The co-existence of civilisations

19 March 2007

HRH Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan began by explaining that the ‘Co-existence of Civilisations’ initiative was launched by the Danish newspaper Mandag Morgen in response to the ‘cartoon crisis’ in Denmark. It aims to build a dialogue to strengthen co-existence across nations, cultures, religions and values, and is taking this message on an “expedition” around the world.

One of the challenges to co-existence is the security agenda. Nowhere, said the Prince, was there “more evidence of ‘hard or military’ security than its use in the global war on terror”, which was being played out in his immediate neighbourhood.

He regretted that although Hamas had won the democratic elections in the Palestinian Authority, the new government was being ostracised in a way that many people had described as applying “double standards”. He called instead for a “soft security” approach based on an understanding of the vulnerability and the humiliation suffered by people in the area.

Constructing peace in the minds of men

Change should be sought “from the bottom up”, filling the gap between the intelligencia, the government and the general public and “motivating the silenced majority” to help build a new international order. Prince Hassan said he was working to create “public spaces for co-existence” and discussion since [to quote from UNESCO’s Constitution] “wars begin in the minds of men...(so) it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed”.

The Prince said he had travelled through West Asia and the North African region (WANA) in his efforts to build the Middle East Citizens Assembly, spanning a Middle East reaching from Morocco to Calcutta and including all nationalities and all religions “without exception”.

We need to be guided by what US Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Ambassador Karen Hughes, has described as the “four ‘E’s’: engagement, exchanges, education and empowerment”, said Prince Hassan, adding that an important part of this is “putting yourselves in the shoes of the other”.

He insisted that “nothing short of a deliberate effort to do this will work”, and praised a number of recent initiatives to educate and empower citizens: the Children’s Museum for Peace and Human Rights recently opened in Karachi; the International Coordination of Women Living Under Muslim Laws in Montpellier; and St Paul’s University in Ottawa, a faith-based university which has established links with Afghanistan and Muslim scholars. He also mentioned a forthcoming project “Arab thought at the cross-road of civilisation”, which would create dialogue in order to begin “an education of the heart”.

Developing inter-faith dialogue

Another important challenge is to develop inter-faith dialogue. Prince Hassan said he had turned down requests to work on a book on Arab history, as he felt it would end up as “a blame game”. Instead he wanted Jews, Christians and Muslims to work together on a history of the Mediterranean.

As the only Muslim member of the Centre for Hebrew Studies in Oxford, the Prince is working on a project on the undercurrents in the Jewish prayer book and said he hoped this could lead to a study on the standards shared by all religions. To quote the Hebrew philosopher and historian Hans Kohn, “the time has come to talk about standards and not only values”.

Prince Hassan also wants Europe to do more to spread the co-existence of civilisations, for, as cellist Pablo Cassals asked: “The love of one's country is a splendid thing. But why should love stop at the border?” A European vision statement is needed on the importance of creating links throughout the world, as currently it appears that Europe is only creating bilateral links.

A major concern is to separate the public and religious spheres. A prime cause of religious fundamentalism is the social polarity between rich and poor, which urgently needs to be redressed. Prince Hassan suggested bringing together religious figures from all the faiths to form a “multi-dimensional peace corps” to help the world’s sick and poor.

In the Balkans, the presence of NATO troops eventually resulted in a peace agreement and the development of a model of “effective citizenship”. This concept could be used in the Middle East, where the enormous military presence should be used to leverage a regional agreement. Prince Hassan called for a Summit for Iraq to ensure an international commitment to peace, voicing concern about the growth of weapons purchasing in the region.

He was also concerned about the imbalance of funds being spent in the Middle East - the US is spending more on military intervention in Iraq and its own homeland security than on helping refugees from the conflict. In general, more funds are needed for the region. If nothing was done, warned the Prince, by 2015 it would be “handed over to the extremists” who were being “hot housed” because of resentments building up.

He finished by expressing hopes that the language of co-existence and the baton handed to him by the Danish Parliament, together with the work of Mandag Morgen, could help to create an equal, stable and sustainable future.

Replace conflict with dialogue

Erik Rasmussen, Chief Editor of Mandag Morgen said the ‘Co-existence of Civilisations’ initiative was launched to create dialogue rather than conflict, and to develop the language of co-existence needed for the global future.

He identified five mains challenges: empowering the powerless; ensuring freedom of religion; creating public space for co-existence; ensuring an independent judiciary; and overcoming ‘the security agenda’.

An “expedition” would take this message round the world. It had begun with the Nordic Council, and would go to Turkey, the Middle East and Pakistan. Its two key aims are to involve young people in the debate and tear down cultural and religious stereotypes.