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Religion and Society

From Amman: Starting Afresh from Education to Counter Terrorism

A few days before the visit of Pope Francis, the Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue brought together Christians and Muslims to talk about education. In the meanwhile, a few miles away the cyclone of the Syrian war was in full swing.

This was not the first time that the Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies of Amman and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue had met for a few days of work. But the conference of this year, which was on education, took place at a special time, a few days before the visit of the Pope.



In the city, posters have already begun to appear with photographs of the Pope and King Abdullah II, ‘together to build the civilisation of love and concord’: in the background the façade of St. Peter’s and the location of the baptism of Jesus. But only a few yards away a telephone company advertises a special rate for Syria ‘to call home and calm your relatives’. The target is the one million and three hundred thousand refugees who, according to the latest estimates, have moved into the north of Jordan, severely testing the country, first and foremost at the level of natural resources, in particular water.



It is precisely this dramatic regional situation which gave this Islamic-Christian conference a special impress, fostering a frank dialogue ready to call things by their real name in a cordial climate under the guidance of Prince el-Hasan Ibn Talal and His Eminence Cardinal Tauran. What emerged was not a common statement but an authentic appeal for education, accompanied by a decalogue for educators.



The point of departure is a sad observation: today the Middle East is exporting its best human resources (there are 7,000 Iraqi medical doctors in London alone), whereas it imports extremists. Seen from Jordan, the danger of terrorism and sectarian violence is tangible: Syria, but also Iraq, Lebanon, the never solved Israeli-Palestinian conflict…The Jordanians seem to be powerless spectators of a cyclone which draws ever closer: it was just a dot on the horizon (the Algeria of the 1990s), then it drew near with the two Gulf wars, now it is howling very near to home. Those who hold political power or have an economic position clearly perceive the need to distance the threat and invert the trend. But how? Through adequate education as well, something that will certainly not solve the immediate problems, to which however an answer should be given, but which would establish the bases for a long-term change.



This ambitious project is hindered by the feeling of being under permanent attack, a fear nourished by interpretations that see the conflict as a structural and inevitable reality. It is not only a matter of clash of civilisation theory but also of a parallel discourse that presents Islam as perennially attacked. This perception obscures the capacity for judgement, observed Prof. al-Hafi, a lecturer in comparative religions at the Al al-Bayt University, and does not allow people to be objective. Given the situation, it is not surprising that in all the papers, whether by Catholics or Muslims, the subject of religious violence was in the foreground, a question seen by Msgr. Lahham, the Patriarchal Vicar of Jordan, as one of the greatest challenges of the present moment. By a number of speakers education was connected with self-reform (reform of the mind and of the soul, as Prof. Al-Kilani of the University of Jordan summarised it) and with the retrieval of the dimension of wisdom. Similar unanimity could not be encountered in relation to the question of religious freedom which is often confused with an aggressive proselytism.



But when leaving the Forum for Arab Thought that hosted the conference, one could but pose a question: will Jordan manage not to be overwhelmed? To know the answer, one has to explore the feelings provoked by the images of neighbouring Syria in the ordinary citizen: do they provoke a healthy fear or do they ring out as a call to arms? The interest in the visit and the person of Pope Francis, welcomed as an ambassador of peace, allows one to hope a great deal, despite everything.