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Father Argues Against Radicalism In 'Letters to a Young Muslim'


Omar Saif Ghobash is a Muslim. His two sons are Muslim. He says he worries they're being taught a hateful version of Islam, not an inclusive one. So he sat down and wrote to them, and the collection of writing is now a book called "Letters To A Young Muslim," his argument against radicalism. He says it started in the United Arab Emirates, where his family is from, one day when one of his sons came home from school.

OMAR SAIF GHOBASH: One particular day I asked him what he'd learned, and he told me, well, I was told that I should hate the Jews.

MCEVERS: Ghobash says that made him want to punch his son's teacher.

GHOBASH: For me personally, I think the kind of litmus test for our tolerance and acceptance of the modern world is how we deal with these kinds of statements. And so it's extremely important for me to say actually, this is where we need to stop and we need to think on what basis do we make these kinds of sweeping judgments. What are the consequences for ourselves morally for making those kind of sweeping judgments? And in any case, we need to actually extract this whole idea of hatred. And actually, I would like for us to begin to imagine teaching our children something else. So that's the day I wanted to go and punch the teacher.

MCEVERS: You talk about your son, you know, going through different phases of questioning what it means to be a Muslim. And it sounds like you yourself went through these phases too, as you said, when you were young.


MCEVERS: And you write about how your own relatives went to fight in Afghanistan in the 1980s and how you cheered them on.

GHOBASH: Well, yes. I mean, when I was 12, you know, being a warrior, it was like almost being like a superhero.

MCEVERS: How have you come to think about that now?

GHOBASH: Well, I think what's happening, for example, with ISIS, we can demonize all of these people and say, you know, they're absolute evil. But by demonizing them and saying they're absolute evil, it becomes much more difficult to understand what is actually going on. I actually think there are many of them who are just incredibly foolishly idealistic. I have no sympathy for them, but I can say that I understand where it's coming from.


GHOBASH: It's a very simplistic reductive reading of our Islamic history. I mean, it gives purpose when it's so difficult these days to find purpose.

MCEVERS: Ghobash has been thinking about Islamic extremism all his life. His father was assassinated when he was 6 years old by a 19-year-old Palestinian man. The man was hired to kill the Syrian foreign minister at the airport in Abu Dhabi, but he shot Ghobash's father instead. The killer had grown up in a Palestinian refugee camp. Ghobash says he came to understand in some ways why the man did what he did.

GHOBASH: As the years passed, I realized that actually this poor young man had absolutely no opportunities. And in a sense, you know, I feel that my father's killer was himself a victim of the way we do politics in the Arab world.

MCEVERS: Which is to sort of answer grievances about, you know, feeling marginalized with violence.

GHOBASH: Well, that's one thing, giving yourself meaning through violence. But the other thing is what we're creating today with the huge number of refugees from Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan. You know, what is going to happen? How many of them are going to find that they've got, you know, worthwhile lives to lead?

MCEVERS: And how many of them where will turn to violence as a way to respond?

GHOBASH: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.

MCEVERS: Do you worry about your son becoming radicalized, still hearing things from teachers that that you don't agree with?

GHOBASH: Yeah, there's a lot of worry actually. And I - you know, because it is - the radical message is actually very, very seductive. And we don't have a real understanding of how we can repent from, you know, past sins and be able to come back to a middle ground where you're actually allowed to build a life of full participation in the economy and society. There's almost a kind of an exploitation of those who sin. And a very quick pathway to ultimate repentance by going and sacrificing yourself or, really, committing suicide and taking a lot of people with you. A lot of people don't like to talk about these issues within the community because we fear that this will lead to Islamophobia.

MCEVERS: Exactly. I was going to say, I mean, do you also worry, I mean, I'm trying to imagine certain people here in the United States hearing what you're saying and saying, see, we told you they all believe in jihad. Everybody believes in violence.

GHOBASH: No, that...

MCEVERS: You know, I mean, there's, you know, there's obviously a lot of conversation about this here in this country right now...

GHOBASH: Of course.

MCEVERS: ...And it can sometimes tend toward Islamophobia.

GHOBASH: Absolutely. However, it doesn't mean that we should hide behind this fear of Islamophobia and not discuss the issues of extremism within our own societies. And there are some very, very brave people who are standing up and saying there is extremism within our own societies. We do have a problem. We do need to face it. And there is no reason for us to be politically correct amongst ourselves because we all know what's going on.

And, you know, when ISIS first appeared on the scene, there were some very, very loud voices that posed the question, what have we created? In the sense that we've allowed these people who seemed harmless - aggressive, but foolish - to propagate a certain kind of view which was unhappy, frustrated, focused on the war stories, focused on jihad as a way of, you know, spending your life, and we didn't really pay attention to them. But it seems that these people actually managed to create a certain momentum, and so we need to separate out the Islamophobia. It exists and we have a problem with it, but what we can't do is hide behind that and not deal with the real issues that are going on within the faith.

MCEVERS: Omar Saif Ghobash is the ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to Russia. He also sponsors an Arabic literary translation prize and co-founded the international prize for Arabic fiction. Thank you so much for your time today.

GHOBASH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TUNE-YARDS SONG, "POWA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.