’s library at home. And myself and the sound engineer were saying, it’s probably, it is the most impressive library we’ve ever seen—not just in the Arab world. And this is not just to compliment you (LAUGHS), but to say that—

GHOBASH:

And I, if I can interrupt, I know the two of you spend your days looking at libraries across the Middle East and so—

KHASAWNEH:

Yes.

GHOBASH:

—his is really a high accolade.

KHASAWNEH:

Exactly, exactly.

GHOBASH:

(LAUGHS) Thank you so much.

KHASAWNEH:

It’s what we do in our free time., exactly, yes.

(BOTH LAUGH)

GHOBASH:

For the record, I have four books in my library.

KHASAWNEH:

(LAUGHS) Well, nobody can tell.

(BOTH LAUGH)

It’s all guesswork. Yes. So you’ve been really focused on, over the last 12 years or more, actually, on what you can do to encourage reading in the Arab world. So you—

GHOBASH:

Yeah.

KHASAWNEH:

One of the co-founders or sponsors of the Arab Booker Prize, and—

GHOBASH:

Yeah, I’m a founding trustee of the Arab Booker Prize. And I sponsor the, there’s a prize for translation from Arabic into English.

KHASAWNEH:

Which is named after your father.

GHOBASH:

Yes.

KHASAWNEH:

That, again, if I were to challenge you on that, I would say, what you said now really resonated about technology, et cetera, and some skeptics amongst our listeners—

GHOBASH:

Yeah.

KHASAWNEH:

We hope there’ll be scores of listeners out there.

GHOBASH:

(LAUGHS) And scores of skeptics.

(BOTH LAUGH)

Very good.

KHASAWNEH:

Paid listeners.

(BOTH LAUGH)

KHASAWNEH:

We think a lot of them will be skeptical in the sense, you know, the depth of the poverty in certain parts of the Arab world, et cetera—

GHOBASH:

Hmm.

KHASAWNEH:

—and those left behind, et cetera—

GHOBASH:

Yeah.

KHASAWNEH:

—I mean, do you really think that reading could be a source of, a way to resolve their problems, or, I mean—

GHOBASH:

Yeah.

KHASAWNEH:

that’s—you know, it’s a challenge in a way. You often get, one often gets.

GHOBASH:

Yeah, so we actually have people in our part of the world who say, “Is there any point in teaching people to read?” You are not the first person who has put that argument to me. Surely there are more important things for them to do. Gosh, I, you know, if we’ve reached that low in our estimation of our fellow Arabs, then we’re, then we’re in a really serious position.

And this is another thing also, you know that, that there are statistics that say that 70 percent of the Muslim world is illiterate. Now, what contribution are we as a Muslim, as Muslim people—and in the Arab world, 30-40 percent are illiterate—what are we going to be contributing to the world? I mean, farming? You know, the advanced economies are figuring this out very, very quickly.

KHASAWNEH:

Yeah.

GHOBASH:

So we, you know, we have very arid earth. So my, my question is, I can’t believe that we’re at the stage where we actually wonder whether we should teach people to read. What are they to do?

KHASAWNEH:

I’m 100 percent with you. And to be clear, I was pointing out that there’s a school of thought out there like that (LAUGHS).

GHOBASH:

And isn’t it remarkable.

KHASAWNEH:

I’m not a subscriber to that (LAUGHS).

GHOBASH:

And isn’t it remarkable that there is a school of thought. And this school of thought is made up of people who can read. And are well off.

KHASAWNEH:

Yeah. It should be, and if I may say so, we don’t want to turn this too personal in naming certain groups or political parties—

GHOBASH:

Sure.

KHASAWNEH:

—in the Arab world. But I can tell you definitely, in various countries where their part—some parties subscribe to political Islam have, in a way, belittled all forms of art, and seen art as—

GHOBASH:

Right. Yeah.

KHASAWNEH:

—as a waste of time; that movie-making is, is, is for the whatever—

GHOBASH:

The decadent.

KHASAWNEH:

Yeah, for the decadent

GHOBASH:

The decadent.

KHASAWNEH:

That’s right. Words are, that’s a strong theme out there, within certain groups, if we want to give it their, its due.

GHOBASH:

Hmm.

KHASAWNEH:

And it’s shocking. And I know for you it’s not, it’s not just about reading books. I know you were involved in setting up an art gallery that’s become of the best in the region—

GHOBASH:

Thank you.

KHASAWNEH:

—I’m not doing it to plug or anything.

(BOTH LAUGH)

It is the truth—

GHOBASH:

Thank you.

KHASAWNEH:

And you were amongst the first to do that.

GHOBASH:

Thank you.

KHASAWNEH:

And it seems, I mean, what would be your—I mean I think you already touched on that point, but the main argument, the importance of that. It’s quite self-evident, but it’s (LAUGHS).

GHOBASH:

Listen, when it comes to the arts, when it comes to the visual arts, I was particularly interested in accessing the minds of other Arabs and other Muslims around me. Because I felt that there was, there were no platforms in which we could actually engage with each other. Now of course—that was ten years ago, before the rise of sort of Twitter and Facebook, now there are many other ways in which we can engage with each other. But this, if, when you think of works of art, this requires an effort. It is, it’s not a, it’s not a thought that is just thrown out there. And so when people take the time to craft their thinking—whether it’s a work of art, or a film, or a novel, as is the case with the Arab Booker Prize—this is, an, I suppose it’s a kind of a more worked expression. And something that is of true beauty and of true value, of lasting value.

You know, if somebody said to you, “OK, I’ve got 100 books that I’d like you to read,” or, “I have 100,000 tweets, random tweets for you to read,” I assume that you would, you would probably prefer to read the books, because at least that would structure, provide a bit of structure in mental life, right?

But if you read the tweets, you would just, it would be like frying eggs, yeah?

KHASAWNEH:

Many, yeah, yeah, many samples of that these days.

GHOBASH:

Yeah, yeah.

KHASAWNEH:

And so, no, that’s absolutely right, I’m agreeing with everything you’re saying, Omar, which is—

GHOBASH:

I would expect nothing less.

KHASAWNEH:

—a worry.

(BOTH LAUGH)

Which is beginning to worry me.

GHOBASH:

We’ve never actually agreed on anything until today.

(STILL LAUGHING)

KHASAWNEH:

Exactly, so we need a microphone for that to happen. But, going back to the book, a very important question. It’s called “Letters to a Young Muslim”. You address it to your older son, Saif. You have two sons: Saif and Abdullah. Have they read the book, have you discussed it with them—during the writing of the book and now that it’s published?

GHOBASH:

During the writing of the book, I spent a lot of time sort of chatting to them about it. And, you know, not every time were they particularly interested. Which was good. Now you have to also remember that the book, it was a, the product of a compulsion of my own, to express these ideas, and so in expressing them to Saif, I express, the book, I express the ideas to Saif, for whenever Saif is ready to read the book. And he has read a couple of the chapters, and unfortunately he chose some of the more emotional chapters, and so he’s going to leave it for the time being. There will be another time when he will come back to it and read it. So.

And again, you know, when we, when we want to teach or pass something on to our children, I, I would prefer that we remember that, you know, we have to take into account their own feelings as well. This is, from a father to a son, it’s quite a heavy book to read. But, you know, if you’re not related to me—

KHASAWNEH:

(LAUGHS)

GHOBASH:

It can be a beautiful work.

(BOTH LAUGH)

KHASAWNEH:

It is an absolutely beautiful work. And actually, as we come to, close to the end, we’re not there yet, you can’t run yet (LAUGHS), in talking about the, sort of the audience—young Muslims—I mean, this is not manufactured, this literally happened just before we sat down to do this interview, you showed me an email you got from a young university student, right?

GHOBASH:

Yeah, yeah. I did, I was really very touched, and I’ve been getting messages like this, but today’s was really quite a remarkable message. You know, this young lady is 17, and told me she had read my book a few days ago, and that it had changed her life in a way, and that she wanted to take it further and speak to her, sort of, you know, fellow students and professors about it.

And I’m extremely touched by that, because I think the greatest kind of reward to get, as a writer for the first time, is to feel that people feel value in the book. And, you know, as, when I wrote the book, and I finished it, I thought to myself, “Well at least I’ve written it, and now I can leave it on my shelf.” And then I thought, “Well, you know, if my sons read it, that would be great as well.” And then as time goes by, I thought to myself, “Well, if a hundred people buy it, then I’ve touched a hundred lives in some way.” Perhaps not a hundred lives—I mean, some of them wouldn’t have read it. But to get a message like that, really, really makes it all very much worthwhile.

KHASAWNEH:

It must, it must, I mean.

GHOBASH:

Real wonderful feeling.

KHASAWNEH:

It’s resonating with the audience that you, that you—

GHOBASH:

Yeah.

KHASAWNEH:

—wrote this book for.

GHOBASH:

Listen, it’s not a perfect work, but if it can become the basis of a decent kind of civilized, respected, respectful discussion between people, then I will feel that I’ve done what I set out to do.

KHASAWNEH:

Which leads me to my final question. What’s next for you? In, as your friend, I’ve seen this start as a series of lectures.

GHOBASH:

Yeah.

KHASAWNEH:

Now, now the book. Obviously, there’s your day job, which we’ll have to do another podcast—

GHOBASH:

(LAUGHS)

KHASAWNEH:

—about the political issues of the day, but this was more focused on the book. But in terms of spreading this message, inspiring people to do such work.

GHOBASH:

It’s only been a month and a half since I published the book. And the next stage for me is just to follow the discussions that are established around the book, to see how I can push some of those discussions in interesting directions. The book will be translated to a number of languages, including Arabic, German, Spanish, Mandarin I believe, Turkish. I’ve been asked for, or to do, Russian. And, yeah, I think that’s it.

And so, you know, these are some very interesting audiences that will also provide great feedback for me to begin to incorporate mainly into more, a more detailed, a more informed kind of series of articles perhaps. I’d like to come back to the themes of the book in the next, say, six months, maybe even a year from now, to say, “Well, this is what I wrote, this is what I thought, and here are some of the reactions, and here’s some of the conversations that have taken place.” And maybe there’s something there.

KHASAWNEH:

Well, before we wish you luck with all of that, I have to relay a story in our history which shows maybe we also are guilty of excluding the other.

GHOBASH:

Yes, yes.

(BOTH LAUGH)

KHASAWNEH:

Omar and I, at university, formed an Arab society—

GHOBASH:

God bless it.

KHASAWNEH:

Yes. (LAUGHS) I was the president, Omar was the vice-president.

GHOBASH:

Was I? I was the secretary.

(BOTH LAUGH)

KHASAWNEH:

Secretary, secretary. And in typical sort of, a typical story of our youth, we were one day having a political argument about something early in the 90s, I then, we disagreed, and Omar decided to leave the society. We then, I then soldiered on—

(BOTH LAUGH)

—organized the next event, and then as I held the next event, I got a letter from the university, saying that you can’t, you need to come and see us, because the society no longer exists, and it turns out that Omar—in his powers as secretary, before resigning—has sent a letter saying that the Arab society is hereby disbanded.

(BOTH STILL LAUGHING)

GHOBASH:

Very, very precise words.

KHASAWNEH:

Want to reflect on that, or any last words on this?

(BOTH STILL LAUGHING)

GHOBASH:

There are no legalities between us. This society didn’t need Western approval.

KHASAWNEH:

Exactly, exactly.

(BOTH STILL LAUGHING)

KHASAWNEH:

I’m, honestly, and Omar honestly I have to say, a lot of us Arabs, Muslims, are witnessing a lot of changes and uncomfortable issues in our part of the word, and beyond. We’re always saying, “Well, what can one do?” And everybody’s sort of, kind of busy with his day-to-day work, and you know, and I really mean this, that you have shown what can be done.

GHOBASH:

Thank you so much.

KHASAWNEH:

It’s really inspiring to all of us that there are ways in which you can contribute to this, to this debate and make a meaningful and lasting impact.

GHOBASH:

Well, if I can say, thank you so much. After 27 years of knowing you, I finally feel that I’ve impressed you.

KHASAWNEH:

At long last.

(BOTH LAUGH)

So on behalf of Global Comment dot com, who’ve asked me to do this interview—once again, huge thanks Omar Ghobash, and all the best.

GHOBASH:

Thank you very much.

KHASAWNEH:

Thank you

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