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Religion and Society

Christians and Muslims. The responsibilities of a shared world.

In the shade of a large tree Prince El Hassan bin Talal waits patiently for the many questions that will be posed to him by Oasis. In this large and Spartan garden we can hear the muffled sound of the city around us Amman, the lively capital city of an Arab world that is in movement, makes plans, and does not settle for the way things are. The Prince is a man of very broad interests and a very large series of friendships, acquaintances and contacts: one of those very rare people who always keep the doors to their thinking open.



In the introduction to your book, Christianity in the Arab World, you write 'This book expresses a Muslim Arab leader's appreciation of Arab Christians'. Further on you pay tribute to Christians. This mightseem strange to Western readers accustomed asthey are to the equation of the Arab world withIslam. Why do you believe Christians are so important for the Arab world?



Well, I would go back to the progression of history. Let me make it very clear that in terms of the recognition of superior, ultimate truths, 3,000 years before the monotheistic religions you find the parables in cuneiform, maybe not with the same names, but essentially you have Job, you have Jonah, you even have Genesis. Of course it is in the nature of the Faiths that they do not focus on these realities that predated the revelations that brought about monotheism, but even in Ercolano you find Philodemus of Godara, which is just up the road from here, who developed Epicureanism, which as we know focused on the inner recognition of the ultimate being.



So I would like to say that people from this part of the world, within the context of Byzantium, took naturally to Christianity and Christian revelation. Christians before Islam remained Christian after Islam. And when we say Arab, incidentally, one of the reasons why I wrote the book is that I wanted to dispel the stereotype that 'Arab means exclusively Muslim'. So if you look at the Christian tribes that remained Christian, you have the Hassan, the Lachem and many others. These are still tribes in the context of our eastern Arab world at the present time. Actually, at the level of paying tribute it is worth noting that the first encounter between Muslims and Christians, namely the covenant of Aylah, of the seventh century, between the Prophet and the Bishop of what we today call Aqaba (as you can see, the church stood there), recognised rights of worship and did not interfere in places of religious significance to Christians. And this of course was the spirit and the letter that were observed in Jerusalem.



So I would like to say that from before Islam until the present day Arab-Christians have played a major role in society. I think what is important in the eastern Arab world as opposed to the western Arab world (Morocco, Algeria their experience was one of imperialistic Christian domination during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the creation of French or Spanish-speaking realities, or even Italian realities in the case of Libya), is that Muslims were not converted to Christianity: there were already Christians there, so the spirit of Christianity is very much a part of our present. It is saddening in this context, when we speak of paying tribute, to see that the greatest emigration from the Holy Land is that of Christians. And I think it is saddening, too, that the incentives offered by European countries, by countries of the Western hemisphere, is for emigration largely by Christians: they are actually contributing to the impoverishment of the spirit of Christian culture. I think that this tribute should be made very specifically in the context of the World Congress of Middle East Studies which our Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies is hosting next year, and at which I hope certain alliances can develop. For example, a society of Western literary texts could also inspire the creation of a society for oriental literary texts.



How can we and you help Christians to stay here and to recognise their roots here?


The Church is very worried about the emigration


of the Christian population, of Christian families, and of young people.



Well, I personally believe that the issue of moral authority in the holy cities could be discussed in the context of what the Vatican has achieved over the centuries. You have a holy city actually you have an independent state but I am not entering politics here when I say sovereignty is God. Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, and for that matter Najaf and Mecca the Western concept is always that of the separation of Church and State. I would like to see a raising of the Church, or for that matter of the synagogue and the mosque, in terms of values, above politics, above day-to-day politics, in that sense and with all due respect to the Palestinians and the Israelis who are negotiating the future of peace and the future of the Palestinian state living in peace with its capital Jerusalem, just as the concept of Jerusalem as its capital is very dear to Israel.



What is important for the rest of us, for Muslims, Christians, and Jews, internationally, is to ask the question: when will moral authority give inspiration to those institutions that find it so difficult to work in the present circumstances? And here I would refer to institutions of education. There is much talk about teaching by analogy, about spiritual reconstruction and development, about psychological reconstruction and development. What can churches, mosques and synagogues do to develop a code of conduct, a code of shared values? And speaking of shared values, if we had all abided by the Ten Commandments we would not have suffered so much! But to go back to shared values, I wonder if the time has not come to establish these holy cities through word and deed. For that matter, I am delighted to see that the Asian Muslims Association in Cambodia and Thailand is working with the Catholic Bishops' Council. This is altruism. It is not philanthropy at all; it is alms (not arms we have had enough of them) working in areas that promote human dignity. Similarly in Africa, in the World Conference for Religions and Peace, we are working with Christian communities, Muslim communities, to promote happy, hopeful, African children.



Now I think the inspiration for all of this should also come from the Holy Land. Once again we could talk about the Caminos de la Paz, and the Caminos de la Felicidad. I wonder why the Mediterraneo Iberico America Latino Encuentro could not be promoted in terms of the recognition of the paths of faith from Aix and Compostela to and from Jerusalem?


Much has been written on this subject but I see that in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth and Hebron the context is very much that of victimised communities; political priorities and demographic priorities that dedicate little focus to being an inspiration for the world. And I think that that inspiration has to be found again in situ. That is, of course, what promoted the fervent desire, which was sadly not realised because of the Iraq war, on the part of the late and much lamented Pope John Paul II, to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land including a visit to Ur of the Chaldeans, as well as to St. Catherine's and Jerusalem. I think it is important that what I call generic names be promoted in this part of the world, but nationalism has done too much harm.


Nationalism was once described by the English writer Huxley as 'a common misunderstanding of history and a common hatred for your neighbours'. So I think that we now have to recognise that we should transcend nationalism with what is supranational; we should understand basic values, and in this context when we say the Holy Land I think we must mean what we say.



At the end of your book you write 'the Arab Christians are certainly not excluded


from Islamic Arab society'. Do you not believe that


the current Islamic fundamentalist campaign is a threat to this assumption?



Well, I would just like to say that Islamists, which is how people refer to fundamentalists, as the recent report of the International Crisis Group observes, fall into at least three categories, and you and your readers can develop in your own mind the mirror image of these three categories. You have the proselytisers, mirrored by the evangelising Christians on the other side. I have seen them both in Africa almost sharing the turf, which is unfortunate because, as I said, I personally believe in the importance of promoting human dignity.


Then you have, of course, the anarchists. The proselytisers are the first category, those who want to convert, then in the second category there are the anarchists, the so-called Islamic groups who believe in accusing others of apostasy, and on that basis do not accept the established order, so they only believe in killing those in authority. And in that sense I think that you have had the similar experience you would not call them Christians but you have had the Brigate Rosse, Baader Meinhof and that Japanese organisation that used sarin gas and so forth. These people are nihilists. So I mean, yes, they are called 'Islamists', that happens to be the brand name, but I do not see any connection between them and religion based on belief.



Then you have the political activists and those who have become or are becoming political parties. I mean you have Muslim political activists in power in Turkey today, for example. In 1989 we had elections in this country, and the Muslim brothers made considerable advances. But the democratic process is cyclical people come into power and are voted out of power and there I think there is a wish or a hope that maybe the day will come when just as you have Christian Democrats so we will have Muslim Democrats. I personally am an individual believer in the civil state: 'secular' sounds a little bit funny to the ear here. You say 'secular' and people immediately think that you are saying 'agnostic'. So I prefer to refer to the civil state. I think fundamentalism is a real reason for concern, not only for Christians but also for Muslims, and in that sense I think that the longer there is an absence of full cultural participation in public life the more likely it is that these concerns and fears will turn into direct confrontation and Balkanisation, into ethnic and sectarian fragmentations in many forms. I would like to suggest that perhaps Christians, Muslims and Jews should dedicate serious consideration to the promotion of centrism, whereby what I would refer to as the silenced majority, not the silent majority, but the silenced majority, would be mobilised. We are always working against something, against anti-Semitism, against Islamophobia, against racism. Is it not about time that we also worked for something? It is for that reason that we established a Parliament of Cultures, which was originally promoted because of an idea that emerged in conversations I had with the late Yehudi Menuhin, for example, or with Walter Sisulu in South Africa. They all said we have worked against discrimination but what about working for something?



We are now trying to establish a Centre for Mediterranean Humanities, an alliance between the media and academia, which could look at the contents of the different social realities of the different parts of the region rather than just looking at what is sensational, whereby in a sense we give free press coverage and free publicity to the horrors of killing and destruction. I will give you an example. I had journalists during the Gulf War back in 1991 in my house over Christmas and we had a Christmas tree. And they said: 'Oh what a normal atmosphere it is in Amman you have Christmas trees in different houses'. And I said: 'Well, why don't you write a story about it?'. And they said that it would never get published something that emphasises normalcy is never mentioned. This is a tragedy. I mean we simply are not humanising each other; in fact we are falling into the trap laid by the polarity of extremists, here, in the United States, and elsewhere.




Don't you think that Islamic fundamentalism is now more of a danger for Islam


than Christian fundamentalism is for Christian societies?


I mean that there is something more dangerous here, in this region.



Yes, I put it this way. The Americans ask themselves the question, 'Why do they hate us?', and I would correspondingly like to ask Arabs and Muslims, 'why do they hate us?' At the same time I have to ask the question why do we hate each other? And the answer to that is that although we are referred to as Islam, meaning from Morocco to Indonesia and all the immigrant Muslims, we are not homogeneous. We are highly heterogeneous and this heterogeneity means that as the result of unilateral actions, particularly since the eleventh of September, we have an agenda priority, which is security: hard security in terms of weapons and confronting terrorism and so forth. But we have not yet developed a multilateral approach to addressing the other sets of priorities and multilateral actions between states: the social economy, the political economy, culture and the humanities. I would like to see basic pre-conditions placed on international assistance to regions like our own, pre-conditions based on the question: 'Are you actually addressing the root causes of extremism?'. Maybe yesterday this was Fascism or Communism; in today's parlance it is known as 'fundamentalism'.



One of our experts is the author of this question:


'with respect to the condition of Christians within Islam, many authors rightly highlight the fact


that the original conditions for the People of the Book according to the rules of the Koran


were far better than in subsequent periods. Do you believe that the legal systems should be revised?'



I totally agree. I believe that the whole concept of canon law in countries where a Christian culture exists should be revisited by the Christian community itself. But I do not really think that you can have it both ways. I mean you cannot continue to say you are deprived of rights in terms of heritage, for example, while you continue to place the onus (on women's rights or other issues) on the host country's legal system, which in the case of a country like my own is actually based on two systems: civil law based on the French Napoleonic code, and shari'a, which is actually not responsible for criminal law but for family law and which has been accepted for decades by the Christian community in the absence of their own in my view legitimate interest in mobilising their own canon law courts. I will give you an example of one of the issues that continually came up for years Christians asked for Christian education to be recognised in public schools. This has now happened. When it comes to military service, I remember there was a particular case of when an Archbishop, Archbishop Jadur, visited a student studying to become a cleric, a seminarian, who asked if he could be excluded from national service. And Archbishop Jadur said 'I did national service in Belgium, my country of origin'.



The state is offering him, a seminarian, a non-fighting role in the medical services. So he can do his medical training, serve the state, and continue his studies. But do not create the schism between commitment to one's country and one's religious studies because then you will open the door for others, Muslim extremists for example, who will say: 'well what about us?'. So I think a modus vivendi can be addressed, but it should have been addressed earlier by a more proactive discussion of citizenship, in a pluralist context, whereby examples from the world should actually serve the institutional memory of those who are going to address these issues, again in terms of codes of conduct for industry and for commerce. Revisiting morality is a shared responsibility for Christians, Muslims, Jews and people of other faiths, or non-believers for that matter. As Gandhi said, the world has enough for man's needs, but not for man's dreams. So how should we address this issue of legality should we accept the fact that we are living governed by one law for the rich and another for the poor?




I want to ask you something about the Islamic faith. As a Christian I am really touched,


impressed, by the sense of mystery, the feeling of God, that we see so deeply and so intimately


present in the Muslim faith. But God seems so far from the earth.


In what way does a Muslim experience the friendship between him and God?



Abraham is given the distinction of being the friend of the compassionate, the friend of God, which is rather interesting because he is regarded by Muslims, Christians and Jews as in a sense the spiritual forerunner of monotheism. I mean, yes, there are some who feel that Abraham is somewhat how should I put it centred in the Jewish faith, but I think he is generally accepted in the context of a continuation of the Faiths, and in that sense I think that each of the successive prophets from Noah to the present day we recognise Noah as a prophet is interesting because of this human face, this love and friendship. I would like to point out that as far as the Muslim perception of Jesus is concerned there is this perception of a human being, of a religion of love, which is the lodestar, if you will, of Christianity.



In terms of Judaism I think that probably the lodestar is the religion of law. And I think that in terms of Islam you have this lodestar of the religion of justice in terms of recognising the rights of the other. And in each instance, whether Moses, Jesus or Mohammad, you have this feeling of recognition, as you put it, of mystery, of mystique, of exemplary, inspired, leadership. But at the same time you have this affinity without which cultures in such a heterogeneous world would have not been attracted to, would not have gravitated towards, this concept of the oneness of God for so long. When you speak of Sufism one thinks of hermits. I am attracted by the idea that for centuries in north Lebanon, for example, hermits and Sufis sang the praise of God together. And in terms of perception, Sufis recognise the importance of human qualities in their deliverance possibly more than others. I just hope that the rigidity of otherness in terms of rituals, and this, of course, I say with deep respect, will not interfere with our ability to communicate with each other as human beings, and thus, to use your words, with the combined friendship of God and friendship of man.



The Kingdom of Jordan is renowned for its tolerance and the co-existence of Muslims and Christians


who live here. Do you feel this country is an exception?



I think there is something special about this country, but I do not think that it is an exception. In Indonesia in decades gone by, or in Syria, for example, people said the same thing Christians and Muslims live with respect for each other...




...In Iraq too...



Yes, indeed, in Iraq, before these terrible events. So I think that where you have a mature religious society, sure and confident about its origins and its roots, you have that level of respect for the other. The Jordanian ethic, as I would like to call it, was really a part of the kingdom's heritage in the context of the Jordanian monarchy, which of course in terms of its lineage belongs to the house of the Prophet. In that sense I think that Jordan is conscious of its responsibilities towards centrist Islam and towards moderation in all things, but most of all in terms of the rights of its citizens, Christians and Muslims alike.



This brings me to the question about the changes in the Arab world


we have been witnessing in recent months let us say Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and so on.


On the one hand we have some countries in which we see these changes,


perhaps they are not so clear, I do not know. And on the other, there are countries


in which nothing has happened or nothing seems to be happening happen. What is your view?



The question of liberty and of the freedom to express your views within a society cannot be achieved by the ballot box alone. Although we have seen elections in Gaza, or in Basra, and the preparations for elections in Lebanon and in Egypt, the fact is that people are basically saying that although democracy is a process in which they are partially engaged they cannot wait anymore. And as regards the Arabs of the dispersion, in Europe and the United States and elsewhere, and the Arabs who live in the region, I think there is great frustration at the absence of a merit-based society. There is a clear feeling that equal opportunity does not exist, or certainly does not exist adequately, and that pluralism is not respected. I remember visiting the graduates of the Fontainebleau School of Management and I said: 'How many of you talented young men and women are going to return to the Arab world?'. And they said: 'None of us. Why should we return we don't have job opportunities. We don't know anyone who knows someone. We don't want to join this political game'. So I think there is a genuine desire for emancipation among large sections of the community which will be expressed either within the context of the democratic system, or, sadly, if the democratic system does not respond to it, at the expense of the state.




You have said: 'We do not have Westminster-style democracy in this region'.


Do you think that this kind of democracy will in fact not be the future of this region?



It may well be. If you read the history of nineteenth-century England, for example, speaking of Westminster, there were corrupt politicians, the promotion of political agendas, there was some sort of policy dialogue. This system characterised nineteenth-century Britain and characterises parts of our developing world including the Arab world. So to switch from that background to the cantonal system in Switzerland, for example, the Bundestraat in Germany, or the federal system of the United States, involves the recognition of the importance of the participation of everyone, regardless of their ethnic, religious or cultural background, in a new culture of nation-building, and this is by definition democracy as a process. But I think that this idea of democracy as conditionality, whether in terms of the outspokenness of demonstrators, or of critics, particularly in the West, or the absence of democracy in our part of the world, misses the point. In nineteenth-century Russia you had a free officer movement and political parties. Sharansky tells us that the basic problem with the Arabs is the absence of democracy. Now he undoubtedly is an expert, in terms of his background in the gulag in the Soviet Union, on the absence of democracy and civil rights in Russia and possibly the eastern bloc, but I think one of the problems here is that there is no grassroots movement of civil society in the Arab world or in many Muslim countries. And when that grassroots movement is institutionalised, whether it leads to Westminster or to a cantonal system, or to a voluntary federated system, is really a choice for the people. But I think the conscious decision has to be taken to devolve responsibilities. Those in authority in many of these countries are concerned about loss of sovereignty and the loss of power, and this process of evolution is imbued with a sense that the central authority will become weakened. I hope that they will recognise sooner rather than later that only through the evolution of devolution can they avoid revolution.



Do you foresee that a Westminster-style democracy, to use your words, will take place?


Many Arab leaders think that people are not prepared to go and vote.



If you are asking me if there is a contradiction between Islam and democracy I say 'no'. If you ask me whether we have as many girls educated in Muslim countries as is the case in those European countries that became a part of Europe I am referring to eastern European countries now I would also say 'no'. To those who tell you Arabs are not prepared, I would like to ask them why not? If this is a question of doctrine, I do not think that there is anything in Islam that says we are not prepared for participation in the most achieving societies in the world. And we have achievers participating as Muslim individuals and communities in Western countries. But if you are saying we are not prepared because we have not offered equal opportunities, then I would remind you that in the Arab world alone there are over 70 million you can get the exact figure illiterate people. I am not talking only about people who are illiterate in terms of reading and writing; I am also talking about legal illiteracy. They do not know their responsibilities as citizens. And in a sense those leaders who say Muslims are unprepared for participation also exhibit a degree of legal illiteracy, constitutional illiteracy, or even deliberate blindness. There are none so blind as those who will not see.





In the Western world many people think that Islam cannot separate politics from faith,


cannot divide religion and public affairs. Of course you know this objection:


maybe this is one of the distortions of the Islamic faith that you so often underline.



Yes, but I would make a distinction between religion as civilisation, religion as culture, and religion as belief. A long time ago I attended the Centre for Islamic Civilisation Studies, where, for example, they developed a detailed discussion of participation, inclusion, civil society organisation, foundations and endowments. In capitals like Damascus and Cairo you have endowments for everything from the protection of children to the protection of stray cats. When you talk about Islamic culture you refer to the progression of oriental texts, for example, which I would like to see translated in order to develop greater understanding. But we are not talking about belief: there is an embodiment of that belief in terms of the spirit of law, for example, which we discussed earlier: canon law andshari'a law. A Russian anti-terrorist expert, referring to Muslims in the former Soviet Union, once said to me: 'we have to stop the spread of shari'a'. I said 'but we are not stopping an infectious disease we are stopping a legal system or containing a legal system', which in my view can be revised by Muslim scholarship.



My problem with the absence of Muslim scholarship is the fact that in religious cities, Mecca, Najaf and Medina, for example, religion has focused on ritual, on worship, on symbolic sacrifice and so forth, and has not revived the tradition of consultation. This spirit of consultation in a religious context is essential. I will offer you an illustrative anecdote. After 9/11 we were asked continuously, 'why did Muslims not condemn it?', and then we listed twenty, thirty or forty people who did exactly that. After all, one fifth of the people killed in 9/11 were Muslims. Then you hear certain Muslims who say 'well, if the Mufti of this and the Mufti of that condemn it, what does it matter if they are declared apostates by the extremists?'. The question is: who is driving Islam? Is it the extremists with their political agendas or a centrist body of Muslim thinkers who are addressing consensually these issues? It stands to reason that a conference in Mecca, for example, during the Hajj, takes a responsible attitude to the whole issue of suicide bombings and the killing of innocent people. We do not condone suicide and we do not condone the killing of innocents.



Not only that. I think that on many issues, from stem cell research to suicide bombings, there should be a recognition of the importance of a central authority, whether in Mecca, in Najaf, or in the al-Azhar, for example. If all the decisions are politicised, then clearly we are neither serving religion nor addressing the development of the body politic.



Islam does not have a single Church; it does not have a supreme authority.



Well this is the point. The situation is like when Kissinger asked what the address of Europe was. People are simplifying the question and ask what the address of Islam is. But I would observe that in centuries past there was consultation in Mecca and in Istanbul. There was a point of reference and this has to be revisited. In this sense you do not separate Church and State but you elevate the value system, as I said, of religious issues, thereby rather elegantly separating Church and State. But this does not mean that Islamic culture, Islamic civilisation, is finished. I think that you would probably find that if you went to Latin America you would find that Christian civilisation and culture are everywhere in terms of daily practices but that does not mean that the democratic process is not well advanced. I do not see a contradiction. But of course you know platforms develop: for example, liberation theology. And then even your own point of reference to the Holy See is a position. And in a sense I think there is a strong similarity maybe some of your readers will not like to hear this between liberation theology and the Islamic religion, particularly as regards poverty and the dispossessed.




What is your answer to your question: 'who is driving Islam now?'



Well, you see Umma is a supranational concept and I think that the Umma should develop a level of scholarship that is truly representative of its heterogeneity. Again I would say that this could be very difficult but with all due respect to Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Malaysia, Chechnya or elsewhere, as regards Muslims in different parts of the world Senegal and so forth there is such richness and such diversity. Therefore I do think that conversations - I always try to promote the noble art of conversation - should be promoted between us. We cannot converse with others as individuals if we do not have sufficient confidence that we have attempted to develop a degree of understanding with them. But at the end of the day, once again, I would say that societies are at different stages of development: maybe the views of the ASEAN community, which is largely Muslim, are different from the views of the Middle Eastern Arab community. Why should one speak for the other? I do not think that this is fair or acceptable.



I want to end the interview by going back to the relations between Christians and Muslims.


You know that one of the main principles we have discussed


is what we call the principle of reciprocity at a very simple level it means


a mosque in Rome, a church in Saudi Arabia.


To some this principle seems too old and they think that we have to find something new.



I believe in windows of opportunity. In the past, you know, people said: 'wouldn't it be wonderful if Muslims were allowed to worship in the Mezquita and Christians in the Blue Mosque in Istanbul?' If at a particular moment the level of intellectual generosity permitted this, then this would be fine. But I think to lay it down as a negotiating condition is like trying to dam water. I keep saying that ideas should flow like water: if this water finds difficulty in flowing in a certain valley then there is always another valley. But the main thing is to maintain the momentum of our conversation. You know we need more CBMS confidence-building measures: we have enough OBMS obstacle-building measures! I think it should be an underlying principle but it should not necessarily be, you know, a mere question of exchange.



Do you think that we will not see a church in Saudi Arabia?



I do not know. Personally I think that freedom of worship should be allowed wherever communities want it. But at the same time, you know, we always look at democracy in terms of the Western model. Why don't we look at democracy in terms of the Indian model? They have a Muslim Head of State, a Sikh Prime Minister, a Communist Speaker of the House and the most influential individual today is, arguably, a Catholic female Minister. In different societies you have different achievements: this is more a reflection of the dynamics of a society than a reflection of its religions.