A royal call for coexistence

Hussein Haridy
Tuesday 20 Sep 2022

Britain’s new King Charles III has long emphasised the peaceful coexistence of Christianity and Islam, writes Hussein Haridy

 

I

 have kept it for more than 25 years and consider it to be an important guidebook, a royal one at that, to chart a renewed path of mutual understanding between the Islamic world and the West.

When the former UK prince of Wales was proclaimed His Majesty King Charles III after the death of the late Queen Elizabeth II on 8 September, I found it interesting to reread the speech that he delivered at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies back in 1995 on the occasion of his acceptance of becoming the centre’s patron.

In introducing the former prince of Wales, the centre’s then director, F A Nizami, said that there were those in the West and the Islamic countries who had insisted on the inevitability of conflict between Islam and Western civilisation. The role of the centre was to reject such a reactionary and extremist vision, he said.

In his introductory remarks, prince Charles expressed the hope that such centres would become important vehicles for the better understanding of Islam within Great Britain and beyond. He spoke highly of the Muslim communities in Great Britain as well as of the Muslim populations of the Commonwealth, and he referred to the “splendid” Festival of Islam that had been inaugurated by the late Queen Elizabeth in 1976.

A very interesting part of his remarks concerned a talk that he had had in December 1990 with US general Norman Schwarzkopf, the commanding officer of the military campaign in 1990-1991 to liberate Kuwait from the Iraqi troops that had invaded the tiny Gulf country in August 1990. He asked him to spare the religious symbols of Shiite Islam in southern Iraq, some of which were destroyed by the Iraqi army under the command of the late Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.

At the time of the inauguration of the centre in 1995, a war was raging in the former Yugoslavia, and the Muslims of Bosnia were being brutally targeted. This was one of the reasons, among others, why misunderstandings persist between the Muslim world and the West.

The then prince Charles talked about the mediaeval Crusades and their impact on relations and perceptions of the other in Christianity and Islam. He dwelt on the opposing narratives of each side. He also spoke about the conflict between the Christian world and the Ottoman Empire, and how this confrontation had entrenched negative opinions about the other in both camps.

He mentioned the French invasion of Egypt by Napoleon in 1798 and the subsequent Western colonisation of many Muslim territories, with this producing distrust and added antagonism between Christians and Muslims.

On the other hand, he also discussed at length the history of Spain in the Muslim epoch that stretched from the eighth century until the fall of Granada in 1492, and how each side has interpreted it. The former prince of Wales left no doubt that under Muslim rule Spain played a major role in paving the way for the European Renaissance.

He emphasised the shared values of Christianity and Islam with regard to justice, the importance attached to family life, the compassion towards the poor and disinherited, and the belief in the hereafter.

However, extremists have led the West to believe that their vision and interpretations of Islam are the true essence of Islamic teaching. For the former prince of Wales, nothing could be farther from the truth than such erroneous impressions. He explicitly criticised the way the Western media depicts Muslim Sharia Law, and he stressed that it was a great mistake in the West to equate Islam with “Muslim extremism”.

He said that a distinction should be drawn between those Muslims who choose to practise the teachings of Islam out of piety and the “extremists” who exploit such piety for political ends. Furthermore, he insisted that it was important not to confuse the religious beliefs of millions of Muslims with the “violence” that a “minority” amongst them may resort to, a violence that should be condemned by any “civilised” person, he said, regardless of his religious, ethnic, or political affiliations. I could not agree more.

These remarks, made in the 1990s, are still relevant and not only for today but also for the future. They were delivered six years before the 11 September attacks in the US and the terrorism unleashed by a tiny minority among Muslims in the name of Islam in their evil design to perpetuate a civilisational conflict between Islam and the West.

We should not fall into any such trap. Human civilisations prosper in coexistence and mutual trust and comprehension. Christianity and Islam should complement each other in leading the world on the path of peaceful coexistence, security, stability and prosperity for all.

 

The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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