"If you're interested in making sacrifices for Allah, stick around." - Letters to A Young Muslim author Omar Saif Ghobash
On January 6, 2017, the Washington, D.C. bookstore Politics & Prose hosted a talk by the author of "Letters to a Young Muslim," Omar Saif Ghobash. The talk was videotaped by C-SPAN and you can see it in full online.
"Letters" is not a book about religious prescriptions. It is a quest from within the Islamic religious community to help articulate the Islamic "position on the world" in clear terms. The aim is to help young people find a place in the world that is both productive and spiritual.
For me as an observer of current events, the importance of the author's perspective is that it offers a practical, doable way to end radical Islamic terrorism in a way that none have conceived of before.
- What if we could end it without violence?
- What if we could end it without arrogant, false attempts to change the audience into a mirror image of secular democratic Western society?
- What if we could end it by encouraging the free development of Muslims themselves?
In the end, what we are talking about is "development," the mission of U.S. foreign assistance agency USAID. The particular goal of this agency is to eliminate extreme poverty, but the agenda is far greater than that - it is really about helping to create the conditions where completely disadvantaged foreign populations can help themselves.
Please be clear. I'm not here to promote USAID, although I did work there for a time, and I'm not disingenuous about the problems and the debates. I know they've been accused of being a vehicle for spying and other nefarious stuff. I watched "Argo." I get it.
But there is no reason to throw out the baby with the bathwater. If they know what they're doing when it comes to empowering local communities, why not enhance their capabilities, add more transparency and oversight, and let them do more?
As President Trump said in his inaugural address: The past is over. It is time to focus on the future.
Here are just a few key quotes from the author that highlight how important an effective, development-rooted, peace-oriented dialogue is right now.
Theme 1. Key Issues
- "Brand Islam": "When September 11 took place, I was horrified. I've been thinking about radical Islam from around the age of 14 or 15, the mid-80s. And I thought finally, September 11 has to be a turning point for the global Islamic community, and we really need to be thinking about what has been allowed to be said to our children, to our neighbors, in our mosques. In the mosques that I went to, there was a lot of angry preaching, a lot of politicized preaching. But the reaction was really, we have to change the image of Islam in the West. I have respect for branding. But the product is not clear, it's not clear where we really stand on these things. We can spend a ton of money on glossy adverts and brochures, and TV series, but if when I go back home and I speak to people at the mosque, and we ourselves are wondering, where are we going with all of this. Where are our clerics taking us, that's the problem."
- "Islamophobia": We need to fight Islamophobia. But even in the context of fighting Islamophobia, we need to think about all the other minority groups, and how we deal with minorities. And I sometimes feel we focus too much on the Islamophobia angle to the exclusion of the internal discussion about extremism. We talk about Islamophobia, but we shouldn't use it as an excuse to hide some of the very serious and critical issues that the Islamic community is facing globally.
- Women in Islam: "We have a whole bunch of patriarchal communities in the Middle East in particular. And I worry sometimes that with the spread of Islam, we're exporting some of the local cultures and practices of the Middle East. And I'm not sure that's a great idea, nor do I think it's particularly appropriate. I can speak from the perspective where women are given all kinds of freedoms, equal freedoms to males, and what that means in practice is that women have a chance to prove themselves, and in fact they do a much better job than the males in our society. We are now more worried about where our men are going and what they're doing with their time. They seem to have a set of expectations that are completely unreasonable. Certain societies are pushing forward with women's rights and women's empowerment, really."
Theme 2. Freedom and the Individual
- Role of the Individual: "It's interesting that we have this focus on the group, and the idea of the individual is threatening to the group. They complement each other. At the moment the focus is too much on the group, it's almost an empty body built of many people with little personality. I want to raise the level of the quality of the group by beefing up the individual in the Muslim world."
- Censorship: "Muslims in America have the protections of the law. They have an expectation that they can speak freely. This is very different than in many Muslim countries, where there is the idea that we need to put in blasphemy laws. They seem to be structured to end all debate, and you have to make sure that you get on the right side of that blasphemy law.
- American Leadership: "I think the Muslims of America should take advantage of the situation here, the academic freedom, the intellectual freedom, to really take a lead on the direction of global Islam, and to contribute to the debate that's taking place in the Middle East and in the Arabic language. Ideas can form here, and be propagated....not reforming or modernizing, providing clarity."
- Seeking Dialogue: "If this was the start of a set of dialogues across Muslim societies between the clerics who really have a repository of our moral knowledge, and youth who are the ones who are asking the questions...an expression of interest in each other, what each can contribute to the great moral questions."
Theme 3: A Search For Clarity
- Personal Bias Is Not Religion: "Our humanity is what informs our reading. If you are finding that the Koran permits you to rape, to enslave, to rob, and to kill, then there's something wrong with you. It's just too much of a coincidence that you as a young male thug have found a religion that actually supports your positions and your instincts and passions."
- Identifying Common Elements: "Where are the common elements that seem to underlie everything from the peaceful spiritual side of Islam all the way to the violent aggressive animalistic ISIS?"
- "Reform" is the wrong word: "People have asked me, are you calling for reform of Islam. That suggests there is a fixed body we can debate....I'm taking a more modest position. The reality is all I'm asking for is clarity from the religious scholars who traditionally have held the respect in our Islamic societies. We should be asking the clerics to come towards their flock and actually learn about the people they are guiding."
- Role of the Clerics: "I think the clerics have a very specialized area of expertise. I'm asking them to think more broadly about the moral questions that each of us faces in multicultural societies....It's very dangerous to continue with the categories of believer or nonbeliever, friend or foe."
For the fact of the matter is, things cannot continue the way they are right now. Violent extremism is a death spiral, the United States needs to end it if only for our own sakes, and the only real way to make it stop is to promote the health and welfare of the very population we too often conceive of as the enemy.
In short, the way out is to go all the way in: Supporting Muslims who promote the value of Muslim life, health and welfare. Who understand that this can only happen through a dialogue within the Islamic community about the future they seek for themselves and their children.
The future doesn't have to be about blowing people up. It can be a win-win.
All opinions my own.