Founded by a Prince and based in Amman, Jordan, Royal Institute for Interfaith-Studies seeks to foster religious and cultural dialogue between Islam and Christianity – so writes Micahel Ireland, chief correspondent for the ASSIST News Service.
AMMAN, JORDAN (ANS) — Two representatives of the Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies recently addressed questions relating to Human Rights, Islamic Shariah Law, and Christian-Muslim dialogue at a Press Briefing of 20 US Christian journalists in the Jordanian capital, Amman.
His Excellency Hasan Abu Nimah, director of the Institute — who is also an advisor to its founder His Royal Highness Prince EL Hassan bin Talal — and Baker al-Hiyari, deputy director, briefed the journalists, all guests of the Jordan Tourism Board, on behalf of the Royal Institute of Interfaith Studies, which HRH Prince Hassan started in 1984 to address issues of inter-religious dialog and cultural interaction.
One of the first questions related to the growing number of Mosques in the United States.
“In the United States recent reports show that there are over twelve-hundred mosques in our country only second to evangelical mega-churches in terms of growth. Recently, since we’ve been here we’ve heard about the Amman Message, an attempt to talk about inter-faith dialog. But I’ve also seen that Christianity in your country is decreasing. My question is what are your thoughts on why Christianity is decreasing here and if the Amman Message is having the effect you expect?”
Hasan Abu Nimah responded:
“You mean the Christians are decreasing not Christianity. Yes, because Christianity does not decrease; no, I’m glad you asked this question because the main purpose of establishing the Royal Institute in 1984, the idea was being considered long before that and and the founder His Royal Highness Prince Hassan, has been keenly interested in promoting dialog between the three monotheistic religions and at a later stage to expand further …”
“… Since the late seventies of the last century, it’s not a new idea. It’s not an idea, which in this part of the world became urgent following the tragic events of September eleven in 2001. His Royal Highness had the vision to anticipate the need for this kind of dialog long before the tragedies. I mean we unfortunately are often reminded only by tragedies to reconsider our ways and our thinking and our preparations for a more peaceful and a better future. So one of the purposes of the Royal Institute are to address this specific issue. The issue of why Christians in many parts in the Arab world, and I’m referring now specifically to the Middle East not referring to the larger Islamic world, but to the Middle East, why Christian communities were leaving and not considering this part of the world as a place secure for their future.
“There are studies, which we conducted in the Institute when we promote this kind of attention. I can say that the effect of that has been very positive on the Christians. Now, instability in this region dates back to the early years of the last century, prompting not only Christians, but others to leave; anyone who finds an opportunity in Canada or Australia or the United States or South America people have been migrating. And you know people also move around the world with the globalized world that we live I now. There is more movement. People move all the time. But definitely it was of great concern to us here that the Christian communities, because they are smaller in number, should not be encouraged or should the conditions which at some point make a Christian family or a Christian individual a Christian community feel that probably it’s better not to be here, this kind of feeling should be addressed, should be addressed in a way that either convinces people that we’ve been together all the time and we have created our history our legacy our culture even religion. We built together.
“You must have noticed while you are in Jordan that we don’t have any difference and people don’t even want to know who is Christian and who is Muslim in this country. So this issue is being addressed and it continues to be a main concern for our Institute and others and of the government in this area. No one wants the number of Christians to dwindle and decrease. No one wants any resident in this part of the world — I’m not specifically talking about Jordan, although Jordan might be a better example here — nobody wants any resident Christian or otherwise to feel that this is not the place for me or for my children or you know for our future. We all sometimes face difficulties; we all sometimes feel insecure; this is due to circumstances which we I‘m sure all appreciate. But we tend to resist this feeling not to encourage it and to detect and track every incident or series of incidences circumstances or conditions that might enhance this feeling and try to address it as quickly as practically possible.”
One reporter said he was told that if a Christian woman marries a Muslim man and lives in Jordan the children have to be raised as Muslims even if she wants them to be raised as Christian; and they are registered according to the law as Muslims. Is there a chance that that law could be changed?
“There are a lot of inter-marriages both ways and people are still getting married Christians to Muslims, Muslims to Christians without any difficulty,” said Hasan Abu Nimah. “Now what happens to the children I think it’s a matter for the parents or the families to understand that or agree because there isn’t an agreement normally on how on how people decide ahead of time what… Some people do probably they agree.
“But what governs the the civil the family matters the civil status matters is there any just law, and in Islam which governs these matters here it says that the Muslim can marry a Christian woman, but the Christian woman in that case does not have to convert to Islam if she wishes not to, and a Muslim girl can get married to a Christian man; but in that case you have to go to religious court and register the marriage. And a Muslim girl can only marry a Muslim man, so that requires the husband in that case to convert.
“If the marriage is done here, it is registered in a religious court, but if they get married in the United States and they do civil marriage and they opt to keep it that way that is a matter for them to keep. Now the possibility of changing the law is very difficult because you can change civil laws but you can’t change religious laws. But what happens in de-facto matters is that you know there are cases where people don’t have to apply the law in its strict manner and sometimes you don’t ask the children. They become grown ups, they become adults, without even raising the question if they would be Muslims or Christians (or) how do they feel because religion is a deeper matter than what people like to confess publicly in any situation.
“So this is, I must say, is a very sensitive matter in a way that would require to change the law would probably complicate things more than providing solutions. So what’s happening now is people get married; human relations sometimes overrule other factors and people accept things as they are without having to take in or put (it) in black and white what how the relationship (will work). Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they don’t. But there are no legal solutions for these matters, particularly if the legal solutions require changing the religious legislation that govern these matters.”
Jordanian King endorses moderate Islam
One questioner mentioned that His Majesty King Abdullah spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast a couple of years ago and mentioned that the King talked about the importance of common ground among the three major monotheistic religions: things like monotheism, the Abrahamic scriptures, loving God loving others.
“It was quite intriguing, he talked about a reaffirmation of true Islam and an effort (I’m quoting here) an effort to reaffirm traditional moderate Islam, to expose and isolate extremism and to emphasize the common teachings of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He went onto say that the organization of the Islamic Conference also adopted these principles and I’m curious how you here in Jordan have gone about implementing the principles the he talked about and what results you might have seen especially any results that your aware of in the Islamic nations? It’s quite intriguing that the other nations bought into this.”
His Excellency Hasan Abu Nimah replied: “The Amman Message spells that out very clearly. We do discourse in this country and His Majesty is leading in that matter is for the emphasis on the value of moderate Islam and of true Islam, because you know in any religion you can find the text, you can find scripture which support the views of different kinds of people. But if we take the essence the spirit of any monotheistic religion here we are talking about the three we find that yes there are common values, there are common perceptions of things, especially the good values assuming there are no bad values in any religion.
“So there is, in that sense, extremists probably in every religion who try and do interpret religion their own way. I don’t even like being separation between moderate and extremist; you know there is something correct and something incorrect. I would say correct Islam is the Islam, which we understand in this country the Islam which opposes all the trends which we see these days committed in the name of religion, committed in the name of Islam. It’s a very compassionate religion; it’s a religion for kindness, for peace for understanding, for respect for the others, for respect for the views of the others, for acceptability, and it’s even more than mere tolerance which has negative connotation in some ways. So this is how we view religion in this country.
“Being predominantly Muslim this is how we view Islam also. We don’t see Islam as a reason for undermining the rights of others who live in this country. We only have Muslims and Christians here. We have sects in Islam as you know we didn’t even want to know how many Shi’ias, how many Sunis, how many Druze, how many other ethnic minorities, because we emphasize the principle of citizenry like the situation is in great democracies such as the United States. We are citizens of the same country. Now other matters are more or less private somehow. And the law governs our relationship with each other and with the state with of course no discrimination of any kind and we hope that this applies here.
“We continue to monitor the situation to detect any discrepancy and deal with it as it arises. So that applies here. Now I think when the Organization of the Islamic Conference endorsed the Amman Message they endorsed the spirit of the message. There are still practices, there are some difficulties in one country. You know to change the mentality of any society it’s not by issuing decrees, it’s by a process of education that brings people up to the level of what our relationship in the open to each other’s worlds we live in now should be the rising levels of acceptability and mutual respect beyond the mere principle of tolerance should be a mission of all of us.
“Things cannot be changed overnight, but once we know what the prescription it is the first important step to us dealing with the situation and, if there is resistance, sometimes even addressing an old custom is often confronted with resistance, this is a gradual process. But we’re aware in this country and I think in many parts of the world of Islam, the larger world of Islam, we’re aware of the need to clear out any symptoms of discrimination or intolerance wherever they can be detected as existing.”
Deputy Director Baker al-Hiyari commented: “I just wanted to add one thing. Islam is a very diversified religion and there is now one Islam. You know as a religion, as a message, is one thing but it’s not in practicality and in life and the way we see it now is related to the Muslims the people the human beings.”
“There is one Islam but there are many Muslims put it this way,” said Abu Nimah.
Baker al-Hiyari continued: “So today there are many versions of Islam as there are Muslims. So because they have their input to it and they represent it. So I think what the OIC and what what His Majesty was saying with the Amman Message is trying to lay down the basics, realize them, understand them and then move on forward, which is something of a review process that should and must happen every certain period of time just remind people to take a breath and to refresh and move on.”
How does Jordan handle Human Rights freedoms?
One audience member wanted to know if Jordan was a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and how the Jordanians deal with the freedom of religion, the right to promote religion, and the right to change religion without interfering with individual liberties?
Hasan Abu Nimah replied: “Well, you know we signed the convention and sometimes in the United Nations when we sign conventions such as the rights of women, such as the issue you just raised now (about marriage) we always refer to sensitive matters, which contradict the legislation of religion. So we try to do things in the best possible way without having to be accused of contradicting religion. So this is the way. You do it in the best possible way without putting the two things in confrontation with each other.”
On the question of Human Rights, Abu Nimah explained: “Well you know you can always have the best interpretation and the worst interpretation. There is a difference between taking a UN international legislation to moderate the effects any local legislation that you cannot change or you can take the local legislation as an excuse for not respecting the United Nations legislation. It depends how you see it. We see it in the most positive way and so far it’s been working fine. So we face this question before us in our institute. We promote freedom of religion. People in this country are free to practice their religious duties and religious rights whatever they feel like doing free. Nobody intervenes.
“One of the distinguished guests here referred to the number of Mosques; I don’t know how many, it never occurred to me to count the number of Mosques and it never occurred to me to count the Churches. But I think people are free to build houses of worship. Being churches, we don’t have many Jewish people in this country, (but) if we did you would have synagogues, you would have anything which would make a religious community comfortable in practicing its religious duties.
“Now the question that was specifically asked before is, is a Muslim allowed to convert to Christianity or to another religion. According to religious legislation, no. But do the authorities come every day or every month to ask citizens in this country are you still a Muslim or did you change? Nobody would ask these questions. So, if as a matter of belief internal, peace of mind, one feels the need to do something, people can do a lot of things without having to get a license for doing that. And again the law is supreme and it governs the relationship between the individual and the state.”
Do Americans get it right at least some of the time?
Another audience member asked: “Could you tell us one thing that American Citizens do well to promote interfaith dialog and one thing that we do wrong from your perspective that would undermine interfaith relations?”
What American Christians are doing right to help this conversation and this interfaith dialog, and one thing that we do wrong, where we’re making a mistake?”
“If we want to count mistakes,” said Abu Nimah, “then we have to discuss politics, and I don’t think we are here for that!”
He continued: “There are a lot of mistakes, unfortunately. But on the question I must be very honest with you. The question of human relations of the dialog — and I don’t mean here specifically religious dialog — the American people that we know and we’ve known for long time before are the easiest people to talk to and to establish dialog with and to understand and to make them understand you. They are good-natured. I’m not trying to be polite, I don’t know how many Americans or non-Americans are here, but this is the feeling here and we are always proud in this country to say that even the great disagreement with American politics never reflected — and I would say never would emphatically — never reflected on the feelings of the people not only in Jordan here but even in the larger Arab world on their feelings towards American citizens and American people.”
Abu Nimah cited a story about the time former Bush White House advisor Karen Hughes visited Egypt more than a year ago. The Herald Tribune newspaper quoted a taxi driver telling her that “we love you hundred percent and we hate your politics hundred percent.”
“I think this is a very simple equation, which describes the feelings of people,” said Abu Nimah. “So politics is a different matter; I honestly think the United States is making grave mistakes, which are reflecting also on the human relations but not on the human sense. Not in the sense that you know people in this country welcome Americans. I was accompanying American friends to Damascus once and one of the small group of personal friends was a very blond young lady who looked not Syrian, not Jordanian. And we went to have ice-cream in the famous store and the you know there they beat ice-cream with big wooden hammers and they asked me where does the lady come from and I said from America. And he said Bush here and he kept beating and he gave her free ice-cream. So this is again like 100 percent, so he was imagining Bush being in the ice-cream bowl being beaten with the big hammer and the lady deserved the free scoop of ice-cream.
“On human matters it turns out we still have a lot of ways open to each other. We talk and we travel and we see each other and we understand and sometimes we have empathy and clear understanding. The one thing which again I would like to mention is that following September 11, following the prevailing perception that Islam is necessarily linked to terrorism and to violence the view from above, I wouldn’t say the view of Americans maybe there are Americans who don’t know. There are Americans who are fed with information, which leads to this perception many started to believe that religiousness is dangerous because religiousness could mean violence.
“You know I would be very comfortable with a true religious person as a Muslim, not only if he’s a Muslim. A truly religious Jew or Buddhist or Christian or Hindu would be very comfortable to deal with because people of true faith, people who truly believe in God, people who truly believe in the basic virtues of religion, are good people, simply very good, and you have no difficulty with them. Now that we have different ways to reach God is a different matter.
“So here is the situation about the war on terror, which is legitimate, which we contribute to in every possible way and we cooperate with international efforts to deal with that matter. We feel sometimes it’s diverted or it’s missing the target and (that) addressing religion as such and that’s dangerous. That might put many Muslims on the side of terrorists and make them behave that way. If you suspect me as a Muslim if I come to the airport, if you suspect me because I have a long beard simply because this is a symbol or could be a symbol of true religiousness, and it could be a symbol of fanaticism — if you mix the two and confuse the two that’s dangerous.
“We have to continue to understand that people can turn into the wrong ways being religious or not religious. We are all human beings but we have different ways of handling our lives. So this is another mistake we need to be aware of: that religion and the rise of religiousness is not necessarily a harmful sign if it is the right way of religiousness. If we are committed believers in the right way, what is wrong with that? We shouldn’t be concerned or afraid of the fact of rising religiousness unless it is a certain version of religion, which is not, again we don’t have true religion or untrue religion we don’t have moderate or un-moderate, we have true or untrue.”
Are Jordan’s Christians a happy minority in Jordan?
Abu Nimah told the gathered journalists that from the feedback the Institute gets regularly, he would say that the Christian community leaders and the Christian community intellectuals, and even the religious leaders “feel strongly satisfied with the fact that they’re happy, and they’re satisfied, they’re content, with the fact that a special institute was created to address these issues.”
Another journalist mentioned that the discussion centered around inter-faith dialog and there seems to be a broader overview that hasn’t been addressed and that’s the more ‘culture-to-culture’ dialog.
“I’m thinking if you go to an airport bookstore in the United States and you see the titles of some of the fiction, (for example): ‘Allah’s Fire’ and ‘Sword of this’ and we see websites that translate Al Jazeera programs, that even Americans — who aren’t particularly religious one way or another — are developing the perception of a Muslim primarily based on fiction. What efforts are being made aside from the religious world just culture-to-culture to have dialog and to address these perceptions?”
Abu Nimah responded: “Again I would like to refer to His Royal Highness; he’s been calling for an inter-cultural dialog for many years. We don’t see a big difference between any inter-religious, inter-faith, inter-cultural, inter-civilizational or bridges between people. The difference between what we did since the mid-nineties, but much longer before that, what we did is different in that we don’t see dialog as only a prescription for addressing a specific problem and once the problem is settled we don’t need the dialog. We see the dialog as an on going process of interaction amongst people and people wanted it even in the early days when human beings appeared on earth they wanted to learn about each other and interact with each other sometimes peacefully and in a friendly manner, sometimes in a different manner when they competed over life the means of maintaining life.
“So Prince Hassan, towards that end established about three and a half years ago the Parliament of Cultures. It’s an organization which was established in Ankara at the university and the idea is exactly what you said: is to bring cultures, to bring representatives of cultures, not individuals not representatives of religions to bring representatives of cultures in a form of a forum, call it a parliament, to debate how cultures should interact — how do you create meaningful understanding between cultures and the people such cultures represent? The idea was to have the seat of the Parliament of Cultures in Istanbul because it’s the bridge between the East and the West, but Ankara offered the facility at the university and the two cofounders were the founder of the university and the Prince who financed the effort themselves. We hope that this one facet of the activity would develop into providing more space for interaction between cultures. So I think this answers your question.”
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Article by Michael Ireland is an international British freelance journalist. A former reporter with a London newspaper, Michael is the Chief Correspondent for ASSIST News Service of Lake Forest, California. Michael immigrated to the United States in 1982 and became a US citizen in September, 1995. He is married with two children. Michael has also been a frequent contributor to UCB Europe, a British Christian radio station. His weblog appears at: Michael’s Wor(l)d BLOG
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