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In Effort to Orient Jordan to West, Abdullah Seeks Aid of U.S. Jewry

September 20, 2005
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Jordan’s king believes Jews can play a key role in his campaign to win back the Muslim street. “The Amman message,” initiated by Abdullah II, brought together scholars from the eight main streams of Islam in July to issue edicts that marginalize terrorists who purport to act in the name of Islam — particularly Al-Qaida and its leader, Osama bin Laden.

The next step is to bring the message to Jews and Christians, according to Joseph Lumbard, the young American Muslim hired by the king to coordinate outreach.

“We want to get beyond the idea of a clash of civilizations to a dialogue of civilizations,” Lumbard said. “We would like to expand the term Judeo-Christian tradition to Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition.”

Abdullah and his Palestinian-born queen, Rania, met recently with Pope Benedict XVI and followed it up with a policy speech at Catholic University in Washington. This week, Abdullah is to speak on “Judaism and Islam: Beyond Tolerance” to more than 80 rabbis from around the United States gathered in Washington.

The speech will draw on Koranic verses and Jewish readings that counsel accommodation and respect for other monotheistic faiths.

More than any other Arab leader — and even more than his father, the late King Hussein — Abdullah has attached his fate to the West. He has opened Jordanian markets and plans to introduce western democratic reforms.

Like his father, Abdullah also has fostered the only truly warm Arab-Israeli peace, and he met with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at the United Nations last Friday.

Coupled with a biography firmly rooted in the West — his mother is British and his schooling is American and British — these goals deny Abdullah the appeal among ordinary Arabs that many of his contemporaries have, despite his lineage: Hashemite kings are believed to be direct descendants of Mohammed.

Abdullah’s solution is to use the Arab street’s hardiest vehicle — Islam — to move it toward his vision of moderation. The July assembly in Amman of 180 Islamic scholars from 45 countries concluded with 17 of the most senior scholars among issuing religious edicts outlining two principles: Fatwas issued by Muslims not formally trained in Islamic are not legitimate; and Muslims must refrain from calling other Muslims apostates.

The two statements were clearly aimed at Al-Qaida and its leaders. Lumbard, a Cairo-based scholar who helped organize the summit, said the pedigree of the scholars at the Amman meeting lent heft to their fatwas in a way that multiple other efforts to moderate Islam — many of them stemming from Western capitals — could not.

Whether the effort resonates remains to be seen. Lumbard acknowledged that even those scholars, respected as they are, have become remote from an Arab street succored by the Internet and satellite television. The next step, he said, was to compete in those fields with the radicals who advocate terrorism.

Abdullah, 43, places much stock in youth, since half of Jordan’s population is 18 or younger. His first stop in the United States was a meeting with a group of high school students from two Washington public schools, the Hebrew Academy in Rockville, Md., and the Islamic Academy in Fairfax, Va.

Significantly, the most skeptical students at the gathering appeared to be Muslims from the Saudi-backed academy. When one young woman in a scarf expressed doubts that Abdullah’s moderation reflected the Arab world’s “general consensus,” Queen Rania struggled for a response, and could cite only an outpouring of Arab sympathy for Americans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

By contrast, the Jewish students were clearly impressed.

“He’s very courageous for taking such a message,” said Moshe Broder, a senior at the Hebrew Academy. “He’s a pioneer.”

Abdullah will have to start at home, and that could be a problem. Creating change in Jordan’s highly conservative and tribalized political culture has never been easy. A recent campaign against “honor killings” of women has had mixed results at best, and the royal court’s embrace of peace with Israel is not shared by other Jordanian elites, never mind ordinary Jordanians.

The king will have to flex the kind of muscle his father occasionally did to overcome skeptics who see him as ensconced in the West, said Hiam Nawas, a Jordanian expert on political Islam.

“Abdullah will have to spend a fair amount of his own political capital if he wants his message to become authoritative in Jordan,” she said.

One way to sell the moderation is to show that it brings results. Hence Abdullah’s appeal in the West, simultaneous with his religious outreach, for expanded trade and political ties.

“Even as we work for peace, development must go forward,” he said at the United Nations last week. “When developed nations commit to active, increased development support, they advance global progress for all. The world knows what is needed — fair trade, increased direct assistance, and debt relief.”

That means persuading the West that Islam has a place alongside Judaism and Christianity as an equal. That’s where Abdullah’s current tour of the major faiths comes in.

He has some persuading to do. As welcome as the Amman summit was, it falls short of specifically addressing terrorist acts or of addressing the virulent strain of Islamic anti-Zionism that negates some fundamentals of Jewish and Israeli existence.

Marc Gopin, an Orthodox rabbi and a religion professor at George Mason University in Virginia who has helped organize Abdullah’s address to rabbis, says Jews should see the July fatwas as a crucial first step in marginalizing extremism.

“This helps cut off terrorism’s legs, because terrorism is based on fatwas,” he said. “That may be dissatisfying from the Israeli-Palestinian perspective, but it’s an admirable goal and one we should support.”

Adds Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, “We’re encouraged by what he has been saying and doing. He’s a model of what we would like to see elsewhere in the Middle East.”

By reaching out to religious leaders, Abdullah also addresses a facet of the conflict that diplomats often neglect, said Robert Eisen, who heads the religion department at George Washington University — that the men and women of the Middle East viscerally see the conflict as not just about borders but about beliefs. The king could demonstrate that the language of religion is as much a basis for reconciliation as for conflict, he said.

“Jews and Muslims share common moral values that should allow us to find common ground to fight the extremists in our religions,” he said.

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