Interview with Prince El-Hassan bin Talal: "Jordanian Christians are Fully Integrated"
by Daniel Pipes and Hilal Khashan
Translations of this item:
Middle East Quarterly: Please comment on the state of Christian-Muslim relations in Jordan.
Prince El-Hassan bin Talal: All of us living in Jordan and sharing the Jordanian experience are never really aware of there being an issue about Christian-Muslim relations. We do not normally speak in terms of personal identity; rather, we prefer to talks in terms of human rights or democracy or other ideals. I feel that our ethos in Jordan is very much a pluralistic one throughout the century. This is not a recent development, for the Hashemite movement itself has based its consensus on pluralism. You can see that this is a tradition by looking at such examples as the Sharif Husayn of Mecca's treatment of the Armenians in 1911; or look at the continuous references to the Covenant of 'Umar when the Hashemites deal with the churches, the Orthodox church in particular.
MEQ: How did this come to be?
El-Hassan: Jordanian Christians (and Jordanian Muslims for that matter) are part of a society with a long tradition of mutual respect. In the twentieth century, this respect has been renewed and extended thanks to An-Nahda, or as it is known in English, the renaissance movement, which is the basis of Hashemite political thinking. The Nahda movement is based in the Enlightenment tradition of the 1700s in Europe, a tradition to which Christians not only in Jordan but in other parts of the Fertile Crescent look with much admiration.
The Nahda movement was very much a sharing of Arab Muslim and Christian identities in expressing a vision. The Ba'th have taken the slogan of "a nation with an eternal message," but it was very much an Arab Nahda slogan in the first place.
MEQ: And today, how do things stand in Jordan?
El-Hassan: The recent visit of Pope John Paul II to Jordan clearly indicated how Jordanian Christians—I'd like to put it that way because that's how they perceive themselves—are fully integrated into the national life of the country. In common with many other countries, Jordan has a concept of the traditional churches—of fourteen traditional churches in our case—with whom the modus vivendi is very clear. A steady conversation between them exists, as well as one with the larger society around them. The interaction between the churches of the Christian community is very much a part of the dynamic of Jordanian Christianity.
MEQ: Are there problems?
El-Hassan: Occasionally, issues come that require creative solutions, which we have over the many years been able to supply. For example, when the question of education arose, we resolved it by granting freedom of education to the church schools to develop a Christian syllabus; similarly, synods for young people are held regularly.
Although the interaction between Christians and Muslims is very much a part of a long-standing dialogue, I have been associated with efforts to make it more formal and to extend it into new areas. I can therefore speak with some confidence about these conversations and report to you their successes. At the same time, I would not want to tell you that they proceed without problems. Fears do exist, especially at the fringes of the respective communities—fears whose legitimacy I do not challenge, not just in Jordan, but in many countries in the Arab world and in the world at large.
MEQ: How would you compare Christian-Muslim relations in Jordan with those relations in nearby countries?
El-Hassan: Let me start by saying that I am not being judgmental and that certainly we in Jordan have no intention of proposing ourselves as a model. That said, I believe that religious and cultural rights are not only implicit in Jordan but find full expression there.
MEQ: What can Christian-Muslim interfaith dialogue achieve?
El-Hassan: It can achieve many things. First, in the absolute, it can achieve a sharing in the context of moving from a culture of existing to a culture of participation. By this, I mean that without dialogue, the two communities are there side-by-side but not really interacting. Only when the dialogue begins can they begin to participate in each other's lives.
Secondly, it can demonstrate to the world that the term "Arab" does not necessarily apply to Muslims and that it includes an important Christian population as well. Beyond this, remember that the very identity of Christianity is Levantine and Near Eastern. When our Scandinavian friends come to visit during the Christmas period, they ask, "Where are the reindeer?" To which I reply, "I don't know, but look just up the road, and you'll see Bethlehem a few steps away."
Thirdly, dialogue can develop a context of security and of human interaction that is essential if our region is not to go the way of the Balkans of the past decade. We have to recognize that ethnic and sectarian strife is a live danger and could afflict the region quickly and with terrible results. Let's hope that we can preserve the "good news" story we now have.
MEQ: Is there envy of Christians, due to their economic success? Is this as much a problem as the underlying religious differences?
El-Hassan: Christians across the region have done well, and any minority that has a successful record is looked at with a certain degree of envy. (There are other reasons, too, for discrimination, of course; note in Europe today, where the migrant workers face problems precisely because they have a less successful record.)
Horizontal inequalities—where some groups flourish and others do not—are the basis for any disaffection. I don't want to see those horizontal inequalities neglected. This is why I place an emphasis on the development of a social productivity package such as health insurance and social security; and why I see it as so essential to complementing the consensus of growth through market economics. In other words, it's not enough to build a nation's and a society's economic muscle; it is also important to recognize the cultural aspects of this, as well as freedom of expression, which should include, not only implicitly, but explicitly, religious rights.
MEQ: What specific results have emerged from such dialogue to date?
El-Hassan: I can't speak for the region as such but I can note that in Jordan we've had endless attempts at dialogue through the different associations and foundations in which I've been involved. For a concrete example, look at higher education and the Jordanian conversation with the Holy See. There have been results in terms of qiyas, or analogy, as opposed to competitive studies. It's important for us that we have taken a step in that direction; we do not regard religions as a rivalry but we see them as complementary to each other. We do not say, "My religion has all these qualities that are better than yours." Instead, we compare what my religion has and what yours has. Analogy is an important methodology that is really just now coming into its own.
MEQ: An example?
El-Hassan: Sure: The Foundation for Interreligious and Intercultural Research and Dialogue in Geneva is about to produce the holy books of the three monotheistic religions—the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Qur'an— in a special millennial commemorative issue. That, I hope, will lead to an analytical concordance of the three volumes that will tangibly contribute to de-demonizing the image of the others. It will also have the practical benefit of providing a common terminology for the three religions.
The Dhimmi Status
MEQ: Please comment on the dhimmi status which gives Jews and Christian an assured but second-rate status in Muslim society. Is the dhimmi status completely dead or does it have some residual influence?
El-Hassan: I would prefer to speak more of ahl al-kitab [people of the book, a reference primarily to Jews and Christians], of the covenant of Noah, and of the covenant of Abraham; those seem to me more productive than addressing the concept of the dhimmi status. The dhimmi status is actually a product of a political system rather than a product of a basic attitude of Islam toward Christianity. It was designed essentially to provide protection for religious minorities under Islam. Under the Ottomans it was given its fullest expression culminating in the millet system which granted the various religious communities autonomous status under their ecclesiastical leaders. In fact, that system has long intrigued me. I sometimes think that the Ottoman state began to collapse when the millet system was dismantled, and with it a recognition of the right of the other. If I look around today, I conclude that any cosmopolitan city that co-exists or inter-exists, is essentially practicing a millet-type system under somewhat different pluralistic norms.
MEQ: So the dhimmi status as such is finished? We note that some Muslim religious figures have called for re-establishing the dhimmi status on Christians living in Muslim countries—collecting a special tax from them (jizya), keeping them out of the armed forces and political leadership positions, restricting their places of worship, and so forth. What is your view on this?
El-Hassan: In Jordan at least, I don't think there has been any condescension of that kind. I cannot speak for other countries.
MEQ: Some Muslim countries persecute Muslims who seek to convert to Christianity but encourage Christians to convert to Islam. Your comments on this asymmetry, please.
El-Hassan: Yes, I suppose it is a form of asymmetry, but in the year 2000, winning new converts to Islam is just not the highest priority.
I was visited some years ago by a Muslim figure, an American Christian who had just converted to Islam. He sought my endorsement for this step. When I didn't comment on it, he complained that I had not responded. To which, I replied: "Your conversion may give you personal satisfaction, but basically, we have to concentrate on education and quality of life for all on a non-discriminatory basis."
MEQ: Isn't da'wa, or winning new converts, inherent to the mission of Islam?
El-Hassan: Da'wa remains important to Islam and the Muslims. It must be conducted in accordance with the true spirit of the faith as well as a serious understanding of its religious, spiritual, and ethical tenets. There can be no coercion, and it must be based on free will and personal conviction in Islam and its essential message to mankind.
The Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies
MEQ: Please tell us what your institute is doing to promote equal citizenry for the Christians in the Middle East.
El-Hassan: The Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies is not a religious council but focuses very much on the perceptions of the layman. It doesn't pass religious judgments, but it tries to develop in a contemporary idiom an understanding of Christianity. Take East Africa, for example, where Muslim-Christian relations have been sensitive, particularly as one moves south of the equator. A case in point is southern Sudan, where a terrible war has been taking place for years. We have tried to emphasize the importance of crisis avoidance by exercising a deeper understanding of culture and religion. I cannot claim any breakthroughs there, but we continue to work on this issue.
I am happy to report that the institute has achieved a certain stature. Leading professors from the European Union and other countries have come to visit us on their sabbaticals and have made important contributions, as is reflected by their writings in the institute's bulletin.
MEQ: Have you felt that your efforts have reached the audience you hoped for and had the effect you sought?
El-Hassan: Not fully, and especially not in the dissemination of our materials. I have learned how very difficult it is to get information out. The free flow of information, I believe, should be a part of any self-respecting code of conduct. The media at large would be well-advised to look at the Erasmus model that has been so effective in post-war Europe.
The Christian Exodus
MEQ: What would you ascribe the Christian exodus to—the atmosphere of rising Islamist sentiments?
El-Hassan: That is one cause, but not the only one. Note that those who emigrate tend to be the most skilled. Their leaving is a form of brain-drain—not a wholly bad thing, by the way, for better brain-drain than brain-in-the-drain—as shown by the fact that these visa applicants to many of the Western countries get priority and find it easy to move about. In other words, we're talking not only about a Christian community, but a talented community. Also, there's a certain degree of preference, perhaps, among the Western embassies for accommodating Christian emigrants. This in part has to do with their religion and in part to their familiarity with Western ways, many of them, for example, having attended private schools run by Western institutions.
MEQ: Are the Christians of Jordan worried about their future?
El-Hassan: I cannot speak for them, but I can tell you that I am deeply worried by a Christian exodus from the region. I keep reminding myself that today there are more Christians from Jerusalem—I say Jerusalem because many of them are Jordanian card-holders or passport-holders—living in Sydney, Australia, than in Jerusalem itself. There is a deep concern about the emigration among the community of Arab Christians. On the other hand, let's hope that the Arab communities abroad can help the Enlightenment tradition to revisit our region; they can be an important means of transmission of the best of Western ideas to the Middle East.
MEQ: What steps can be taken by governments or other institutions to stem the exodus of Christians from the region and to encourage Christians to stay?
El-Hassan: Once you accept the principle of free movement, you cannot administratively put a stop to out-migration. The problem has to be addressed in a more profound manner. I prefer to think in terms of developing an inclusionist policy, meaning a recognition that the rights of every member of the community must be respected. I also advocate an intelligent system of proportional representation, which I believe exists to a very large extent in Jordan. Maybe it is even overstated in Jordan, where Christians have more seats in parliament than their population entitles them to. The fact is, the Jordanian parliament represents Christians in a—I won't say a generous manner—but in a correct manner.
MEQ: Does the Christian inclusion go beyond parliament?
El-Hassan: Certainly. In terms of involvement in public life, when a meeting takes place of the synods for young people, I hope that this conversation is inclusionist. And the same goes for private life because, unfortunately, the private realm does dominate the public realm. Things are going wrong when you find Muslims meeting in the context of Muslim political parties, and then Christians meeting in the context of their own parties. This increases apprehensions and leads to knee-jerk reactions. That's why participating in a national discourse along pluralistic lines is so extremely important. There is still much to do, however; in our region, we are basically talking about countries in which civil society still has to go a long way to develop and emerge.
MEQ: In an Islamist environment, what are your feelings about the future in terms of Middle Eastern Christians? Will they remain in their ancestral homes, or is Sydney their future?
El-Hassan: I deem the Muslim political movements' influence on parliamentary elections and their other influence really to be a political phenomenon of the moment, not something that will last. Essentially, it is my fervent hope that a culture of participation can be confirmed and consolidated and thereby lead to a clear understanding of the culture of peace in which we all share. By the way, you used the word "Islamist environment," but I regard this term as perhaps provocative of certain images, and so avoid it. I prefer to describe ours as an "Arab environment," meaning both Arab Muslim and Arab Christian.
MEQ: So you are an optimist?
El-Hassan: I can't afford not to be. I believe in continuing to salve my conscience, at least.
1 Amman: Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies, 1994. The book has also appeared in Arabic and French.
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