Hassan bin Talal: The Arab philosopher who couldn’t be King

Hassan bin Talal & wife

Prince Hassan bin Talal with his Pakistan wife Sarvath Ikramullah

By Nadia Al-Sakkaf
The Yemen Times

He is a man of thought who continuously displays genuine interest in the welfare of humanity. Internationally renowned for his efforts on behalf of pluralism and human rights, His Royal Highness Prince Hassan bin Talal is the author of seven books and numerous published articles in various languages, as well as actively involved in a number of institutes and committees in Jordan and around the world. Prince Hassan also has been awarded numerous honorary doctorates from notable institutions worldwide.

Born on March 20, 1947 in Amman, Jordan, HRH is the son of King Talal and Zeini Sharaf bint Jamil. He is the brother of the late King Hussein of Jordan, was Crown Prince from 1965 to 1999 and is uncle to Jordan’s current King Abdullah II. In 1968, Prince Hassan married Pakistani-born Sarvath Ikramullah, daughter of Pakistani politician Shaista Suhrawardy Ikramullah, whom he met while they were studying at Oxford University. They have three daughters and one son.
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Q: Yemen Times founder, the late Dr. Abdulaziz Al-Saqqaf, was a founding member of the Arab Thought Forum with whom you interacted closely in the past. What would you say in his tribute today?

A: I remember Dr. Al-Sakkaf (may his soul rest in peace) dearly. He was a rather witty contributor to our Thought Forum sessions. I also felt a certain affinity with him, as we both are descendants of the prophet (pbuh). We used to refer to each other as “ibn al-aam,” meaning cousin. I remember a conversation we had long ago about our ancestors and our history as such, especially in relevance to Al-Bait and the prophet’s descendants. We also exchanged many views about the region and traditions, food, weddings and culture.

What can I say of Abdulaziz (may his soul rest in peace)? “Inna al-kiram qalil” – “The righteous are but a few.” Dr. Al-Sakkaf was one of the few motivators of free thought. His legacy has been passed on to you, or at least part of it. I think a moment is going to come when presumably what I referred to as the silenced majority – and he agreed with me in that context – will need to speak out. And so we formed the Thought Forum in order to bury the chasm between people and decision makers. We thought we actually were confirming the generational or historical contract. In reality, what we found was that we unfortunately were blocked at every turn by vested interest – to my way of thinking and to Abdulaziz’s way of thinking as well – which was and is stronger than the public good.

The fundamental rule that joined us both was that public good is the aim of good governance. He also was a man who combined two worlds in one. He was in equity in his own local setting and in the international setting. He also had a great sense of humor. Not many people have the courage to laugh at themselves, a rare characteristic in our part of the world with so many pompous people around in the Arab world.

Q: Speaking of the Arab world, what do you read in the future of Iraq? And would you comment on last November’s bombings at three Amman hotels?
A: As the bloody conflict in Iraq rages on, all of us who feel horror at the plight of the country’s battered population hope for a Parliament representing every Iraqi and for a strong government ruling with responsibility and accountability. Yet, we must recognize that Iraq’s Sunni Arabs feel excluded from an order shaped by Shia and Kurdish leaders under the Coalition umbrella. We saw that last year’s elections did little to solve this problem, nor did they end the bloodshed that spilled into Jordan the next month in a horrible cluster of attacks that reaffirmed Al-Qaeda’s agenda of inhumanity.

The core of the Iraqi insurgency has too much support – both active and passive – to be defeated militarily. Only the horror of an all-out civil war, with perhaps a million more dead, could bring an uncertain end by arms to this ongoing tragedy. Nor will insurgents be drawn into politics by inertia. Dialogue, negotiated agreement and compromise must be the tools to bring Iraq’s fragmented representation to the table. Only then can Iraqi nationalists be freed from a temporary and forced alliance with radicals claiming to represent them.

Many Iraqis welcomed the Coalition’s arrival and with good reason, as the invasion toppled a brutal and oppressive dictatorship. But the currency of goodwill quickly was spent. Security must be a vital part of nation-building, but it also must go beyond mere knee-jerk reaction to terrorism. Basic services have deteriorated further and order has disintegrated. In the absence of a contract of good governance, the Coalition today enjoys very little public support in Iraq.

The conflict now is reverberating around the region and the world, threatening a wave of fragmentations and a global conflict of terror and recrimination wherein innocent civilians will bear the brunt of the suffering. The region’s domino-democratization predicted by Washington strategists has never seemed so distant.

It’s time to change course. The United States and Britain must examine the extent to which Coalition troops, despite their mission to guarantee security, are contributing to growing instability. We need a full and frank debate on how an inclusive, legitimate and secure order can be shaped in Iraq – and the wider region – in coming years. Success depends on an integrated strategy that must go well beyond the recent National Security Council document.

Regarding the Al-Qaeda bombings in Amman, as a Jordanian, I share the anguish of my countrymen at those who orchestrated such diabolical carnage in our capital. As a husband, father and grandfather, I can only imagine the pain and suffering felt by the families affected by this tragedy.

The attacks were not aimed merely at symbols of western influence in Jordan. Their targets reflect our population’s increasing polarization. Our future happiness and well-being depends not only on hard security of arms and intelligence, but on a soft approach to those who are victims without a voice. This is a time not only for good government, but more importantly, for good governance. We must face up to divisions blighting our world. We must all work together to defeat hatred and give hope. This isn’t a mission of optimism but one of necessity.

Q: What about Iran’s increasing presence in the Middle East and international pressure against Iran’s possession of nuclear energy that could be used as weapons of mass destruction?
A: The populism of Abdul Naser, which is close to the populism of Yemen’s revolt, was a populism of slogans. On the other hand, [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad’s populism is somewhat more significant because Iran is a reality transcending the border. Of course, the Iranian Shia are significant in number and one increasingly sees signs of unrest in the Gulf region, especially since 70 percent and 40 percent of the world’s oil and gas respectively are present in the area from the Gulf to north of the Caucasus.

Clearly, Russian interest in providing solutions to Iran’s nuclearization also is linked to concerns over stabilizing the region. And of course, we’ve had Iranian support to the Armenians in their fight against the Israelis. Slogans aren’t specifically Islamic when it comes to populism. They also reflect a certain politique. Of course, as far as the focus of Shiaism, I wish that we can elevate religion above state.

What I would like to emphasize is that all Islamic schools meet on the fundamentals. There is also a broader frame, which is humanity. As far as codes of conduct on weapons of mass destruction are concerned, I have hosted and participated in numerous occasions that included Iranians, Pakistanis, Indians and Israelis.

In our case we have our own country, i.e., Israel, which refused to participate in any open discussion of weapons of mass destruction, I find that extremely dangerous from a subjective point of view, because we are obviously in the middle of a danger zone. And when I say I see smoke here, I’m not talking about nicotine. This is why I believe unilateralism or the desire to import oil and gas from the region have dominated the supply-demand relationship between industrialized countries and regional countries for so long, that they don’t see the value of conversing with the region in multilateral terms.

Q: So, what should be done to stabilize the Middle East?
A: You mean the “Muddle” East, as I’d like to call it, because it’s so confused that I think we need to redefine ourselves. We need to redefine the region in the sense of the context of West Asia, to which you as a Yemeni and I as a Jordanian, as per the U.N., belong. Moreover, Middle East nations as such don’t have a common political feature, as the region includes Turkey, which is heading toward Europe; North Africa, which has its own African alliance, and Israel, which wants to be its own continent, as well as other Asian countries. In historical terms, there is traditional friction between Israelis and Arabs. See what is happening today in Palestine, no one is happy about the continuous bloodshed. So, I think our choices are narrowing because on one side, there’s a strong objection to normalizing relations with Israelis, as their country continues to occupy ours. But on the other side, there’s the sad reality that we as Arabs don’t need more enemies because we are our own worst enemies.

It’s also inadequate to refer to this region as “Muslim,” when what’s meant is Arab, because we as Arabs are only 22 percent of the Islamic ummah (community). As far as Muslims are concerned, the ajim (foreign)-Arab divide and the Sunni-Shia divide are beginning to get the better of us. And I would say that coming close to international good governance, that is to say, defining regional problems in their context, means we must recognize that we are a region lacking any effective superstructure.

We have the Arab League, which is a historical reality originally formed of five countries, including Yemen and Jordan, but which today unfortunately doesn’t completely represent the so-called Middle East or “Muddle” East, which, according to the U.S., extends from Casablanca to Calcutta. This is the world’s poorest, most populous and dangerous region. So, I think as far as West Asia is concerned, it’s time to recognize that we’re the only part of the Asian continent that doesn’t have a defining feature. South Asia is defined by increasing cooperation, such as the South-South cooperation, and the balance of powers now with nuclear realities slowly are entering these countries.

Q: So, you’re saying we need to define our identity and perhaps have representation of it?
A: We do have an identity superimposed on us by the U.N., but we don’t have our own, unfortunately.

Q: Speaking of the United Nations, among other activities, you co-chair the Independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues to promote world peace, so to speak. Don’t you think the Muslim world needs to have stronger representation on the Security Council to promote its interests, as is happening with BRIC countries?
A: As far as discussion of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) is concerned, there’s no reference to religion. I think we have to realize that there’s a difference between geography – such as Southwest Asia, which includes a huge Muslim presence; for example, the country with the highest Muslim population after Indonesia is India – and Islam as a faith.

You’d like to represent yourself in the U.N. structure as Islamic but there’s a certain lack of vision in that because anyway, we are quite heterogeneous. There’s a difference between a Muslim who is Senegalese, Sudanese, Malaysian or Bosnian, for example, just as between a rich man, a poor man and different continents. How can we talk about ourselves as a geographical entity? After all, when we talk about Muslims, we talk about faith. I don’t think it helps in the sense that it’s like putting ourselves in a box.

Q: But still, the Security Council isn’t representative of the world today and we’re disadvantaged by not having our interests highlighted through representation in decision making.
A: That’s exactly my point. For example, if wealthy Arab nations would develop a communication strategy for public diplomacy whereby such wealth – $1 trillion in bank deposits – actually is seen to be doing something to improve the Muslim world’s lot via empowerment and concern for the poor, then you’d see an evolution. Our concern then would become super-national, whereby the issue wouldn’t be to try to beautify our image in the eyes of others, i.e., the West, but rather to promote ourselves not by words but by deeds. But unfortunately at the present time, nobody is taking the initiative toward this super-national thinking. For example, I don’t see why there isn’t an international fund for zakat (alms), even until now.

Q: Because we don’t have the vision?
A: Because we don’t have the desire to think multilaterally. Because such countries’ vested interest financially and unilaterally is tied to superpower and G8 realities and not yet prepared to think of the challenges we face. Look at poverty; look at the 35 million employment opportunities needing to be created within the next year in West Asia alone. Do we see us getting anywhere near that?

Our total productivity is less than 50 percent of Spain or Italy. Our collective contribution to scientific research is less than 1 percent of the entire world. What weight do we bring? The weight of our bank deposits that we’re not even using? What are we doing for the betterment of our people? Slogans like, “Arab oil for Arabs,” which is a very hollow slogan?

Q: To quote you, “Globalization no longer is an option to be accepted or rejected, but rather a fact and facts must be faced squarely.” As an example, is joining the WTO part of facing this fact? What can we do in this context to protect the local labor market and small economies?
A: Why didn’t we negotiate this cumulatively? Jordan joined the WTO in 1974 and at that time, it was only Egypt, Syria and Jordan, then followed by Lebanon and even Israel.

Q: Has there been any recent talk of the WTO’s cumulative affect on our countries?
A: Other than unilateral agreements by Arab nations, no. Thankfully, Tillawi, Egypt at least tried to promote regional infrastructure projects, water pipelines, roads and so forth. But natural thinking between Arabs isn’t permitted.

Q: So, for us, is joining the WTO simply following global trends?
A: It is following the trend. It’s strictly unilateralism and continued recognition that politique outside players have certain terms of reference to offer. And we accept it as it is. There’s no critical mass.

Q: But is there a way back or a way around it?
A: Yes, I think there’s a way forward and that’s for oil nations to enter into inter-land relationships. There can be no stability for oil or resource-rich nations without inter-land stability of human resources. I think that’s a visionary statement by the 1998 Japanese Parliament. But what have we done to develop inter-land relationships? I believe in anthro-policy, not tetro-policy. I believe in putting humanity at center stage.

Q: Please put this into practical terms.
A: In practical terms, let’s ask the world to stop thinking of the pipelines and start thinking of the people living around them.

Q: Do you think the first step would be to create jobs?
A: The first step would be to revisit what began in the 1980 Arab Thought Forum and that was the Arab Development Strategy, the Arab development decade. We attempted to address heads of state and had the opportunity to arrange a short meeting. One of the heads of state, my late brother King Hussein, asked me which time would be convenient to bring them together, but commented, “I sleep after lunch,” to which I replied, “The Arab world has been taking a siesta for centuries. Will half an hour make a difference?”

I haven’t attended a single Arab conference wherein analysis takes place and I’ve attended most of them in the past two decades. So, practically, why don’t Arab ministers or West Asian ministers meet quarterly, culminating a ministerial meeting and taking matters into our own hands?

Q: To devise a common plan?
A: Exactly, where is, the Economic and Social Council for West Asia? We all gravitate toward World Bank meetings and to U.N. meetings around the world, but we never talk to each other before arriving at any international meeting so as to go prepared. So, our identity romantically, historically and poetically is Arab, but it’s not so scientifically. As I keep saying, development is investment-led.

Today, the whole world is investment-led. You see historic buildings and ports being built for no other reason than the feeling that somehow, if such money isn’t spent, it will undermine the economy. In reality, if you look at Norway, which created a fund for future generations, it is realizing exactly the opposite. If you have excess money, you don’t create development. The fiction of development is putting the money into process. It’s a conscious legal contract with children not yet born.

Q: In your view, what were the wasted opportunities of 2005 and what are the potential opportunities for the Muslim and Arab world in 2006?
A: I’m involved with a number of discussion groups contributing to U.N. multilateral debates like the Helsinki process, for example, which led to creating the council on good governance, the Tanzanian-Finnish Initiative. I’m a member of the Commission on Weapons of Mass Destruction, a member of the group formed by the U.N. High Commission to develop the quality of life index and many other groups.

Within a network, I’d like to contribute advisory statements to the U.N. body, but once they’re been turned into U.N. speed, that is to say, diluted by discussion of 65 governments, they lose their relevance. I think as far as the Arab world is concerned – again let me focus on West Asia because I don’t think it’s helpful to generalize – I may be wrong, but I don’t see any behind-the-scenes conceptualization of threats that we face. Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, the question of Iraq, the future of Syria and the question of Iran – how are these issues interrelated? Why don’t we discuss these issues in a crisis-avoidance mode to see how can we contain such crises?

Q: Do you think every one of those crises was an opportunity for the Arab world?
A: We don’t want to take them one by one, but for example, I don’t understand why Arab nations hosting Palestinians that could have voted didn’t open ballot boxes in the same way that happened for Iraqis. If you look at the Iraqis, I don’t see why regional initiatives aren’t forthcoming because you see international initiatives forthcoming. For example, did anyone direct a cultural affinity initiative directed at addressing the Iranians? You have bilateral missions from Amman or Saudi Arabia but is there bilateral concern about what’s happing around those terms, which may lead to a nuclear strike at any moment?
Where is collective responsibility? I just want to put forth my conscious question and ask if this is happening. I don’t see how that’s very logical.

Q: Do you think the 2005 scenario is going to be repeated in 2006?
A: If the 2005 scenario is going to be repeated, then I think we are not going to reach a dead end; rather, we’re going to hit through the wall. The state system itself won’t stand the possibility of further aggression.

Q: Is Syria an opportunity and is Lebanon a starting place?
A: Well, I think all of these issues you mentioned are interrelated. If you want to develop a harmonious strategy, Egyptians and Saudis concerned with mediating should convince the Syrians of the merits of accepting an international investigation with reassurance of some type of diplomatic strategy attached to other issues. You have the question of Hamas, which has begun, and the spell was broken by the Russian government’s initiative. Now was that initiative from any Arab diplomats?

Obviously, the Russians have solved the Hamas issue earlier but what’s happening today in Gaza is collective punishment against Palestinian people and should be stopped immediately. If the PLO revoked its charter well after negotiations with Israel and achieved international support, then why can’t Hamas do the same or be invited to do the same? But what are the impulses? Do we just make it as we go along? Do we treat special cases with more special cases?

Q: Maybe the solution today isn’t to depend on leaderships but rather to go below that level and depend on thought forums and intellectuals for change. What do you think?
A: I don’t think it’s a question of below or above; it’s not a question of hierarchies. All countries use think tanks and all have civil society forums. Unfortunately, I think we neglected public opinion by creating a vacuum, particularly after Sept. 11, 2001. Hard security considerations seemed to be at the top of the agenda. But soft security, in terms of relating to how people feel and inviting them to present their views and talents through open channels, is neglected. I think it would be an investment in governance and an investment in responsible citizenship and would lessen the monopoly of extreme platforms if we encourage citizens’ conferencing.

Q: What about media?
A: I think there should be an alliance between media and scholarship because media is courageous and needs good writing. We hear about embedded journalists who land by parachutes within the troops. But in our countries and in our region, there’s a lot of expertise, which could at least present a case.

For example, before the Iraq invasion/intervention – whatever you want to call it – by foreign forces, the most effective letters from people around the world were from archeologists. And yet, the Americans were asking me what’s archeologically significant about Iraq?

Q: As a journalist, I find that since Sept. 11, there are many more constraints to my profession around the world. Why?
A: As I told you, security now is the priority and that in essence is convenient because it restricts freedom of speech. I could say that the only free speech is that from on top of a mountain; the rest is editing.

When you talk about conversation in the sense of exchanging ideas, either you accept the realities and then turn inward, or you consciously try to develop a moral majority by inviting conversation between different groups, which unfortunately, is in the views of security services rather than suspects.

Q: But what is media’s role?
A: I think media’s role is to intermediate views, whether written, seen or heard. I think this intermediation should be done by inviting conversation directly between citizens. For example, the Helsinki citizen’s assembly invited citizen conferencing. Do we have citizen conferencing? For example, between Yemenis and Jordanians and Saudis?

Do people talk to each other directly other than on BBC World or talking heads invited by Al Jazeera, for example? We have 167 satellite channels and I say they produce info-tainment and info-terror. But do they produce info-wisdom and info-humanity? This is why I encourage creating an international media peace corps.

Q: Tell me more about this international media peace corps.
A: There are a lot of journalists all over the world who are honored by something we call one world broadcasting class, founded in London 20 years ago. So we recognize the first story in the Philippines, South Africa or Chile and honor local journalists. Many of these local journalists, possibly like yourself, would like to feel that they could be networked and effectively influence common debate by perceptions, not by a representative of BBC, CNN, Fox or whatever is on the ground. One comes for a few hours and becomes a self-styled expert or embedded journalist but influences by hearing from the local voice.

Q: Wouldn’t it be difficult to bring people from all around the world together for a common purpose and make them work collectively?
A: Did you see the Middle East Citizens Assembly (MECA)? We’ve been meeting for the past two years and have 24 nationalities from Pakistan to Morocco. Many have begun to feel that we must recognize the diversity of our often diametrically opposing views. We have Islamists, nationalists, Communists, whatever it may be – we even have Jewish Israeli peace activities as well.

Q: What about the Interfaith Foundation and the World Conference?
A: The World Conference has been around for two to three decades. It’s basically nine faith groups, not only Muslims and Christians. I was elected moderator, so that’s why I do what I do. I visited the Holocaust site a couple of years ago and was criticized by Muslim world extremists as to why I’d want to do such a thing. I replied that I’m confident that Jewish and Christian values are a creation of post-World War II guilt, but these values actually are Abrahamic, not Euro-centric or Holocaust specific.

When I arrived there, Catholics thanked me for triangulating a conversation between Jews, Muslims and Christians, while Jews thanked me for reminding the world that genocide continues in the Balkans. Jews and Muslims being the target, after all, we were expelled from Spain after the so-called Roman inquisition. We arrived in the Balkans to an open-armed invitation and hospitality from the Ottoman world. But of course, after World War II, the world had it with Jews and Muslims.

In the field of religion, I initiated a series of contacts and meetings that evolved into a systematic interfaith dialogue. These consist primarily of three separate, albeit complimentary, ongoing consultations with the Orthodox Center of the Ecumenical Patriarchate (Chambesy), the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (Vatican) and the Independent Commission on Christian-Muslim Relations (Deanery of Windsor).

Q: So, is there dialogue?
A: Is there dialogue? You must go through the number of different initiatives I’ve been involved in to know the answer to that. It’s not only the World Conference, but it’s also Saint George’s House, where we produce educational material and present to British Educational Authorities specific teaching by analogy, for example, a documentation for children. We work in terms of the most knowledgeable level with the three holy books in a historical context to develop an analytical concordance of values. But I don’t touch metaphysics. What you believe is your belief and I respect your right to that and expect the same in return. But when it comes to humanitarian values, I don’t care whether you believe or don’t believe. For a humanist, it’s how we can partner in our shared humanity.

We recently hosted the WOCMES (World Congress for Middle East Studies) and it was the first time they’d met in the region. They involve the four Western Hemispheric Centers for Middle East Studies, including the Middle East Studies Association. I thought that rather than bring scholars to congratulate each other, maybe we could begin to develop practical steps out of it.
For example, an alliance between scholarship and media could be one, and translating and publishing great books could be another, both from traditional and new Muslim languages. For example, English is a new Muslim language because Muslims are using it. When we produced the Mohammad Abdulhalim transliteration of the Qur’an Kareem published by Oxford University Press, many British Muslims came to say, “We hope you don’t consider us blasphemous, but we now find it easier to understand the Qur’an.”

Q: What about a solution for today’s violence?
A: We’ve had four or five initiatives contributing to world peace. Most important is publishing customary universal humanitarian law. I’d like to see a new international initiative emphasizing the importance of calling for a law of peace, a charter that can promulgate minority rights, emphasize the rights of protected peoples within complex religions and within cultural autonomies. In short, I’d like to see an approach that brings this troubled region a step further from impending Balkanization, ethnic and sectarian in-fighting and rather offers a concept of humanitarian pluralism.

Q: Is this feasible?
A: If the WTO is feasible, why can’t an international humanitarian law be feasible? Why can’t we network humanity instead of just networking commodities?

Q: Would it be supported?
A: At the present time, I feel that if we can talk about economic order, security order and political order, then why can’t we talk about humanity order? It’s totally hypocritical, because on the one side, Americans talk about American values and the American way of life, while we Muslims talk about Muslim values and so forth. Nobody’s reinventing the wheel, for heaven’s sake. All of these values are in parables 2000 years ago. The book of Job is a parable, Genesis and so on. So, what’s new?

Q: It’s not about saying something new; it’s about taking seriously what’s being said.
A: I totally agree with you. It seems we’re heading toward a situation when mass destruction finally is going to hopefully create a blinding flag of the obvious indicating that we must move from mass destruction to mass survival. A win-win situation can be developed.

I’d like to invite your attention to the times in which we live, times of crisis. In times of crisis, as in war, the Torah urges leaders to act mercifully and make a final effort to avoid conflict: “When approaching a town to attack it, first offer them peace.”

Where does this place our call for a law of peace? Where does it place the Swedish proposal for fundamental rights of humanity? Canadian and Norwegian proposals for Human Security? Our call, in the context of the Commission for Human Rights, for a Racial Equality Index?

Sometimes, I must confess my frustration at feeling that one can speak of a world order in terms of technology, investment or security, but where is soft and human security in this scheme of things?

One of my most recent efforts in trying to communicate what I believe is Islam’s true message is a conversation with a Jewish Italian friend, Alain Elkann. Together, we produced a book, “To Be a Muslim.” He’s had similar conversations with Rabbi Rene Sirat and representatives of the Holy See. I’m aware of similar conversations between Buddhists and Hindus. I wonder whether a roundtable conversation couldn’t be held to emphasize once again the importance of producing an analytical concordance of human values that we share to develop a partnership in our common humanity.

Q: Do we have to reach the edge of a third World War to realize that we need world peace?
A: That’s what I can say. Sometimes, I feel that the third World War already began with the Cold War, which was a proxy war. Vietnam was a proxy war and Korea was a proxy war.

Q: Are we living in a war today?
A: Yes, I think we are. We’re living in what they call no-war no-peace. They call it a low intensity war term, but in reality, what has to dignify it by making it a war, so to speak sarcastically.

Q: Who are the sides in this war?
A: The haves and the have nots. It’s a power conflict, in the broadest possible way. For example, the struggle for civil rights is a war between those withholding them and those demanding them.

Q: What about democratic movements, campaigns and elections?
A: I believe in the ballot, but at the same time, I believe the electorate must reflect public realities. This is what I think electoral laws are designed to promote – the public good, I understand. But if they’re designed to promote the interest of a ruling minority or that of a particular group or ideology, then I think we’re missing the point. This is what I find frustrating with the Sharanski thesis. He wrote this book that was very world thumbed and there’s a whole article on his meeting with [U.S. President George] Bush.

Sharanski says the basic problem with Arabs is that there’s no democracy. So, you have all these democracy institutes in the U.S. and in the West trying to export democracy as if it was a commodity – basically, what I’d call a monologue about mutual dialogue.

The result is that there’s no interactive discussion. Even Arabs who’ve migrated to the U.S., for example Edward Said, for whom I have much regard, are saying more freedom, more equality, more participation and so forth. My question is why can’t we see more of these voices within the Arab world itself if the ground is so fertile? The answer is because security has been taken over by hard security, prisons and police security rather than soft security, which means communicating with people and providing information.

I started a development plan in the early ‘70s when a minister wouldn’t speak because he knew that knowledge is power. If he knew about the next project or so, why should he talk about it? Similarly, the other secretary wouldn’t speak. Finally, we had hundreds and thousands of hours of public discussion and people were obliged to say that the environmental impact of the next project is xyz so people could prepare themselves. You don’t create a huge environmental scheme and not talk about the impact of what people are going to suffer.

Sharing knowledge is a break from the patronizing past because patronizing won’t improve people’s lives. People, more practically locals, must be allowed to express their views, which is why it’s best to choose the one from the local community who best represents the locality.

Q: What do you say about women’s rights?
A: What’s important is that we stop this self-styled defensive advocacy of our understanding of women’s rights in Islam, as if we’re doing the world a favor. Unless it’s in practical steps, to quote historical incidents where women defended in historical steps, we would be missing the point because today’s civil society is about how we as human beings – whether men or women – enjoy equal rights in life.

Q: To quote you again, you said in 1998, “I’ve worked for over 30 years to help create a world in which dialogue, cooperation and peace are so commonplace that they excite no comment…but the world I seek still eludes me.” Do you think that under the current insecurities and cultural mistrust, interfaith or cultural dialogue is possible? And if so, how?
A: I say it even more today in the sense that I walked through the looking glass like Alice in Wonderland. I was in public service part of my adult life and now, having walked through the looking glass, I realize how suffocated public life is by the absence of the oxygen of free thought. I’m very fortunate in that I have the personal hobby or interest in meeting with people like your father and dozens of people all over the Arab and Muslim world and the world as a whole. The humanitarian initiative, peace initiative and inter-faith world are what kept me sane.

Today, if you look at official meetings, official discussions and communiqués, you’d ask where is the vision? I believe in the power of the meetings of minds. If you have a mind, I’d like to meet it.

Q: Is that where hope comes from?
A: Yes, I think so, because after all, if the Arabic word karam, meaning generosity and kindness, is not of the soul as much as money, then why are we living? Where is hope’s space? And why would you bother to come see me if not with the desire and duty to communicate?

Q: After all these years of struggle, do you think it was worth it?
A: Considering the alternative, which would be a total reverse of the cycle of building to destroying, I’d say yes, if you really believe that this region is going to be taken over by revisiting the ruthless self-seeking mosaic of ethnic sectarian blood. That’s what I see is the alternative, so you must develop an edifice of responsibility and civilized behavior by involving human beings.

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