How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Saif, the elder of my two sons, was born in December 2000. In the summer of 2001, my wife and I brought him with us on a visit to New York City. I remember carrying him around town in a sling on my chest. A few days after we got back home to Dubai, we watched the terrible events of 9/11 unfold on CNN. As it became clear that the attacks had been carried out by jihadist terrorists, I came to feel a new sense of responsibility toward my son, beyond the already intense demands of parenthood. I wanted to open up areas of thought, language, and imagination in order to show him—and to show myself and all my fellow Muslims—that the world offers so much more than the twisted fantasies of extremists. I’ve tried to do this for the past 15 years. The urgency of the task has seemed only to grow, as the world has become ever more enmeshed in a cycle of jihadist violence and Islamophobia.
Today, I am the ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to Russia, and I try to bring to my work an attitude of openness to ideas and possibilities. In that spirit, I have written a series of letters to Saif, with the intention of opening his eyes to some of the questions he is likely to face as he grows up, and to a range of possible answers. I want my sons and their generation of Muslims to understand how to be faithful to Islam and its deepest values while charting a course through a complex world. I want them to discover through observation and thought that there need be no conflict between Islam and the rest of the world. I want them to understand that even in matters of religion, there are many choices that we must make. I want my sons’ generation of Muslims to realize that they have the right—and the obligation—to think about and to decide what is right and what is wrong, what is Islamic and what is peripheral to the faith.
How should you and I take responsibility for our lives as Muslims? Surely, the most important thing is to be a good person. And if we are good people, then what connection could there be between us and those who commit acts of terrorism, claiming to act in the name of Islam?
Many Muslims protest against and publicly condemn such crimes. Others say that the violent extremists who belong to groups such as the Islamic State (or ISIS) are not true Muslims. “Those people have nothing to do with Islam,” is their refrain. To my ears, this statement does not sound right. It seems like an easy way of not thinking through some difficult questions.
Although I loathe what the terrorists do, I realize that according to the minimal entry requirements for Islam, they are Muslims. Islam demands only that a believer affirm that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is his messenger. Violent jihadists certainly believe this. That is why major religious institutions in the Islamic world have rightly refused to label them as non-Muslims, even while condemning their actions. It is too easy to say that jihadist extremists have nothing to do with us. Even if their readings of Islamic Scripture seem warped and out of date, they have gained traction. What worries me is that as the extremists’ ideas have spread, the circle of Muslims clinging to other conceptions of Islam has begun to shrink. And as it has shrunk, it has become quieter and quieter, until only the extremists seem to speak and act in the name of Islam.
We need to speak out, but it is not enough to declare in public that Islam is not violent or radical or angry, that Islam is a religion of peace. We need to take responsibility for the Islam of peace. We need to demonstrate how it is expressed in our lives and the lives of those in our community.
I am not saying that Muslims such as you and I should accept blame for what terrorists do. I am saying that we can take responsibility by demanding a different understanding of Islam. We can make clear, to Muslims and non-Muslims, that another reading of Islam is possible and necessary. And we need to act in ways that make clear how we understand Islam and its operation in our lives. I believe we owe that to all the innocent people, both Muslim and non-Muslim, who have suffered at the hands of our coreligionists in their misguided extremism.
Taking that sort of responsibility is hard, especially when many people outside the Muslim world have become committed Islamophobes, fearing and even hating people like you and me, sometimes with the encouragement of political leaders. When you feel unjustly singled out and attacked, it is not easy to look at your beliefs and think them through, especially in a public way. Words and ideas are slippery and can easily slide out of your control. You may be certain of your beliefs about something today, only to wake up with doubts tomorrow. To admit this in today’s environment is risky; many Muslims are leery of acknowledging any qualms about their own beliefs. But trust me: it is entirely normal to wonder whether you really got something right.
Some of the greatest scholars of Islam went through periods of confusion and doubt. Consider the philosopher and theologian Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, who was born in Persia in the eleventh century and has been hugely influential in Islamic thought. His works are treasured today, but during his own lifetime, he was so doubtful about many things that he withdrew from society for a decade. He seemed to have experienced a spiritual crisis. Although we don’t know much about what troubled him, it’s clear that he was unsure and even fearful. But the outcome of his period of doubt and self-imposed isolation was positive: Ghazali, who until then had been esteemed as a scholar of orthodox Islam, brought Sufism, a spiritual strain of Islam, into the mainstream. He opened up Islamic religious experience to spiritualism and poetry, which at that time many considered foreign to the faith.
Today, some of our fellow Muslims demand that we accept only ideas that are Muslim in origin—namely, ideas that appear in the Koran, the early dictionaries of the Arabic language, the sayings of the Prophet, and the biographies of the Prophet and his Companions. Meanwhile, we must reject foreign ideas such as democracy, they maintain. Confronted with more liberal views, which present discussion, debate, and consensus building as ancient Islamic traditions, they contend that democracy is a sin against Allah’s power, against his will, and against his sovereignty. Some extremists are even willing to kill in defense of that position.
But do such people even know what democracy is? I don’t think so. In fact, from reading many of their statements, it is clear that they have little understanding of how people can come together to make communal decisions. The government that I represent is a monarchy, but I feel no need to condemn proponents of democratic reform as heretics. I might not always agree with them, but their ideas are not necessarily un-Islamic.
As extremist ideas have spread, the circle of Muslims clinging to other conceptions of Islam has begun to shrink.
Another “foreign” practice that causes a great deal of concern to Muslims is the mixing of the sexes. Some Muslim-majority countries mandate the separation of the sexes in schools, universities, and the workplace. (In our own country, most public primary and secondary schools are single sex, as are some universities.) Authorities in these countries present such rules as being “truly Islamic” and argue that they solve the problem of illicit relationships outside of marriage. Perhaps that’s true. But research and study of such issues—which is often forbidden—might show that no such effect exists.
And even if rigorous sex separation has some benefits, what are the costs? Could it be that it leads to psychological confusion and turmoil for men and women alike? Could it lead to an inability to understand members of the opposite sex when one is finally allowed to interact with them? Governments in much of the Muslim world have no satisfactory answers to those questions, because they often don’t bother to ask them.
MEN AND WOMEN
You have been brought up in a household where women—including your mother—are strong, educated, focused, and hard-working. If someone suggested to you that men are somehow more valuable or more talented than women, you would scratch your head. But when I was your age, the sermons that I heard at mosque taught that women were inherently inferior. Men were strong, intelligent, and emotionally stable—natural breadwinners. Women were appendages: objects to be cared for but not to be taken seriously.
That view of women persists in parts of the Muslim world—and, in fairness, in many other places, as well. It is certainly not the only possible view of women afforded by Islam, but it is a powerful belief, and one that enjoys a great deal of political, legal, and financial support.
I am proud that your mother and your aunts are all educated and work in professions that they chose. Doing so has hardly stopped any of them from raising families and taking care of their husbands—the roles demanded by conservative readings of Islamic texts. The women in your life defy the strict traditionalist view, which presents women as fundamentally passive creatures whom men must protect from the ravages of the world. That belief is sometimes self-fulfilling: in many Muslims communities, men insist that women are unable to face the big, wild world, all the while depriving women of the basic rights and skills they would need in order to do so.
Other traditionalists base their position on women on a different argument, one that is rarely discussed openly, especially in front of non-Muslims, because it is a bit of a taboo. It boils down to this: if women were mobile, and independent, and working with men who were not family members, then they might develop illicit romantic or even sexual relationships. Of course, that is a possibility. But such relationships also develop when a woman lives in a home where she is given little love and self-respect. And all too often, women are punished for such relationships, whereas the men involved escape censure—an unacceptable inconsistency.
This traditionalist position is based, ultimately, on a desire to control women. But women do not need to be controlled; they need to be trusted and respected. We trust and respect our sisters, our mothers, our daughters, and our aunts; we must provide the same trust and respect to other women. If we did, perhaps we would not witness so many cases of sexual harassment and exploitation in the Muslim world.
Saif, I want you to see that there is nothing written in stone that places Muslim women below Muslim men. Treating women as inferior is not a religious duty; it is simply a practice of patriarchal societies. Within the Islamic tradition, there are many models of how Muslim women can live and be true to their faith. There are Muslim women, for example, who have looked into the origins of the hijab (the traditional veil that covers the head and hair) and have concluded that there is no hard-and-fast rule requiring them to wear it—let alone a rule requiring them to wear a burqa or a niqab, which both cover far more. Many men have come to the same conclusion. Islam calls on women to be modest in their appearance, but veiling is actually a pre-Islamic tradition.
The limits placed on women in conservative Muslim societies, such as mandatory veiling, or rules limiting their mobility, or restrictions on work and education, have their roots not in Islamic doctrine but rather in men’s fear that they will not be able to control women—and their fear that women, if left uncontrolled, will overtake men by being more disciplined, more focused, more hard-working.
ISLAM AND THE STATE
You will inevitably come across Muslims who shake their heads at the state of affairs in the Islamic world and mutter, “If only people were proper Muslims, then none of this would be happening.” I have heard this lament so many times. People say it when criticizing official corruption in Muslim countries and when pointing out the alleged spread of immorality. Others say it when promoting various forms of Islamic rule. The most famous iteration of this expression is the slogan “Islam Is the Solution,” which has been used by the Muslim Brotherhood and many other Islamist groups.
It’s a brilliant slogan. Lots of people believe in it. (When I was younger, I believed in it wholeheartedly.) The slogan is a shorthand for the argument that all the most glorious achievements in Islamic history—the conquests, the empires, the knowledge production, the wealth—occurred under some system of religious rule. Therefore, if we want to revive this past glory in the modern era, we must reimpose such a system. This argument holds that if a little Islam is good, then more Islam must be even better. And if more Islam is better, then complete Islam must be best.
The most influential proponent of that position today is ISIS, with its unbridled enthusiasm for an all-encompassing religious state, or caliphate. It can be difficult to argue against that position without seeming to dispute the nature of Islam’s origins: the Prophet Muhammad was, after all, not only a religious leader but a political one, too. And the Islamist argument rests on the inexorable logic of extreme faith: if we declare that we are acting in Allah’s name, and if we impose the laws of Islam, and if we ensure the correct mental state of the Muslim population living in a chosen territory, then Allah will intervene to solve all our problems. The genius of this proposition—whether it is articulated by the fanatical jihadists of ISIS or the more subtle theocrats of the Muslim Brotherhood—is that any difficulties or failures can be attributed to the people’s lack of faith and piety. Leaders need not fault themselves or their policies; citizens need not question their values or customs.
But piety will take us only so far, and relying entirely on Allah to provide for us, to solve our problems, to feed and educate and clothe our children, is to take Allah for granted. The only way we can improve the lot of the Muslim world is by doing what people elsewhere have done, and what Muslims in earlier eras did, in order to succeed: educate ourselves and work hard and engage with life’s difficult questions rather than retreat into religious obscurantism.
THE MUSLIM INDIVIDUAL
At school, at the mosque, and in the news, you have probably heard a lot about the Arab nation, the Arab street, the rightly guided people, and the Islamic ummah. But have you ever heard people talk about the Muslim individual or about Muslim individualism? Probably not—and that is a problem.
The Prophet spoke about the ummah, or the Muslim community. In the seventh century, that made sense. Out of nothing, Muhammad had built a large group of followers; at some stage, it became big enough to be referred to as a distinct entity. But the concept of the ummah has allowed self-appointed religious authorities to speak in the name of all Muslims without ever asking the rest of us what we think. The idea of an ummah also makes it easier for extremists to depict Islam—and all of the world’s Muslims—as standing in opposition to the West, or to capitalism, or to any number of other things. In that conception of the Muslim world, the individual’s voice comes second to the group’s voice.
We have been trained over the years to put community ahead of individuality. That is why it sounds odd to even speak of “the Muslim individual.” The phrase itself sounds almost unnatural to me, as though it refers to a category that doesn’t exist—at least in the worldview that Muslims have long been encouraged to embrace.
There is no need to return to a glorious past in order to build a glorious future.
I don’t want that to be the case for you and your generation. Dialogue and public debate about what it means to be an individual in the Muslim world would allow us to think more clearly about personal responsibility, ethical choices, and the respect and dignity that attaches to people rather than to families, tribes, or sects. It might lead us to stop insisting solely on our responsibilities to the ummah and start considering our responsibilities to ourselves and to others, whom we might come to see not as members of groups allegedly opposed to Islam but rather as individuals. Instead of asking one another about family names and bloodlines and sects, we might decide to respect one another as individuals regardless of our backgrounds. We might begin to more deeply acknowledge the outrageous number of people killed in the Muslim world in civil wars and in terrorist attacks carried out not by outsiders but by other Muslims. We might memorialize these people not as a group but as individuals with names and faces and life stories—not to deify the dead but rather to recognize our responsibility to preserve their honor and dignity, and the honor and dignity of those who survive them.
In this way, the idea of the Muslim individual might help us improve how we discuss politics, economics, and security. If you and other members of your generation start looking at yourselves as individuals first and foremost, perhaps you will build better societies. You might take hold of your fates and take hold of your lives in the here and now, recognizing that there is no need to return to a glorious past in order to build a glorious future. Our personal, individual interests might not align with those of the patriarch, the family, the tribe, the community, or the state. But the embrace of each Muslim’s individuality will lead to a rebalancing in the Islamic world in favor of more compassion, more understanding, and more empathy. If you accept the individual diversity of your fellow Muslims, you are more likely to do the same for those of other faiths, as well.
Muslims can and should live in harmony with the diversity of humanity that exists outside of our faith. But we will struggle to do so until we truly embrace ourselves as individuals.