When it comes to a discussion of Islam in Britain, there is always a distinction made between “Islamism” which is bad and “Islam” which is good. I never know quite what to make of this, partly because the media tends to focus on “Islamism” with its terrorist implications, and partly because one rarely hears a strong, public voice from the side of the peace-loving Islam. Naturally enough, opinion is also polarised between those who think Islam’s history and its beginnings make it inherently warlike and those who don’t.
Reading Letters to a Young Muslim (UK, US) by Omar Saif Ghobash does not clear up this problem – though it is good to read the reflections of a cultured, educated and cosmopolitan Muslim who also takes his faith with great seriousness. Of mixed parentage himself – his mother is Russian and his father, killed by terrorists in 1977 when the author was aged four, was from the United Arab Emirates – he was educated at Oxford and the University of London and is currently the UAE ambassador to Russia.
His book is written for his two sons, aged 12 and 16, in an attempt to help them to “understand how to be faithful to their inherited religion of Islam and its deepest values” and at the same time to recognise “through observation and thought that there need be no conflict between Islam and the rest of the world”. Much of what he writes would strike a chord with any loving, concerned parent, anxious that their children should grow up with the right values, to deplore mindless violence and to be aware that “the West offers temptations, both physical and moral”, where “freedom is worshipped”.
One can truly sympathise with Ghobash as he tries to warn his sons of the dangers they will face as young adults, where many people they meet will be hostile to their faith while others within it will tempt them “with the limited fantasies of deeply unhappy people” – ie, terrorism. Emphasising to his sons that “Islam is a religion of peace”, he pleads with them not to spread the “behavioural patterns suited to the 7th or 10th centuries” but rather “the Islamic values of respect, care for others, humour, generosity and the search for knowledge and justice.”
However, the book does raise unresolved questions for a sympathetic but critical Westerner or Christian: for instance, Ghobash describes the Prophet Mohammed as “the finest role model we have”; he says that the Koran, “unchanged and uncorrupted for over 1,400 years”, provides a “stable reference point in a world of change or turmoil and of turbulence”. He also allows his sons to attend a Muslim school, then realises he needs to challenge what they have been taught there about hating infidels.
He acknowledges that there is a conflict within Islam when its proponents speak of suicide being wrong but suicide bombing being acceptable. He also suggests that it is the “Ummah”, the global Islamic community, which is under attack – without reference to the widespread persecution of Christians in Islamic territories or the tolerance towards Islamic immigrants in the West.
One wants to ask: with what authority does the author write here? How numerous are those Muslims who agree with him? What influence do they have on the mullahs and imams? Can the conflict between the hard-line fundamentalists and other members of the Muslim community, ably represented by this thoughtful and reflective writer, ever be resolved? Such questions deserve to be answered.