17 January 2007

HRH Prince Hassan

Over the last few weeks I have had some interesting, if basic, conversations about the Middle East with a group of Americans that are staying in my building. This group is composed of academics who have no knowledge of the Middle East. I was also told that none of them have ever been to this region before their trip to Jordan. The idea behind the grant that brought them here is to expose university professors in the social sciences to some of the basic issues and history of the Middle East. As one of the men in the group said to me, “We’ll stay here for three weeks and learn, then we’ll go home and declare ourselves Middle East experts.” I have had the benefit of being their neighbor as many interesting talks have been hosted in the library here, and I have been both privileged and honored to be invited.

Today, we were especially honored to have Prince El Hassan come and speak to us about teaching Islam. Though I’m sure world leaders are not coincidently personable and articulate, I found him so funny and pleasant that I think it still bears stating so. Prince Hassan was expected to become king after King Hussein died of cancer, but at the last minute Hussein decided that Abdullah would instead take the throne. I won’t speculate here about what Jordan might be like if things were not changed last minute. Suffice to say that both men seem like compassionate and intelligent folks who truly care about this country. In any event, Prince Hassan’s talk today was interesting, and he is also really funny, making the hour he spoke absolutely fly by.

He began by talking about the Middle East right after 9/11. He said that the Pentagon commissioned a study about what is needed in the Middle East that might stem potential terrorists from becoming so. They recommended more educational opportunities, a more open society, and more religious tolerance, among other things. He told us that he asked them, “Do you have something to tell me that I didn’t already know?” Then he told them “You have presented me with a monologue about how we need more dialogue.” The problem is that the Middle East was globalized, what ever that means, well before the rest of the world. While this region is in many ways well ahead of the world, it is simultaneously well behind much of the world, and the reasons for this are too complex to be patched up by ‘a more open society.’ He said, “Jordanians are Asians, Egyptians are Africans, and Israelis are what ever they want to be,” an apt insight into the complexities that belie identity politics here.

I’m under the impression that Prince Hassan’s politics are controversial in the Middle East. He called for serious reconciliation discussions with the Israelis; he said that women are not given a fair shake in Islam, and he said that Islamists would do well to focus less on the distinctions between Sunni and Shia’, or Muslims and Jews, and more on religious tolerance and progress within a globalized framework. In other words, it isn’t just the West’s (read: American) terrible misunderstanding of the Middle East that has left this place in shambles, it’s also the failure of Arabs to engage with themselves that has exacerbated the problems here.

So what does it mean to be Arab? Well, for many it certainly means being Muslim. Prince Hassan calls this Public Islam. This sort of phrase usually makes Westerners chafe at the thought of a religious-state, while terms like “secular state” do the same to Islamists. Does this need to be the case? Prince Hassan talked about the separation of “church” and state as a theory in which the social sphere and the state sphere do not entirely overlap, and that’s it. He said instead of talking about a Secular State, we can talk about a Civil State, and this won’t make religious people as uncomfortable. “Secular,” Prince Hassan said, “…rings badly in the ears of Arabs.” He went on to say that clearly defining what we mean by the loaded terms we use (i.e. globalization, religion, society, politics) would go along way toward achieving some agreement between communities. He asked, “Do you want to eat grapes, or argue all night with the watchman?”

So what is a community? The problem currently seems to be that if we have an Arabist Community, we cannot have an Islamist Community because Arabs are not heterogeneous, much to the surprise of many Western elites. In other words, pursuing political policy that would sit right with “Arabs” can never work. Thus, co-existence between communities should be the first priority. Easier said than done.

Prince Hassan had a first edition book with him that was printed in 1927. The title of the book is “Baghdad: City of Peace.” He read the introduction to us. Baghdad, the author argued, was only a peaceful city because it had profited from unending regional war. Prince Hassan argued that the Arab self-perception may be one rooted in the spoils of war. So where is the Arab point of reference? Maybe there isn’t one, he said. This kind of identity vacuum allows people to come in and corrupt what is good about the religion and the people. Prince Hassan said, “The Bin Ladins are the deregulators of religion in this century,” and this should not be the case. Globalization and “development” coupled with the deep history of the Middle East has made for a complex group of nations. Yet, he said, the “radius of conflict is just 80 miles.”

It was really exciting to attend his talk. On Thanksgiving another member of the royal family attended dinner. Both then and now I am so impressed with how cool this family is.


Blogger Steven Kesler said...

It sounds like the Middle East has enough complications of it's own, even without Western influence. It also sounds like the ongoing barriers to widespread peace or tolerance are probably best left to their own devices. The last thing the people need is a completely different Western regime imposed upon them. What a terribly difficult situation, made much worse by outsiders trying to determine what's best. Those who call the Middle East home are certainly the ones who suffer the most. I don't think there is an easy solution in any event.

10:02 PM  
Blogger Weeping Sore said...

Bet you wish you had learned earlier that American scholars can become experts on the Mid-East by spending three weeks in Amman. I guess that would make somebody spending a year there a very slow learner.

11:30 PM  
Blogger K said...

Did you have a chance to talk to Prince Hassan or ask him questions?

1:29 AM  

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