I started reading Omar Saif Ghobash’s Letters to a Young Muslim when I was in Los Angeles with my wife over the holiday break. We decorated a small plastic tree and exchanged wrapped gifts. It was the first time either of us had ever done the Christmas thing. We are newlyweds, so we were excited about trying something new together. Neither of us felt less Muslim while hanging ornaments and opening presents, but I was haunted by the thought of it breaking my mother’s heart. She never allowed her children to say the words “merry Christmas” around her.
This all sounds minor, and it is, but it ties into the way I feel whenever news breaks of a terrorist assault on a church in the name of Islam. I understand how alien and unfriendly Christianity can feel to young Muslims. When an entire generation of Muslims is getting inundated with anti-Muslim imagery while being taught only rules and not given the tools to actually study and interpret the Quran, it leaves many young Muslims vulnerable to terrorist groups with evil political goals. This is an uncomfortable truth mostly deflected within Muslim communities. It’s easy to say that monsters don’t and shouldn’t represent us, but what are Muslims doing to protect their children from radicalism?
Letters to a Young Muslim tackles this question over the course of a series of essays framed as letters from Ghobash, a diplomat from the United Arab Emirates, to his young son. Early on in his book, Ghobash opens up about his dawning realization that he wasn’t the only one guiding his son’s spiritual education; his son’s Arabic and religious studies teachers were influencing him, too. Ghobash watched his son’s behavior change as he became more interested in a strict interpretation of Islam. It scared Ghobash so much that it inspired this series of letters—his attempt to steer his son’s understanding of what can make a Muslim vulnerable in today’s political climate. These letters are also a crash course in Islamic history and modern Middle Eastern politics. Ghobash vividly unpacks the effects that the intense negative media imagery associated with Islam can have on a young Muslim. His son, he writes, had become focused on trying to identify who the “good” Muslims were, and he began distancing himself from anyone he deemed to be not religious enough.
For me, reading this hit close to home. During my own Islamic upbringing in the United States, my mother was determined to raise her four children as proper Muslims outside of Egypt, where she was born. We were enrolled in one of those strict private Muslim schools in Jersey City, New Jersey: the kind with separate entrances for boys and girls. “When two people of opposite genders are alone, they are joined by devil” was more a mandate for us than poetic spiritual guidance. That’s just one of the many rules that distinguished us Muslims from everyone else. So when I later enrolled in a public school only a week after 9/11, I kept away from girls entirely.
I imposed the same rules on myself not because I was super religious, but because that’s what I thought being a practicing Muslim was about. I was lazy about praying the five daily prayers, but I felt that eating pork would violate my entire identity. At first I was cautious around my new non-Muslim classmates, but that changed almost immediately. I was the first Muslim any of them had ever met and their friendliness and acceptance challenged my perception of non-Muslims writ large. Watching the news taught me that Americans hated Muslims; why did these students think my religion was cool? They sometimes had silly questions like whether or not I lived in a pyramid or what exactly were women hiding underneath their hijabs, but I made better friends there than I ever had in Islamic school.
In his book, Ghobash is pushing for personal accountability. In his letters, he repeats a theme that is reassuring, if opposite to my experience of the way Islam is taught: There is no one correct interpretation and there never will be, so it’s OK to be uncertain about your beliefs. He presents Islam as an open-ended journey that can lead you down any path of your making. In one of the letters, he tells his son: “Saif, I want you to be aware of the well-constructed path to a closed worldview that will, if followed, lead a person to a dangerous place. It can lead a well-meaning and sincere child to a place of close-minded anger and aggression.” He goes on to say what took me a very long time to learn: “Every young Muslim should demand his or her right to discover the world for himself or herself, using the tools of self-knowledge and self-mastery.” Ghobash also writes that it’s much easier to reject ideals you don’t agree with than it is to work to understand the other side. Whether or not terrorists practice Islam the way we believe it should be practiced, they read the same books we read and are using propaganda to reach out to our children.
Part of what makes these topics so difficult for Muslims to contemplate is that we are constantly defending our religion in the West. With politicians digging for dirt on the global Muslim population in order to justify their own bigotry, there are arguably many issues for Muslims to consider before we are critical of our own communities. I know many Muslims who have been victims of targeted hate and violence. How can we risk fueling the very hate we feel we need to defend ourselves against?
Ghobash recommends against carrying the weight of guilt for atrocities committed by others in the name of God, and instead tries to push for understanding of how bad people continue to use our God for evil. He writes: “It is too easy to say that [terrorists] have nothing to do with us. They speak in Allah’s name. And they do so convincingly. Even if their reading seems warped and out-of-date, it is a reading. It is a reading that has traction, that has popularity. We must react in some way. We must take action.” And his book is an invaluable start to a crucial conversation the global Muslim community needs to have about the violent fringes within our faith—precisely because Ghobash’s personal relationship with his son generally takes precedence over universal exhortations.
The book doesn’t really try to make arguments. Ghobash encourages a search for nuance in a world consumed with a polarizing, partisan us-versus-them mentality. This is not another exhausting cri de coeur about why Muslims deserve sympathy. It’s something more personal and intimate than that: a collection of letters from a father trying to empower his son to challenge an aggressive Islamist movement while simultaneously navigating oversimplified narratives surrounding his religion.
Most chapters start with a heartwarming and sincere habeebie, or darling in English. He repeatedly refers to these letters as a “spiritual guide” for his son after he’s gone. I’m not a father, so while reading this I projected my own parents into the role of Ghobash addressing his son. It made me reflect on the many challenges that come with raising Muslim children in the West. How did my parents protect us from hate until we were old enough to understand it? How in the world did two Egyptian immigrants pull off raising four Muslim children in America? I’d never felt more grateful.
This book is a heartwarming plea from a man hoping to inspire an entire generation of Muslims to reclaim our faith from those who use it to destroy the world and consume hearts with hate. But I wish so much that anyone who self-identifies as anti-Islam would read these letters, too. It’s an incredible guide for anyone hoping to understand the nuanced relationship between extremists and the other 99.9 percent of peaceful Muslims around the world. Ghobash patiently unpacks the kinds of questions Muslims tend to avoid asking to avoid appearing disloyal to their communities or questioning God’s authority. It wasn’t until adulthood that I myself became comfortable asking tough questions about, for instance, Islam’s relationship to homosexuality, apostasy, and abortion. Many Muslims believe the Quran to be a timeless text that can be interpreted to apply to any moment in history. This book is a plea for Muslims to return to the interpretive drawing board, to try and re-understand their religion in the modern world.
My life has changed so much since my high school years, the dawn of my intellectual relationship with Islam, that it feels strange to look back on that time now. I have a diverse group of friends that include Muslims and non-Muslims. My wife and I have nightly debates that challenge the fundamentals of our faith. God plays a much larger role in my life, while my identity has shifted away from being singularly Islamic. But I know one thing: I wish I’d been able to read essays like these earlier on. It took me years to understand the ideas Ghobash lays out so sensitively and clearly. His beautiful book is part peaceful manifesto, part love letter to his son. I felt like he was speaking to me, too.
Letters to a Young Muslim by Omar Saif Ghobash, Picador.