On his recent trip through the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, Outlook editor Jack Haberer arranged an exclusive interview in the royal palace in Amman with His Royal Highness Prince El Hassan Bin Talal.
He is the brother of the late King Hussein and is uncle to the present monarch, King Abdullah II. Prince Hassan served for 35 years as the crown prince of Jordan.
Prince Hassan was educated in Amman, then in England, where he earned two degrees at Oxford. He is fluent in Arabic, English, French, and German and has a working knowledge of Turkish and Spanish, and has studied Hebrew at the Hebrew University.
Among his many areas of service, he is a member of the International Board of the Council on Foreign Relations, moderator of the World Conference of Religions for Peace, president of the Board of Directors for the Center for Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution. He established the Islamic Scientific Academy and the Hashemite Aid and Relief Agency. He also is the 2008 recipient of The Abraham Geiger Award, named for the great liberal thinker of Judaism in the 19th century. It was conferred upon the prince for being a voice for global sustainability, reconciliation, and inter-religious understanding. He is the founding director of the Royal Institute of Inter-faith Studies and a leading thinker in bringing peace and reconciliation between Muslims, Christians, and Jews.
JH: Your Royal Highness, Jordan sits adjacent to the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, and just a short distance from Lebanon and Egypt. Yet this kingdom is known as the Switzerland of the Middle East. How is it that Jordan stands out as such a place of peace in a region that is known for its conflicts?
PH: The meetings between my great uncle, King Faisal of Iraq and Syria, in the context of the Versailles Peace Conference in 1918, and Chaim Weizmann, the founder of the modern state of Israel and, indeed, the meetings of my grandfather with the Jewish leadership at that time took place before the first shots had been shot in anger between Arab and Jew.
The Jordanian ethic has attempted to promote stability through rational policies, given the fact that we have five neighbors. I remember once (talking with) Shimon Peres. He said to me, “You know we are surrounded by enemies.”
I said to him, “You think you have problems. We are surrounded by friends.”
I would like to think that Switzerland is an example to live up to, but Switzerland was only able to create their “inter-communal” stability between Italian speaking, and German speaking and French speaking after they announced their neutrality. We unfortunately have participated in war in 1948, and in 1967, and almost in 1973. And, we have suffered the demography of those who have been the victims of war, have been “refugeed” two or three times in our lifetimes. And therefore … we have to live up to the expectations of others and ourselves to offer a contrast to states at war and to develop inner peace and inner stability.
I think that our emphasis on education — particularly in the context of realism which was what basically characterized Jordan’s history over the past 70 years, possibly one of the oldest countries in the so-called Arab world of today — has been the secret of our survival. But, the story doesn’t end there. It’s not just a question of existing. The question we have to ask ourselves, as Bishop Duke once did in the book, Via Delarosa, is “When shall we live?” And “we” means not only ourselves but our five neighbors and indeed the whole west Asian region.
JH: In a world where … say that religion is this massive source of conflict, you have argued for the opposite for years. In fact, you have dedicated much of your career to promoting the notion of religion as a “peace-building mechanism.” How can that be?
PH: I believe in a compassionate God. This is the beginning of our creed, “Compassionate and merciful.” Of course, there are 99 attributes and names of the Creator in Islam. But I believe that selective readings of the religious books unfortunately create the situation (it has been said) where … people don’t believe they’re created in God’s image, but they try to create God in their own image. They resort to God in extremis, for support of their fight against injustice, … a fight which turns violent, and of course, by the end of it, violate the basic teachings of respect for the sanctity of human life. I believe that a giving by religion to culture means the creation or recreation of institutions: the almoners [those that give alms], the hospitalers, the intellect of the schools, such as the Biblical school I studied with – the Dominicans’ École Biblique in Jerusalem – all based upon their enormous wealth of knowledge of the traditions of the other.
I believe that the conversation is not between the religions. We have never touched on metaphysics or personal belief. … In conversations with laity and secular people, we have only touched on human dignity. Ethics, morals, and values are our own inspiration, but at the end of the day each one of us has his own historical narrative of these three emotive words. And what is important is when we come together at the table unequivocally, unambiguously, where do we stand on civil liberties, on stewardship, on custodianship of both our physical environment and our human environment? hat is where I think that religion has a benign role to play, a positive role to play; and it’s only in creating a moral authority — possibly in Jerusalem — under an inter-ecumenical moral authority where religion can rise above politics and not be influenced by politics.
JH: So you’re saying that religions are not just merging or melding together but standing on their own convictions – but that they can really learn from one another, and sharing convictions in such a way that we can build together.
PH: Indeed, and in that context I believe that nobody has a monopoly on the truth.
JH: Talk with me about the Palestinians. Since 1948 they have found themselves in the nexus of conflict, and frankly, get branded as terrorists. As Bishop Elias Chacour introduces himself, “I am a Palestinian. I am not a terrorist.” Yet, you have millions of Palestinians in your country; by some counts, they may be the majority of Jordanians. How do you all co-exist here in such peace?
PH: At first the Palestinians here from 1948 till 1967 were given full Jordanian citizenship rights. And, of course, when we speak of the post-1967 till the present day, movements of mass migrants, Palestinians, refugees, displaced persons, stateless persons — now also with the movement of Iraqis — this country possibly hosts the equivalent of half of its population of refugees and migrants, not only Palestinians but Iraqis as well. The fact that they have lived together is borne out by the fact that in 1970, when civil strife took over Jordan, the conflict was not between the state of Jordan and the Palestinians … those who had been refugeed twice and three times.
I always say, “If your father is born in Jerusalem, my father was born in Mecca, but that doesn’t make me less of a Jordanian if I want to exercise my rights and responsibilities.”
The middle-class Palestinians and the large swath of Jordanians of Palestinian origin did not accept the slogan, “Amman, the Hanoi of the Arabs,” did not accept the idea that Amman should become the center of anarchy and of terrorism international. 1970 was rather a conflict between two options: stability or the likelihood of Jordan being turned into a thoroughfare of continuous wars with Iraq, which had forces in Jordan or Syria. I think in a sense that the stabilization of Jordan in the contemporary era came after that tragic conflict in 1970.
I think that what is important today is to look at the Palestinians in Syria and Lebanon and Egypt where they are regarded as guests. Here we do not regard them as guests. We do not preclude their right to return, which may be a pipedream today as with the Romanians in Hungary for example. But … I certainly for one and many others like me do not believe that they should be kept in so-called refugee camps which are called temporary. They’ve been called temporary since 1948.
I think the time has come to study the mandate of the United Nations Special Commission on Palestine in 1949, which led to the birth of the United Nations Relief Works Agency. We are the biggest donor agency/government to UNRA, to the relief works agency, not to the Palestinian people because they have also given in return of their best in creating modern Jordan and, indeed, the Middle East. In terms of the Gulf States, they’ve contributed with their talents. … The time has come to look at a carrying capacity conference of the whole region and the whole issue of mass migration in the Fertile Crescent region, including removing the brand names of, for the moment, Israelis, Palestinians, Lebanese, Jordanians, Iraqis, and asking ourselves the basic question, “How can we live together, given the limited resources?” Can we not create a water and energy commission which is supra-national, is above the state, and stop talking about juridical rights and historical rights alone?
JH: We know, i.e., most of us Christians, know that Muslim extremists do not faithfully represent their religion any more than Christian extremists faithfully represent our religion. But many American Christian leaders have been longing to see moderate Muslim leaders join us in paving a path toward mutual respect and peace. You have been working at that for many years, and yet for most American Christians, that has not been seen, and there remains the question, Are those moderates really out there? Two years ago, on Oct. 10, 2007, Muslim scholars published “A Common Word.” My magazine immediately gave it top-billing, front-page coverage (Nov. 5, 2007 issue, page 8). I was so thrilled to see it and was happy to circulate it. Four months later came the “Amman Message,” calling for respectful coexistence. Can Christians of the West feel encouraged that we have entered a new era in relationships with Muslims?
PH: Only if the rational majority of silenced people in the West and the East come together to recognize the tradition of enlightenment in its best sense in the West and the tradition of illumination in its best sense in the East. This is not a proselytizing mission but a mission of partnership where we revive our links and ties with the moral majority in the different communities from which we are born. We cannot apologize for where we were born geographically.
I remember the point you made about how Muslims are stereotyped as Arab terrorists. First, Arabs are not exclusively Muslim. The fourteen or sixteen churches of the Eastern communion are sometimes forgotten in the West. There are more Christians from Jerusalem living in Sydney, Australia, today than are living in Jerusalem. So I think that the time has come to say, as I said in Belfast when I received the degree at Queens University (the degree was offered by a Jewish chancellor in a non-denominational university, and the recipient was Muslim), … they started speaking about Islamic extremism. I said, “Look. I’m a Muslim. But I’m not an Islamist extremist. And in Belfast, can I ask you, would you call a Catholic an extremist Catholic or a Protestant an extremist Protestant?”
I think the radical change we need is a change for the better. Well, unfortunately, we are shooting ourselves in the foot and shooting our neighbors. The time for violence can only end with the kind of dream that Martin Luther King spoke of. I was a recipient of the King, Gandhi, Ikeda Prize at Morehouse College. And, I am inspired by the civil rights movement. I think that democracy cannot land by parachute in this part of the world. It has to start with a civil rights movement whereby the empowerment of the poor — and I am honored to be a member of the International Commission for the Legal Empowerment of the Poor along with Madeleine Albright of the United States and Lloyd Axworthy of Canada — I would like to see the law working for the poor.
JH: If you were given just five minutes to talk with President Barak Obama, what would you say to him about what he can best do to help Jordan, our friends in Jordan in the Middle East?
PH: Well, if he was in listening mode; I know he’s a great orator. Maybe I would get five minutes.
JH: A lot of people are competing for that.
PH: A lot of people ARE competing for that. What I would say is, “Look at West Asia as a region.” We can’t attend to the problems of Israel, Palestine, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India. But we have to remember that South Asia is not a region other than in name. South Asia includes, of course, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. In 1905 the outgoing British imperialists decided that the breakup of Bengal was a necessity. In 1906 the British government took a decision along with the former colonial powers (France, the Netherlands, Spain) that different parts of the world in Africa and Asia should be kept poor and divided. And in 1921, maybe because of the illness of President (Woodrow) Wilson, the League of Nations did not come about. If that League of Nations had come about, it possibly would have prevented the Second World War, which in a sense was one of the direct reasons for the exodus of Jews to Palestine, Jews who had not lived the experience, with all due respect, of coexistence with Arabs long before, as I said, 1921 and the first shot fired in anger between Arab and Jew. So I think that what we need today is to look at the REGION of West Asia.
First, for an OAC consultation, an organization for security and cooperation consultation, i.e., a Helsinki[-type] process that looks at the priorities of security: basic security that includes weapons of mass destruction and current security which criminalizes all forms of violation of the sanctity of human life;
Second, [to address] the economic and social realities where Paul Volcker has called for an asymmetric development fund to focus asymmetrically on empowering the poor, and there I think that a partnership of OACD funds and Arab funds should go to empowering citizenship. We need education for citizenship in this part of the world. The United States cannot continue just to rely on its high level consultations with political leaders and heads of government. The people of the region have to realize that the people of the United States wish them well and vice-versa.
And third, … to start teaching by analogy. I met at the JFK Library after 9-11, with everyone involved with the American image abroad: Fulbright, McArthur, Eisenhower Foundations, Peace Corps, and many others. I would love to see a partnership in humanity, our shared humanity: the shared humanity of West Asia including Turkey, Iran, Israel, the Arab countries, plus South Asia. And, in that sense, beginning to recognize that the Asia-Pacific world, which the United States has a leading role in, and the Euro-Atlantic world should meet in this region which is basically about oil and weapons, a region which is a seismic line today from Russia and the Baltic to the north all the way to the Caucasus, Black Sea, and Hormuz. It is in this seismic line that we need a consolidation of our hybrid identity. But the trend today with Ossetia, Abkhazia, Kosovo, … is to break the region into a balkanized, ungovernable region.
I would appeal to President Obama and indeed to the international community to begin to recognize that the United Nations, when it joined the quartet, actually was not an equal partner, because the United Nations is 192 countries. So the role of the United Nations is preventative diplomacy, the role of the P-5, the Security Council, is to set once again in motion a conference, a consultation leading to a conference, along the lines of the Versailles Conference, for a new West Asian reality that recognizes West Asia, which we casually call the Middle East, which, of course, is indefinable — some people say the Middle East is from Marrakesh to Bangladesh — well, this is rhetoric. But West Asia and the eastern Mediterranean are not the soft underbelly of NATO, they are not a black hole, but they will continue to be both a black hole and a source of world instability. And, [by the way], if nuclear war, God forbid, and weapons of mass destruction are used, we will evaporate. Maybe the rest of the world can do without us, but I think the effects of such a convulsion would have dire consequences not only in the oil markets and the arms markets.
The time has come to talk about alms: A – L – M - S. We have enough trillions spent on arms, and enough trillions made out of oil, but complimentarity between the human resource-rich countries and the poorer countries, and the oil-rich countries and the industrialized worlds will bring together the original vision of our great-grandfathers of Jewish talent and abilities, advances in science, and the richness of resources of this region coming together to provide once again the cradle of civilization that we once were.
JH: That’s your word to the President of the United States. One final word to those folks that gather in the pews on Sunday morning?
PH: Have faith in the fact that there are people in the Middle East, that the Middle East is not just sensational headlines. That our children and our children’s children – I am blessed with four children and six grandchildren – I don’t live for myself; I live for them. And to those people in the pews I say, please bear in mind that your children will suffer and our children will suffer if we continue down this cul-de-sac.