HRH Prince El Hassan bin Talal
25 June 2004

Two years ago I argued in The Friday Times that the modern Islamic state is not something that was produced by the decline of colonialism or the rise of industrialisation but is based upon principles that are common to all of humanity. The Islamic ideal state thus shares virtually the same ethic – the same notion of what is good and needs to be done and what is evil and therefore needs to be avoided – as other states.

Today, as we are further sensitised to violence through the over-play of horrific and brutal images of man’s indignity to fellow man, I am convinced that the ethical imperative in our relations with one another – as nations, communities, religions, and as individuals – is more necessary than ever.

Occupation breeds resistance and resistance provokes extreme violence from the occupiers which causes more pain and suffering, leading to even more stern resistance – it is a spiral of violence. The brutality that continues to emanate from Iraq shows clearly the limits and dangers of unilateralism through the utter failure, both as a concept and as an instrument of policy, of the military solution. We need a Marshall Plan, not a ‘martial’ plan. An Islamic Marshall Plan, for example, could help reconstruct war-torn societies like Iraq but equally help build relatively more stable nations like Pakistan.

In May 2003, I hosted in Amman a meeting of senior representatives of Iraq’s religious communities who met for the first time since the fall of the regime of Saddam Hussein. Iraqi religious leaders expressed their growing concerns over tensions among the country’s religious communities. The consultation focused on these tensions, their root causes and the positive actions within the reach of the religious communities that can be taken to address them. We worked together, under the auspices of the World Conference of Religions for Peace, to form an Iraqi Inter-Religious Council for Peace, which includes religious representatives from all parts of Iraq and was formed in August 2003. The Council met in March 2004 and emphasised the need to respect religious differences, to continue to take concrete actions together to meet critical needs in Iraq, and called for a new political order based on profoundly shared moral principles that would guarantee the dignity and freedoms of every Iraqi.

Religious communities need to harness their own immense pools of goodwill. They complement what good governance can do. Therefore they need to be acknowledged and empowered in proper forums as those who have unique potential to advance the common good. When different religious communities find principled and respectful ways to cooperate on deeply held and widely shared cares, their actions can be substantively and symbolically more powerful than when religious communities act alone.

Indeed, in this era of building upon the mutual trust created recently between India and Pakistan, the need for security and cooperation at the inter-regional level is of paramount importance, and the inclusion of effective, influential religious voices is critical. The Indian diplomat, Professor Beni Prasad Agarwal, is right when he calls for an Asian Union based along the lines of the pre-existing – and successful – model of the European Union. I have stated many times that Europe, like the Middle East and other parts of what I refer to as the Arc of Crisis (stretching from the shores of the Mediterranean to the atolls of the Far East), was once plagued by war and internal rivalry for centuries but is now proceeding down the path of integration and cooperation. Europe has reached the level of development at which traditional enemies now view themselves as partners not adversaries.

The future wellbeing of the Iraqi people turns in great measure on the ability of Iraqi Shia and Sunni Muslims to overcome tendencies of mutual suspicion. The same is true in Pakistan. If unchecked, and left undealt with, the damage will be too great, and the polarisation too wide, to fix. In other words, we in Asia are in need of a new mindset, which looks at security and cooperation in a more comprehensive sense.

Every culture recognises the ancient traditions of good human behaviour: respect for life, justice, altruism, trustworthiness, dignity and understanding. In times of crisis, humanity collectively draws strength from the clear ethical standards that have been set through time – the examples of justice, compassion, generosity and imagination that we ascribe to our great civilisational founders.

Throughout the Muslim world, ‘democracy’ is wanted, not always wanting. Yet the tradition of consensus goes to the heart of Islamic religious values. And what is meant by wanting democracy? It means wanting a society governed by the rule of law, not totalitarianism. It means wanting leaders who listen to the concerns of their subjects. It means that, as Muslims, we stop victimising each other and, both collectively and singularly, work, to borrow a phrase from the late Walter Sisulu of South Africa, for regional cooperation, for citizen empowerment, for participation, for pluralism, and so on.

We have to make a distinction between democratisation as a process which leads to a more open and participatory (ie less authoritarian) society, and democracy which is a system of government which embodies a variety of institutions and mechanisms.

Noam Chomsky said, “Since intellectuals write history, you have to be cautious about what people write about themselves.” But whilst history is being written it is also being purposely misinterpreted and taken out of context to suit particular social, political, or other agendas. Misinterpretation, which is misinformation – lying (a cardinal sin in many if not all major religions) – leads to hostility and ‘bitter enmity’, and eventually to persecution. We often accuse non-Muslims of misinterpreting our religion, of lying about Islam, but should we not also delve into our own inconsistencies in this respect, search our own souls for the resentment that Muslim harbours against Muslim, and why such resentment should exist in the first place?
The picture of Islam as a religion that clashes with democratisation, pluralism, and so on, is vastly distorted. Islam is not some monolithic entity looking for a clash, and Muslim peoples, by and large, have not sold into the notion of the inevitability of conflict. Islam promotes the exercise of reason, rationality, and good judgement. It also promotes, alongside these core intellectual principles, a moral sense of responsibility. The 2000 Human Development Report reminds us that democracy is not homogeneous and countries choose different institutional mixes depending on their circumstances and needs. Islam is thus not anathema to democracy, as some contend. It is inherently democratic. Lest we choose to misinterpret this fact.