The peaceable kingdom of Jordan

Editor’s Note: I recently participated with 19 other western Christian journalists in a seven-day tour of Jordan under the sponsorship of the Royal Jordanian Tourism Board.

In the following three stories, you will get an overview of Jordan as a country, insights into efforts by Jordanian leaders to foster peace and equanimity among the major faith groups in the region, and personal reflections by one such leader, Prince El Hassan bin Talal — Jack Haberer.

It can feel surreal to walk the streets in Amman at night — with its metropolitan population of 4 million living free of crime, of violence, of anxiety — knowing that just 44 miles west lies Jerusalem, the hub of Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Is the appearance of serenity just an illusion?

In fact, the peace is pervasive and it is real. It exists for good reason. A generation ago national leaders, especially the late King Hussein bin Talal, the father of modern Jordan (1935-99), took the initiative to build national and regional peace. After the 1967 War, Hussein helped draft UNSC Resolution 242, which called upon Israel to withdraw from all Arab lands occupied in the war, in exchange for peace. During the 1990-91 Gulf War, he exerted pressure to effect an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait. A 1994 Peace Treaty with Israel opened up the border and took a major step toward achieving a just, comprehensive, and lasting peace.

During his years on the throne, Hussein launched a national education program. The literacy rate grew from 33 percent in 1952 to 91.3 percent in 2003. Many of the brighter students were sent to leading universities in Europe and the United States.


Among those receiving advanced education have been members of the royal family and other leaders of government. Earning two degrees with honors from Oxford was Hussein’s younger brother, Prince El Hassan bin Talal, who served as crown prince for 35 years (until, on his death bed, Hussein declared his son Abdullah II to be his successor). Through all his adult years, Hassan has served as a leading intellectual force in the country. A devout Muslim (he and his brother are 42nd generation descendants of the Prophet Muhammad), he poured himself into the study of the other two western monotheistic religions. As his brother’s closest advisor, he initiated many efforts to bring understanding between the three religious groups, emphasizing their points of agreement without diminishing their distinctives (see “30 minutes with Prince Hassan” on page 8.

He continues to serve as a key advisor to King Abdullah II.

“I don’t believe in interfaith dialogue, because faiths don’t dialogue,” he said in a recent interview. “Faiths believe what is essential to their faith. That’s not negotiable. I believe in dialogue between adherents of faiths, because they can talk about the values they share in common without giving up their distinctive beliefs.”

In spite of their best efforts to forge a peace among these faiths, Jordanians suffered their own 9-11. On November 9 (the ninth day of the 11th month), 2005, suicide bombers carried out simultaneous attacks on three U.S.-based hotels in Amman, killing 57 and wounding 115 others. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s “al-Qaida in Iraq” terrorist network took credit for the attacks, whose victims were mostly Jordanian.

Speaking in one of the rehabilitated hotels, Jordanian Senator Akel Biltaji recounts the fact that he had left the hotel just 25 minutes before the bombs exploded. He expounds upon what he calls the hijacking of religion. What begins with piety moves into prophecy — speaking out on significant issues. That morphs into politics, which “is what we are getting from certain evangelists’ voices which are unfortunately more harmful to dialogue, because it is an outright rejection of the other … . ” And then comes patriotism, which promotes blind loyalty to one’s own people and militant, fundamentalist opposition toward the other. “And,” he concludes, “religion is hijacked.”

As Prince Hassan says, “There is nothing fundamentally religious about fundamentalism. … The hatred industry has created this situation…”

The Jordanians have refused to respond in kind. In fact, on live television in Moscow in September 2004, just two days after 300 Russian school children were massacred by a Muslim fundamentalist, Vladimir Putin urged King Abdullah II “to lead a campaign to let the people know that this is not what Islam is.” Inspired by that challenge, the king gathered 12 scholars and leaders to study the Quran. They “searched for violence in Islam: couldn’t find it,” recounts Senator Biltaji, one of the 12 participants. All they found were specific events, comparable to the battle of Jericho in the book of Joshua that directed wholesale killing in a specific instance. Nowhere in the Quran could they find any such command for other times and places.

Finally, the 12 scholars gathered with other leaders, including Muslim Imams, to forge and sign The Amman Message Jan. 22-23, 2008. Aiming to recover Islam’s unity around a core set of commitments, the Message reminds the readers of how the Quran “honours every human being, without distinction of colour, race or religion.” It declares “ … that Muslims … are called to act gently on earth … to shun violence and cruelty, and speak with kindness and respect. … [It] urges tolerance and forgiveness … it opposes extremism, exaggeration, and intransigence … ”

“We denounce extremism today, just as our forefathers relentlessly did through Islamic history. … On religious grounds, on moral grounds, we denounce the contemporary concept of terrorism which is associated with wrongful practices wherever they come from – including assaults on peaceful civilians, killing prisoners and the wounded, unethical practices such as the destruction of building, and ransacking cities. These despotic attacks on human life transgress the law of God, and we denounce them. … ”

“We pray to God: to provide our Islamic Nation with means of renaissance, prosperity, and advancement; to shield it from the evils of extremism and closed minds; to preserve its rights, sustain its glory, and uphold its dignity. He is the best Lord and the Best Aid.”

Since its adoption, the Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center has been circulating the statement widely, recruiting additional endorsements of it, and seeking to spread the message that, at least in Jordan, peaceful interfaith relationships are thriving, and can be thriving elsewhere as well.

Its founder, Father Nabil Hadad of the Melkite Catholic Church, reflects, “In Jordan the political atmosphere, the social practice and history, and the Jordanian Christian community make it easier for us – really – to work on promoting what we call the Jordanian model of Muslim-Christian relations. Now this model has both parties, the two parties. We are good Christians.  [They are] good Muslim[s]. That is the equation. It set a high criterion that we need to meet. I think that the compatibility that we’ve built in Jordan … I think is really helping us to carry out this mission.”