Douglas Davis

Prince of peace

Douglas Davis talks to Prince Hassan of Jordan about his frustration at Muslim failure to integrate with Western society

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Prince Hassan bin Talal is the almost-man. After 34 years as heir-apparent to Jordan’s Hashemite throne, the crown was snatched away in 1999 by his dying brother, King Hussein, and handed to his son, the present King Abdullah II. Never mind; Hassan has other fish to fry. And so I visit the direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed (separated by a 42-generation blip) to discuss the terrorist attacks on London.

In an elegant reception room at his West London home, the desert prince is wearing a pinstripe suit (his tailor would call him ‘portly’). He surrounds himself with family snaps, memorabilia (which include a brace each of sheathed Bedouin daggers and Samurai swords) and his ‘overflow’ book collection (including the memoirs of such former enemies as Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin).

The absence of high office has not diminished Prince Hassan’s appetite for solving global problems. He spends his time, and his considerable intellect, on a relentless round of interfaith dialogues, human rights commissions and conferences on poverty and injustice, religion and peace.

Unlike many of his co-religionists, his response to the London bombings is categorical: ‘I have a very firm position on wanton killing and suicide bombing — a clear and unequivocal condemnation of it, wherever it raises its ugly head.’ He cannot understand people like Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the sometime guest of London’s mayor Ken Livingstone, who condemns suicide bombings in London while defending them in Israel. Such people, says the Prince, hunt with the hounds and run with the hare. He is particularly irked that al-Qaradawi refuses to speak to Jews.

Prince Hassan, by contrast, is intent on dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. One recent project was the creation of the Middle East Citizens’ Assembly, with representatives from all over the region. ‘Israelis and Arabs can scream at each other or cry on each other’s shoulders. I don’t care what they do as long as they talk. Let people talk to each other....’

It seems ungracious to interrupt the articulate flow of this highly civilised prince and return to the hard questions on terrorism: what is the connection between the suicide bombers and Islam? ‘I personally don’t see a connection. I see complexes that must be studied.’

But the bombers come out of the mosques, their language comes out of the Koran, their symbols are Muslim and their objectives are Islamic. ‘They’re connected to a tribal understanding of Islam. Their grouping has to have some tribal name, and that tribal name is Islamist. But to be a Muslim implies a certain value system that these people do not represent.’

Well, they use the Koran to justify their acts. ‘A selective reading, obviously. If you go to some Muslim capitals and come back six months later as a wild-eyed fanatic, then some brainwashing has obviously been done. And that brainwashing not only teaches you how to pull a trigger or detonate a bomb. It instils a new value system.’

Others are more robust. For example, Ziauddin Sardar, a leading Muslim writer, says that it just won’t do to say that Islamist radicals are not Muslims. ‘We must acknowledge that the terrorists ... are products of Islamic history. Only by recognising this brutal fact will we realise that the fight against terrorism is also an internal Muslim struggle. Indeed, it is a struggle for the very soul of Islam.’

Like it or not, Prince Hassan is in the vanguard of that struggle. He says people constantly ask him about ‘the Islamist view’ on various issues. ‘I say, “I’m a Muslim, not an Islamist.” As a Hashemite, with my lineage, I don’t have to proclaim myself an Islamist.’

He does, however, acknowledge the danger and sophistication of the new Islamist structures. ‘We are told that these people are compartmentalised, that each compartment doesn’t necessarily know about the other and that they are led by some central controller. The controller has an agenda, but the controller isn’t doing the killing or the dying — particularly not the dying. So presumably these individuals have been bought up.’

How should the authorities respond to the phenomenon? ‘I think a multi-ethnic, gender-balanced security response is absolutely essential. There has to be an interactive discourse within Britain. You have to follow the path of inclusion.’

It is a mistake to assume that people integrate just because they are thrown together. They don’t. ‘And that’s where these fanatics find a captive audience. They have taken the first step in communicating — not in a manner that I would agree with, but they have stepped out of the box.’ The mosques also have a role to play — as ‘inclusive, interdisciplinary social centres which open their doors to people of other faiths and promote “the noble art of conversation”.’

Rebuilding civil society with a view to promoting reconciliation is as necessary as kitting out the police and military. And such reconstruction, he says, can be accomplished for ‘an nth of what has been spent on militarisation and the maintenance of forces in different parts of the world. We’re always fighting against something — whether it is a tribal or a moral issue. Why don’t we fight for something? I can’t think of anything better than to fight for a law of peace.

‘I sometimes feel that people like myself are the real radicals — not Abu-this or Abu-that. They are promoting polarities all over the world which actually benefit the arms industry and create the instability that increases the price of oil.’

Prince Hassan is cautious about whether the reaction to Islamist radicalism has produced the first shoots of an Islamic reformation. The Muslim world is not homogenous and some communities might be slower to adapt than others. ‘In an Afghanistan situation you might have to go more slowly, given the level of literacy, than you would in another country.’ But, he notes sadly, ‘The reformation of ideas, whether lay or religious, can develop only on the basis of a discourse. And today, there are no mechanisms for a sustained discourse.’

Nor does the Arab world possess the political and social structures to unleash the human creativity and innovation that could generate wealth beyond the oil gushers. And there is no sign of the 35 million jobs which, he says, will be needed over the next decade in an area stretching from the Middle East to west Asia. ‘If Muslim rulers continue the way they are, sooner rather than later they will face revolutionary movements inspired by balkanisation, sectarian hatred and the Shia–Sunni conflict.’

The Hashemite prince sits comfortably in leafy London producing a stream of originality and creativity, ideas and initiatives that are designed to frame a new peace in the name of religion. A few miles away security officials are frantically scouring the streets for those who are determined to deliver death and destruction in the name of religion. The Prince and the bombers are polar opposites, separated by a millennium of political culture, locked in an existential battle of fantastic consequence.

‘My frustration,’ says Prince Hassan, ‘is that I’m involved in a network of so many different organisations, but there’s no feeling that the moral majority is making progress or that the intellectual input is having any effect.’

That, for all our sakes, is a real shame.