The Battle for the Soul of British Islam: Can Muslims Renew Their Contract with the West?

By Wazir, Burhan | New Statesman (1996), March 24, 2017 | Go to article overview

The Battle for the Soul of British Islam: Can Muslims Renew Their Contract with the West?


Wazir, Burhan, New Statesman (1996)


Letters to a Young Muslim

Omar Saif Ghobash

Picador, 245pp, 16.99 [pounds sterling]

The Battle for British Islam: Reclaiming Muslim Identity from Extremism

Sara Khan with Tony McMahon

Saqi Books, 256pp, 14.99 [pounds sterling]

The Enemy Within: a Tale of Muslim Britain

Sayeeda Warsi

Allen lane, 416pp. 2.0 [pounds sterling]

Fresh arrivals to any country feel blind and weakened: they seek jobs, housing and familiarity. Newcomers yearn for memories of their old nation state--Italian olive oil, south Indian dosas or Turkish kanafeh. Laws that appear foreign, and values that were never particularly strong at home, are slowly adopted through experience and navigation. Faith provides a shelter from tumultuous change.

In recent years, in no regard has the narrative about immigration and values proved more volcanic than in addressing the role of Muslims. Three new books attempt to cast a light on modern Islam's contract with the West. Letters to a Young Muslim is a collection of missives written by the United Arab Emirates ambassador to Russia to his elder son, Saif, now aged 16. The author, Omar Saif Ghobash, was six years old when his own father, the UAE's first foreign minister, was shot and killed by a teenage Palestinian assassin at Abu Dhabi International Airport in 1977. The intended target was the Syrian president Hafez al-Assad's foreign minister, who was visiting the UAE; the 19-year-old gunman was later executed.

Ghobash's book is part memoir and part instructional guide to the liberal values he would like to see flourish in conservative Islamic societies. He gives special prominence to educated imams, higher education and a greater tolerance of antithetical views. In the 40th-anniversary year of his father's death, Letters to a Young Muslim is also a synthesis of grief and purpose. As he writes, "For me ... it has been impossible to leave my father behind. I have carried his memory with me through the years, always imagining what he might have said to me, or done in my place."

Like many formally educated religionists, Ghobash sees faith in all contexts. The book is informed by his experiences during the Gulf's oil-led boom of the 1980s, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and the permanent wars after the 11 September 2001 attacks, including the regional turmoil caused by the Arab spring in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere. His tone is patriarchal and diplomatic, occasionally hopeful, but also resigned to disappointment when he writes of the unfamiliar world before him and the challenges his children will inherit.

In the years since Ghobash's childhood, the borders beyond Abu Dhabi's golden shores have grown knotted and violent with failing regimes, joblessness and war. For much of the 1970s and 1980s, the newly independent United Arab Emirates existed in relatively uncomplicated isolation, relying on trade links with Asia for food and services. Emirati life was conservative but informal. Tribes moved between cities and the desert in summer and winter. Families spent weekends fishing and drinking sweet tea in the souk in the evenings. Men drove to Iraq and Jordan to practise falconry and enjoy camel racing.

Much of the security and free movement enjoyed by Ghobash's generation has disappeared in his lifetime. He offers some social statistics that are symptomatic of the decay. Seventy per cent of Muslims globally are illiterate and 8.6 million Arabs are not enrolled in primary or secondary school, including five million girls. The unemployment rate is equally dire: roughly 28 per cent of the 100 million Arabs who are between the ages of 15 and 29. Out of several hundred Arab universities in the Middle East, not one was included in the top 200 of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for 2016-2017.

While Ghobash presents Islam as a guiding set of principles, he concedes that its interpretation, put into the wrong hands, is open to abuse. …

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