TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest wants to remind his sons and other young Muslims of the duty to think, question and engage constructively with the world, and to understand that we live in a world full of difference and diversity. Omar Saif Ghobash has written a new book in the form of letters to his two sons about embracing moderate Islam and rejecting extremist Islamist expressions of hatred and calls to violence. The book is called "Letters To A Young Muslim."
Ghobash was exposed to political violence when he was 6. His father, the United Arab Emirates First Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, was assassinated, but he wasn't the assassin's intended target. We'll hear what happened a little later. Ghobash followed in his father's footsteps and became a diplomat. He's the UAE's ambassador to Russia. We'll talk about that, too.
Omar Saif Ghobash, welcome to FRESH AIR. So your sons are growing up in an educated, prosperous, internationally-oriented family, yet you're still worried about their exposure to radical Islam. And you're worried about their vulnerability to radical Islam. And you express your concern in your book that your sons have been exposed to certain radicalizing influences...
OMAR SAIF GHOBASH: Sure.
GROSS: ...And you fear that they might be vulnerable. So do you feel like they've been exposed to radical videos or to teachers who want to radicalize them or friends who have become radicalized?
GHOBASH: Well, it's funny - all of those, to be honest. My sons have seen - particularly my older son has seen videos of people being beheaded because they're freely available. I've asked him why he's done it. And he said, look, you know, we all do, everybody sees these videos including his friends at school in England so people who are not even Muslim.
So, you know, the fact that, you know, you can be exposed to this and then it can be put into an Islamic context in a positive manner, it's quite scary. Both of my sons have come back from school complaining about what they'd been taught in religion class or in Arabic lessons. And, again, this is not part of the curriculum, but it is part of the unfortunate impulse of the - a certain mentality.
GROSS: Can you can you be specific about a couple of things they complained about being taught, and where what was the school in which this happened? Was it in the UAE or someplace else?
GHOBASH: No, I mean, schools in the UAE, but, I mean, you know, this applies right across the Arab world, I mean, the questions of anti-Semitism certainly. And this is potentially a conflation between, you know, sort of a position on the Jewish faith and a position on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. And I'm not going to take a position on it, but I think that, you know, you need to be very careful about what you say on these issues. And you can suddenly have a political position, but you shouldn't convert that into some kind of general statement against all people of Jewish faith.
So, I mean, you know, this is a very, very important marker I think for where we're going forward. But then also, you know, the question of nonbelievers in Islam. I mean, you know, this is a very basic kind of category that is propagated today, even though my personal belief is that it should not apply anymore. It's not really relevant, the idea of the insider or the outsider to the faith, friend or foe arguments.
GROSS: What is the insider and outsider reference that you're making?
GHOBASH: Well, who is a Muslim and who isn't? And according to certain traditions, there is a difference in the treatment. Certain traditions would actually tell you, well, you know, the Muslim must not dress like a non-Muslim. So if a non-Muslim decides to wear a certain kind of clothing, well, you shouldn't. You should avoid that kind of clothing.
You might have picked up some of the rhetoric coming out of sermons in Turkey in the run up to this terrible tragedy that took place on New Year's Eve where, you know, nightclubs and a celebration of New Year's was a kind of representation of a foreign religion and that therefore this would - could be looked down upon. That kind of rhetoric of the - what non-Muslims do should be avoided by Muslims is something that I think is very, very destructive. And it's also very distracting because, you know, non-Muslims may be engaged in really fantastic things, really useful things. Does that mean we must avoid those things ourselves? No.
GROSS: You point out that a lot of radical Islam is a way of erasing doubt. Things are clear cut, they're black and white. Here's how you - what you do. Here's how you do it. Here's when you do it. Here's who's on your team. Here's who you attack. And you say that Islam really has to find a way of dealing with doubt and of helping young people deal with doubt because it's - there's a lot of young people who fall under the spell of radical Islam.
So what are some of your thoughts about that, about how Islam can speak to the kind of doubts that we all deal with when trying to make our way through the world, but that particularly young people have to deal with when they're trying to find out who they are and who they're becoming and what their future will be?
GHOBASH: Yeah, doubt, it's a very interesting idea. In the Arabic language and theological kind of discussions and debates that I've witnessed, when doubt is expressed - when the word doubt is used, it generally translates immediately in people's minds to atheists. And there's no kind of middle ground there. There's no discussion as to what you mean by doubt. You're immediately accused of promoting atheism.
When I think of doubt, I think of the simple existential questions that kids face all over the world and even adults, too. But there is this huge weight of public kind of authority that insists that if any doubts as expressed, if questions are posed, then there is a risk that the entire edifice will come down. And so it makes me think sometimes, well, why are we supporting this very brittle intellectual structure of Islam when actually intellectually we could go out, take these doubts on, take all of the questions and really sort of re-express our Islam in a way that is much more robust and ready to deal with, you know, ancient and modern philosophical questions.
GROSS: Is part of the problem you face as an intellectual and, you know, as a diplomat who travels around the world, who speaks four or five languages, that some religions become - or some forms of religion become anti-intellectual? And you could argue that the more literal and fundamentalist some religions become, the more - the less tolerant they become of the kinds of questions and nuance that intellectuals tend to ask.
GHOBASH: The kinds of questions that I ask myself today were the questions that I asked myself when I was 12. And, you know, since I wrote the book I've been spending a bit of time with teenagers and people in the early 20s. And, you know, to be honest, even people of my generation who are saying to me, well, you know, thank you for raising these questions, these are questions that we still haven't really faced ourselves. And when it comes to teenagers today in the Arab world, the ones I've met with over the last few weeks, it's remarkable.
Kids have questions whether it's about dress, identity and very importantly sexuality that are simply not even addressed in a friendly way. I mean, you know, you can differ with all of these - with all the positions that the - these kids want to take, but you can differ with them in a way that is psychologically healthy. Or you can simply destroy their personalities immediately in the name of, you know, ethics and morality. And so I think we are at a kind of a crossroads in the Arab world. It's a crossroads of decades. We are in a situation where we need to be asking questions and yet we keep running away from those questions.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Omar Saif Ghobash and he is the ambassador from the United Arab Emirates to Russia. Now he's the author of the new book "Letters To A Young Muslim." It's a series of letters addressed to his sons about moderate Islam and why it's important to be moderate and to not be radicalized. We're going to take a short break and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Omar Saif Ghobash. He's the author of the new book "Letters To A Young Muslim." It's a series of letters addressed to his two sons about the importance of practicing moderate Islam. And he's also - since 2009, he's been the UAE, the United Arab Emirates, ambassador to Russia. You're a second-generation diplomat. Your father was the minister of state - minister of state for foreign affairs from the UAE.
GROSS: And he was assassinated when you were 6 and he was in his mid-40s, but he was not the assassin's intended target. Can you explain what happened?
GHOBASH: Yes. Yes, I can. My father had been appointed minister of state for foreign affairs, I think it was in 1974. And 1977 comes around. The then foreign minister of Syria had visited the Emirates and was in Abu Dhabi. And so my father was the person who was meant to go with the then foreign minister of Syria to the airport. They walked into the airport and shots rang out or shots were heard. And my father was the only one to be struck. He had, I think - he suffered two shots, one to the shoulder and I believe one to the - one at the aorta leading into his heart.
GROSS: So this was a political assassination. It was the Syrian diplomat who was the intended target. Why - it was a Palestinian, a 19-year-old who pulled the trigger. What was the point? What was the statement he was trying to make? Do you know?
GHOBASH: Again, I can only kind of guess. He was a 19-year-old, as I believe I mention in the book. He was a 19-year-old. And he had been - he'd been born in a refugee camp, as far as I understand. He was a Palestinian. And he had instructions to kill the Syrian foreign minister. The Syrian foreign minister was the foreign minister of the current Syrian president's father, Hafez al-Assad. And, you know, they had taken some very brutal action against Palestinian refugees in Syria. And this was - according to some accounts, this was meant in revenge for that action.
My initial emotions when I began to realize that, you know, my father had been killed by somebody was hatred, anger, the desire for revenge. I - you know, I understand that the man had been executed. He'd been tried and executed after my father's death. I always imagined, well, you know, maybe he wasn't executed. Maybe he's still alive today. Let me try and find him and I will take, you know, vengeance.
But as time went by, I thought to myself, you know, I know - I have a much better understanding of the Arab world today in the 21st century. And I imagine what it could have been like in the 1960s and the 1970s when this young man was growing up. And I - increasingly, I don't feel that he was to blame in a direct sense. I really think that he was a victim himself of circumstances.
And, you know, I think people will be surprised and some people will be upset at this, but I - I almost see my father and this - and his killer on - in a similar way in that they were both victims of a certain set of circumstances in the Arab world, a set of circumstances that I don't believe that we have really challenged or thought about clearly - the continual flow of refugees, the continual kind of political strife that we're suffering, a continual economic misery of a major part of the Arab population. This can only create more violence. It can only create more anger and frustration. And, you know, it - that's what I really think about today. I don't hold any - I mean, you know, I can't forgive the man on my father's behalf, but I can - I can say that I have a very different understanding of that day now.
GROSS: So you cannot blame your father's assassination on the other, on the West, on an apostate...
GROSS: ...You know, someone from outside the Muslim world or outside the Arab world. He was a 19-year-old Palestinian who grew up in a refugee camp. So how did that affect your feelings about people who do want to blame all the troubles in the world, all the troubles in their lives on the other, on the outsider, on the West, on the apostate, on the non-Muslim?
GHOBASH: Yeah, very good question. And actually, that's probably one of the central kind of features of my life. I've always looked for where our responsibility lies. And, you know, we're often, within the Arab world, within certain kind of - within a certain kind of rhetoric, we're always blaming, as you say, the West, now Russia as well.
And, you know, who knows? Maybe one day we'll be blaming China. But the reality is that when Arab kills Arab, there is nobody involved. There is nobody forcing somebody to pull a trigger. These are purely Arab-Muslim interactions.
GROSS: So you grew up a bit of an outsider yourself. Your father is from the UAE, but he did some work in Russia. I forget what the years were. Go ahead.
GHOBASH: It's very interesting. He got a scholarship to study in the Soviet Union and studied in the Soviet Union for four years. And as a result, I have a Russian mother now.
GHOBASH: A wonderful woman.
GROSS: Yes, so your mother's Russian.
GROSS: And she moved with your father to the UAE when he was done with his studies.
GROSS: So she spoke Russian and your father spoke Arabic. And you grew up speaking a little bit of Russian, but you also grew up speaking Arabic and English. Correct me if I'm wrong in any of this.
GHOBASH: Actually, we spoke more Russian than Arabic. We spoke very little Arabic.
GROSS: Oh, OK. OK.
GHOBASH: Yeah. You know, after my father died, our household became kind of an outpost of some kind of Dostoyevskian (ph) life.
GROSS: (Laughter) You've been the UAE's ambassador to Russia since 2009. Russia, under Vladimir Putin, has become more authoritarian. Russia annexed Crimea. Russia has been supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and has been active or complicit in the attacks that Assad has done on the Syrian people. Russia, it seems, has been more focused on attacking militias seen as anti-Assad in Syria rather than directly attacking ISIS. What role have you taken in supporting or objecting to what Putin has been doing?
GHOBASH: Very - very (laughter), very interesting question.
GROSS: You might challenge some of what was said in the lead-up to the question...
GROSS: ...So let me hand it over to you for a comment.
GHOBASH: Yeah, well, the UAE is a small country. It's - even if we threw our weight around, it's not necessarily weight enough to - or heavy enough to actually influence directly the events on the ground. And international crises like the Syrian crisis, diplomats and political figures in the region and I think political figures at the international level are all trying to develop an understanding as events develop. And so at one point, you know, it looks like the main players are the militias on the ground and the Syrian army. And then all of a sudden you think, well, maybe the Turks actually have much more influence than initially seemed to be the case. And then it turns out that the Saudis and the Qataris also have something happening and going on. Then you think, well, maybe this is actually - it has nothing to do with the players on the ground and they are all puppets or proxies in a war of influence between the United States and Russia. And, you know, it's very, very difficult to pin these things down.
For me, to be honest, I think the Syrian question will be a question that I will look at for the rest of my life as an example to really mine in how we communicate and how we treat the massacre of civilians. And it's, you know, it's not something that I have conclusions on other than to say that I have been horrified from the beginning, and I continue to be horrified. But it's enlightening to understand how different parts of the international community operate. Sometimes those who seem to be the moral agents are capable of incredible brutality, and sometimes the monsters are actually pragmatic and ready to resolve a question. So it's - these things are really - if you think that they're not clear cut from the public media, I would say that even behind the scenes it's incredibly opaque.
GROSS: So you represent the UAE in Russia. You are not a diplomat to the U.S., yet I'm sure the election of Donald Trump is going to have an impact on your work and on a good deal of the world. Is it a game changer for you?
GHOBASH: Well, is it a game changer? Well, I suppose it is. We've had eight years of a Democratic administration under Obama. And President Obama has had a very specific kind of approach to our part of the world, very cerebral, very intellectual, sometimes some would say kind of not practical. And I think, you know, in the region - in the Middle East at least and in Russia - we have a kind of an earthier approach to these problems. I think maybe because we're just closer to the problem, maybe because the resolution of these issues have much greater consequences for us. It's not just an academic exercise, it's people, you know, who are who are suffering or who are rebelling against imagined grievances right around us in the entire area.
Russia is also very much a party to the region. I think this is something that my friends at Google told me that 80 percent, I think, of ISIS propaganda is in Arabic, so that concerns the Arab world. The next 12 percent of ISIS propaganda is in Russian. And so when the Russians say that they have an issue with ISIS, they - I can tell you from my eight years in Russia that they genuinely have a problem with ISIS, and they have a problem with radical Islam. And if you think up to 18 percent of Russia is of Muslim origin, then you'll understand that whatever Russia does in the Middle East will have repercussions. And whatever happens in the Middle East will have repercussions directly, you know, from southern Russia all the way up to Moscow and St. Petersburg.
So I think that's something that has always been discounted in the Western press and in Western minds, that Russia is some kind of player - robotic player in the Middle East and for whom there will be no consequences irrespective of action. That's not true. There are some - there are major consequences. And from my perspective, the Russians are playing a very important balancing act between their internal Muslim population and their actions in the region.
GROSS: My guest is Omar Saif Ghobash, author of the new book "Letters To A Young Muslim." He's the United Arab Emirates ambassador to Russia. After a short break, I'll ask him about what Donald Trump has said about Muslims. And we'll listen back to an interview with Huston Smith, a religion scholar who traveled the globe studying the world's great religions. He did a five-part PBS series with Bill Moyers. Smith died Friday. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Omar Saif Ghobash, the author of the new book "Letters To A Young Muslim." It embraces moderate Islam and rejects the hatred and calls to violence of extremist Islamists. Ghobash is the United Arab Emirates ambassador to Russia.
So let me ask you about Donald Trump. He's made some very inflammatory statements about Muslims. He has suggested that there should be a Muslim registry and that all Muslims in the United States would need to register. He has suggested a ban on Muslims coming into the United States. He said during the campaign that he watched thousands and thousands of Muslims cheer in Jersey City, N.J. when the World Trade Center collapsed on 9/11. There's a large Arab population in Jersey City, he said. No evidence was ever found that thousands and thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheered.
So do you have concerns about what it will mean for the Muslim world to have Donald Trump being president of the United States?
GHOBASH: I - well, firstly, I think that, you know, we all know that pre-election campaigning is a time where provocative statements are made. And so, you know, we, I think, in the Arab world - and certainly what I've seen amongst my Russian friends in Moscow is that you need to be very careful not to take what is said in the pre-election campaign as kind of the - a guide to what's going to happen during the presidency.
I think many of us look at President-elect Trump and we think that he is certainly a showman. He's certainly an entrepreneur. He certainly has a lot of courage and guts, to be honest. And nobody can deny that, actually, the entire establishment - the entire political establishment, whether Republican or Democrat - was not in favor of him. And yet, he as a single almost force of nature took the presidency. So this is a commentary also on American politics and the democratic system. So in that sense, you know, American democracy throws up all kinds of interesting characters and interesting challenges for the rest of the world. Our only, I suppose, complaint in the Arab world would be that, you know, we don't have a say in who becomes the U.S. president, and yet we then suffer or benefit from, you know, the actions of that particular president.
Now, I think, also, if I may, the idea of the register, that's very interesting. But I - as far as I understand, there was a register already in place, and it's only just been disbanded by President Obama, I think, that had been set up under George Bush Jr. So I understand that there was a register already in place. And so this shouldn't be a complete surprise. On the other hand, I do think where a president has immense influence is in setting the tone. And I would be hopeful that the tone could be more conducive to integrating the Arab-American Muslim community. Not just Arab-American, but, you know, there are other Muslims of other ethnicities.
GROSS: I think a lot of Muslims in the U.S. are terrified. And I'm - I'll be honest, I'm kind of surprised that you're dismissing what Donald Trump has said about Muslims as pre - you know, as campaign provocations...
GROSS: ...That all politicians engage in. I mean, he's famous for provocative statements all the time. And I think - I'm not sure there's any reason to expect that provocative statements will no longer be made by Donald Trump. But...
GROSS: ...But beyond that, what - how - why are you so comfortable dismissing or playing down the statements he's made about a Muslim registry and about seeing thousands and thousands of Muslims cheer after 9/11, which never - never happened in New Jersey, about a possible ban on Muslims entering the United States? I mean, I think that's having a really chilling effect on a lot of Muslims in the U.S.
GHOBASH: Well, I think here, also - you know, I'm not dismissing this entirely, but I do think that I want to see and we all want to see what Trump will do as president. I do know - and I've - you know, I've got friends who are Muslims who are Americans who are expressing various degrees of fear and a lack of comfort. But, you know, if I look at the history of American society, there have been other communities who have also been targeted or persecuted or marginalized throughout the decades. And I think, actually, this is a great time for the Muslim community.
And again, I'm not an American, so I - so people may get upset that I'm pontificating on this. But I would say that this is a great time to actually ally yourselves with the other communities and minorities in the U.S. who are in the same fight. And, you know, when democracy has been promoted across the Arab world, we've always been given this understanding. But, you know, the United States Constitution is really a remarkable document. The founding fathers had this kind of wisdom that a demagogue could never come to power. And if a demagogue did happen to come to power, well, the power was sort of distributed in such ways that there was no way in which, you know, a demagoguery could be permitted.
And so all of a sudden when a man like Trump comes to take the presidency, there's this tremendous amount of doubt within American society. Well - so, I mean, that makes me wonder - am I now standing with the Constitution more than the typical American commentator? So I'm not dismissing his statements. I'm not dismissing them. But I'm saying that I believe as an outsider that the institutions, the laws, the potential of the United States allows for these kinds of fears to be accommodated.
But I think that, you know, the poor Mexicans were denounced right at the start. And I think that they're a great group of people to sort of ally - ally with immediately. And the history of anti-Semitism as well, going back to the '50s and earlier, and the potential kind of rise of anti-Semitism today is another great opportunity to ally with our Jewish friends. So I - what I say as a Muslim is that yes, absolutely, you know, it is a worrying time. But at the same time, you know, this is a wonderful country where you have all of these possibilities.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Omar Saif Ghobash. He's the author of a new book called "Letters To A Young Muslim." It's a group of letters he wrote addressed to his sons about the importance of moderate Islam. He's also the UAE ambassador to Russia, the United Arab Emirates ambassador to Russia. We're going to take a short break here and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Omar Saif Ghobash. He's the author of the new book "Letters To A Young Muslim." It's a series of letters addressed to his sons about the importance of moderate Islam. And Ghobash is also the United Arab Emirates ambassador to Russia.
In dealing with the American democracy, the U.S. intelligence agencies have said that the Russians are behind hacking the Democratic National Committee's emails and Hillary Clinton's campaign manager John Podesta's emails and that their intentions are either to just, like, mess with the democratic system, or some of the intelligence agencies say their intention was directly to elect Donald Trump. So how is that resonating in your diplomatic circles within Russia where you're working?
GHOBASH: Well, you know, I was - I expected, as many people who are outside of Russia expected, for Russians to be overjoyed that, you know, somebody like Trump - rather that Trump had been elected. Well, actually I found that there was a tremendous amount of caution. You know, the Russians look at the U.S. presidency also as one of the institutions of the U.S. government in the state. And so they, I think, maybe discount the influence of any one particular individual, even if that individual is the president. And so they see a set of very, very solid and deeply rooted interests that govern the way that the U.S. deals with the rest of the world. So, you know, my Russian friends are cautious. I wouldn't even say optimistic, to be honest. They're neither optimistic nor pessimistic. They're waiting for the inauguration and they're waiting for, you know, the practical consequences of the election of Donald Trump.
GROSS: I don't know if you can answer this, but do your Russian friends think that Russia interfered with our election?
GHOBASH: (Laughter) Some do, some don't and some say even if they did that it would be - it should be seen in the same kind of way as what they regarded as U.S. interference in Russia's election - from supporting various NGOs, supporting, you know, corruption campaigners and so on. It's interesting, but most of the people I've spoken to who are within, you know, sort of positions of power in Russia don't really focus on the source of the hacking. They really focus on the content that was hacked. And they think that actually the attention should be there.
GROSS: Oh, that's what Republicans are saying, too. But if you just hack one side of the election and only release negative emails, that's definitely influencing the election. There was this, like, negative emails being released, like, every day for a while toward the end of the election and nothing comparable happening from Republicans. I'm not recommending that Republicans should have been hacked, but it was certainly a one-sided hack. And that likely had some effect on the election. Not necessarily the determining factor, but, you know, perhaps it was.
GHOBASH: You know, again, I wouldn't be able to say. I don't know. Yeah, it's a difficult one.
GHOBASH: I don't want to be seen to - if you don't mind, I don't want to be seen to be trying to defend a so-called Russian position. I don't know if they did hack. I know they have good hackers. I know a lot of different countries have good hackers. But, you know, I - for me, it's difficult to think that they would actually do that because of the consequences, the potential consequences.
GROSS: I'm thinking it's maybe a difficult time to be an ambassador to Russia.
GHOBASH: (Laughter) Yeah.
GROSS: That was a yes (laughter)?
GHOBASH: I think it's an interesting time.
GROSS: OK. An interesting time to be an ambassador to Russia. Can I ask you just one more thing?
GHOBASH: Yeah, sure.
GROSS: Do you ever feel in jeopardy for speaking out against radical Islam? Does that make you a target? Are you seen as an apostate?
GHOBASH: It's interesting. I'm beyond worrying about that. I think that - this goes back to my - again, I'm so attached to my father's life in a certain way. But when I reached the age that he died at, I felt that, you know, I had an extra lease on life and that I should use this to make certain things clear. I also believe that, you know, what I've said in my book and the way I speak out can be misinterpreted if you - if that's what somebody wants. And it can be used against me, certainly. And I expect certain people to do that.
But at the same time, I am hoping to reach out to a bunch of young people who are idealistic, who have energy and who hopefully will be able to see that there is at least a certain kind of framework that they can either sort of use to think about or to build on or to completely scrap and build in a different manner.
I think that, for me, is more important than any fear of radical Islam taking - radical Islamists taking action against me. For me, it's I suppose a cost benefit analysis. I think the world will be better off. I think Muslims will be better off. I think young people will have a better chance if they look at the world through a slightly different lens. And I hope to have provided at least some way towards doing that.
GROSS: Omar Saif Ghobash, thank you so much.
GHOBASH: Thank you.
GROSS: Omar Saif Ghobash is the author of the new book, "Letters to a Young Muslim." He's the United Arab Emirates ambassador to Russia. After we take a short break, we'll listen back to an excerpt of my interview with religion scholar Huston Smith. He died Friday. He traveled the globe studying the world's great religions. He incorporated practices from different religions into his own spiritual life. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Huston Smith became a Methodist minister with the intention of becoming a missionary like his parents. But instead of spreading his religion around the world, he found his true calling by traveling the world studying different religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism and Hinduism. He said that religions at their best are the world's wisdom traditions. He wrote the 1958 book "The Religions Of Man" and its abridged 1991 edition, "The World's Religions," which were used as textbooks and together sold more than 3 million copies. Smith died last Friday at the age of 97.
We're going to hear an excerpt of the interview we recorded in 1996, just before the premiere of the five-part Bill Moyers PBS series, "The Wisdom Of Faith With Huston Smith." Smith was telling me about how he'd incorporated practices from different religions into his own spiritual life, including saying Islamic prayers in Arabic five times a day and practicing yoga from the Hindu tradition.
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HUSTON SMITH: I want to say something. Mine has been a rather peculiar history, and I don't want to leave the impression that one is in any way spiritually ahead because of this kind of incorporation. I liked what a teacher in India once said to me. If you are drilling for water, it's better to drill one 60-foot well than 10 6-foot wells. And generally speaking, I think a kind of smorgasbord cafeteria, choosing from here and there is not productive. So I would not at all put what's happened, I feel, to be feasible for me in any way ahead of where I might be if I had devoted my entire spiritual exercises to Christianity.
GROSS: I know at some point - I think this is when you were still a student, but maybe it was after that - I know you went and studied in a Zen monastery for a while and studied Zen koan. I want you to explain to our listeners what Zen koans are and how they're used in the process of seeking enlightenment or meditation.
SMITH: Right. The word translated, koan, it means a problem. But it's a very special problem. And to strip it down to the way it works, you are given a problem which has no rational solution. There is a contradiction built into it. One standard - one is this is the sound of two hands clapping. What is the sound of one hand clapping? And so on. All right, so the first thing is that it brings your rational mind to an impasse. They use the example of a rat cornered by a cat just flinging itself against the wall not because of any hope, but what else are you going to do? And then by a variety of supplementing techniques - one of them is sitting in this full lotus position for hours on end, absolutely motionless, thinking about your problem, but your problem up against the wall. And then the hardest for me was the sleep deprivation.
GROSS: Now, would it be violating a trust or privacy or anything to ask you what your koan was? Is that something you're not supposed to say?
SMITH: No, I will tell you. In the monastery you're admonished not to gossip about your koan and your training. But I'm out of that context, and my roshi never told me I couldn't. My beginning koan, a little bit longer, a monk asked Joshu - he was a master back in China - does a dog have a Buddha nature? To which Joshu replied, moo. Now, I have to...
GROSS: (Laughter) These cows are always so inscrutable (laughter).
SMITH: Well, the - my roshi gave me a couple of hints. Now, he said by a Buddha nature that's something like a soul. And by moo - in China, it would have been mu - but that means a kind of a negative. So the problem you have is that here is this famous master who said that a dog does not have a soul. But everyone would note that the Buddha said even grass has a soul. So here is a dog, higher on the scale of being than grass. How can it be that grass has a soul and a dog doesn't? So you lock in to that and come back with all kinds of answers and they're all rejected and so on until it did work, in my case. I didn't - right up to two days before the end. But - do you want me to tell you?
SMITH: Yeah. Well, what happened was that by that time I was at the end of my tether. I was just at my wit's end. I was in a state. Call it psychotic, whatever you want. But there was a huge rage underlying it all. And I went in one afternoon because part of the training is this one-on-one with the roshi. And I remember I went storming into his prison determined not just to throw in the towel, but to throw it right in his face. I thought, this is inhuman. And he said, how's it going?
SMITH: It sounded like a taunt to me. And so I just let him have it. I just shouted, terrible. And he said, you think you're going to get sick, don't you? Again, a taunt. And again, I just let him have it. Yes, I think I'm going to get sick. At that time, my throat was closing in on me, so I just really had to work to breathe. And then all of a sudden, his manner changed completely. And with absolute objectivity, he said matter-of-factly, what is sickness? What is health? Both are distractions. Put them both aside and go forward. Now, what I despair of conveying to you was the effect of those two sentences on me because I had been storming in beside myself in this rage, and with those few words he defused my anger completely. I can still remember my immediate response was, well, by God, he's right. And you see, this is a solving of the koan not with the rational mind. I still - (laughter) I have no idea why Joshu said that about the dog. But you see, it brings together the opposite. Sickness and health the same? Not in this life. Not in this world. I see those as diametric opposites. But I could bring those opposites together and truly affirm with the whole of my being that the opposites of life do coalesce in a resolution.
GROSS: So the Zen koan finally was not something that you were expected to have a solution to.
SMITH: No. By the way, there are about 700 in the whole course of training, and they function in different ways along the way. There are some that have rational answers.
SMITH: But the first koan do not have rational answers. They are techniques devised over the millennia for triggering an actual experience.
GROSS: Do you think of yourself as a Methodist now? You grew up, again, you know, with Methodist missionary parents in China. You've been around the world studying traditions of the world. If I asked you if you're a Methodist, what would you say?
SMITH: My answer is that I have a body and I have a soul. And my body belongs to the faith - in fact, the church - into which it was born, the Methodist Church. And let me just enter a small parenthesis. That was a very good experience with the Christian tradition for me. Many of my students, they're - I have come to call them wounded Christians or wounded Jews, meaning that what came through to them from their traditions was two things - dogmatism - we've got the truth, everybody else is going to hell - and moralism - don't do this, don't do that.
To me, it was very different. What came through was we're in good hands and then gratitude for that fact. It would be good if we bore one another's burdens. And in all my globe circling, I still haven't come upon anything that tops that. All right, I've talked about my body. It was born into the - baptized in the Methodist church, and it will be buried in the Methodist Church. Meanwhile, I have a soul. And my soul cannot be confined to any human institution.
GROSS: Religion scholar Huston Smith died Friday at the age of 97. Our interview was recorded in 1996.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be the writer and director of the new movie musical "La La Land," Damien Chazelle. The film stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, has been nominated for seven Golden Globes and was named Best Film of the Year by the New York Film Critics Circle. I hope you'll join us. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANOTHER DAY IN THE SUN")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) I think about that day I left him at a Greyhound station west of Sante Fe. We were 17, but he was sweet and it was true. Still I did what I had to do 'cause I just knew. Summer Sunday nights we'd sink into our seats right as they dimmed out all the lights. A Technicolor world made out of music and machine, it called me to be on that screen...
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