I remember when you realized that you were a Muslim. You were tiny. You were sweet and round and friendly. It was at an event at school. Your schools so far have been English-language curriculum schools, and the student body came from more than 100 nationalities. One day the students had to identify their religion, and you came back “aware” of your religious identity. You took this identity very seriously. You began to ask me what you “had to do” to be a Muslim. I explained as best as I could the simple steps of knowing that the big Guy in the sky, who created the world, was really called Allah, and that hundreds of years ago, he had sent us his Messenger Mohammed with the Quran. I told you that we prayed five times a day, and I reminded you of Ramadan, when we would not eat all day until the evening.
Soon you were coming back from school telling me what I had to do to be a “good Muslim.” It seems your Arabic teacher and his colleague, your religious studies teacher, had a better idea of what being a Muslim meant. You became a little aggressive, and I began to realize that your mother and I were not the only ones bringing you up. I saw that we had competition for your attention. I panicked a little. I had images of you running away to Syria to fight in a war where people would exploit your good nature. I imagined you cutting yourself off from us, your family, because we were not strict enough Muslims according to the standards that you had picked up from these so-called teachers of yours. I had the urge to go to your school and punch them and tell them they had no right to teach you these things.
Instead, I spoke to your mother repeatedly and at length. She is seven years younger than me and grew up three streets away from where I lived with my siblings. Unlike me, both her parents are from the same town in the Emirates—Al Ain. Her upbringing was more uniformly Arab and Muslim than mine could have been, given that my mother is Russian and descended from Orthodox clergymen. Your mother had also been through similar experiences. I know because we had gone to the same school. It was not that we were taught to hate groups of people in a formal way. It was the offhand comments that a teacher would make, or the playground gossip about the Jews or the Shia sect of Islam. The assumption was that you could condemn people you had never met, and who had themselves never done anything wrong. Your mother was, and is, adamant, as am I, that we are not going to let our children be educated to hate.
One by one, we spoke to you about the people you were “meant to hate.” There was no reason to hate anyone. There is no reason to react to the world around you with hatred. You have to understand that someone has made the choice for you when they say you have to hate. The choice is yours and the only way you can make the world a better place is by doing the opposite of hating. It is by loving. It was not easy to change your mind. Your teachers had done a good job. This made us more determined than ever to win you back. Eventually, you came back to us and decided that hatred was unnecessary and unfair. In fact, hatred is many more things.
Recently, I celebrated my 43rd birthday. I had been waiting for this particular birthday for a long time. From the age of 19. Both years were of immense importance to me as I grew up and matured. As you know, your grandfather Saif, my father, was killed in a terrorist attack in 1977. My father was 43 when he died. When I was your age, I used to think that forty-three was a big number. Now that I have passed forty-three, I feel that life is only just beginning for me. Before I go on, let me tell you why 19 was also such an important birthday for me. When I was 12, I discovered that the man who killed my father was 19 when he did what he did. Nineteen. When I was 12 I asked myself whether I would be able to kill a man when I turned 19. I waited for the day and then I asked myself the question. The answer was no. No way. Not in a million years could I lift a gun or a rifle and shoot another man. I felt like I was still a 12-year-old.
I looked forward to the age of 43, and I knew I would ask myself whether I could imagine my life ending at 43. When my birthday came, I felt the horror of having barely scratched life. I remember thinking how little time I had spent with you. I thought back to my father and imagined the horror he must have felt as he realized that his life was slipping away from him. My siblings and I, your uncles and aunt, were all under the age of 10 when your grandfather died. I look at you and I know how much more time I spend with you because of this fear, and even this is not enough.
I want to give you some of the love and guidance that I wish my father had been able to give me when I was your age and older.I do not want you to learn the most important lessons in life from people who do not love you as I love you. I want you to hear the lessons from the person who loves you most. If you think that I worry too much about you, know that I worry only about you.
I want you to know about the things I believe after more than thirty years of thinking about my father’s death. His death forced me to try to answer a bunch of difficult questions; it shaped the way in which I view the world.
I want you to know that the questions you face, and the solutions you find, or are presented with, are solutions that many of us were faced with as well.
Excerpted from Letters to a Young Muslim copyright © 2017 by Omar Saif Ghobash. First hardcover edition published Jan. 3, 2017, by Picador. All rights reserved.
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