The Magazine

King Abdullah and the Rabbis

Bringing the "Amman Message" to Washington.

Oct 3, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 03 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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WITH ALL THE ATTENTION FOCUSED on the aftermath of Katrina and the coming destruction of Rita, a small gathering on a perfect early fall day in Washington went largely unnoticed. That's understandable, but too bad.

Early on the afternoon of September 21, King Abdullah bin al-Hussein walked briskly to the front of a ballroom at the Ritz Carlton hotel. The 43-year-old Jordanian monarch, wearing a business suit, was surrounded by bodyguards whose suspicious eyes scanned the room. Inside that ring of security, flanking the king as he made his way to the podium, were two young men wearing yarmulkes.

Abdullah's speech was notable both for its content and its audience. Abdullah, a Sunni Muslim, addressed a group of American rabbis. "Muslims from every branch of Islam," he said, "can now assert without doubt or hesitation that a fatwa calling for the killing of innocent civilians--no matter what nationality or religion, Muslim or Jew, Arab or Israeli--is a basic violation of the most fundamental principles of Islam." Abdullah denounced Abu Musab al Zarqawi and Osama bin Laden by name. Not surprisingly, he received a standing ovation.

The context here is important. Before the Iraq war, we were warned repeatedly that removing Saddam Hussein's regime would foreclose the possibility of such speeches, that it would set the so-called Arab street afire, and that moderate, America-friendly governments in the Middle East would go to great lengths to distance themselves from the United States. A war in Iraq, skeptical experts predicted, would destabilize the region and have little effect other than to empower extremists.

Even now, as terrorists continue to explode car bombs with alarming frequency, Iraqi constitutional negotiators work to hammer out political arrangements that would have been unthinkable five years ago. Elsewhere, we have seen the codification of women's rights in Kuwait; local voting in Saudi Arabia; and successful elections in Afghanistan and Lebanon. In Egypt, voting this month was marred by corruption. But opposition parties spoke with unprecedented freedom against Hosni Mubarak and his National Democratic party and could protest the outcome of the election with relative impunity. Mubarak, who scoffed at calls for liberalization as recently as last fall, dramatically changed his tone after January's elections in Iraq.

King Abdullah's speech to the rabbis was the latest step in his campaign to rescue Islam from what he calls "fringe elements." The effort began last November with what the Jordanians immodestly refer to as the "Amman Message"--"a message of tolerance and humanity, rejecting extremism as a deviation from Islamic beliefs." Abdullah dilated on this theme in a speech September 13 at Catholic University. "The Amman Message is an all-Islamic initiative," he explained. "It currently involves opinion-makers from across the Islamic world. God willing, it will expand to engage the popular preachers and grassroots activists--what is called the 'Muslim street.'" The goal, he continued, "is to take back our religion from the vocal, violent, and ignorant extremists who have tried to hijack Islam over the last hundred years. They do not speak for Islam any more than a Christian terrorist speaks for Christianity. And the real voices of our faiths will be--must be--heard."

The effort has required reaching out to some "fringe elements." Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a fiery and radical tele-cleric who has his own show on the Al Jazeera satellite network, was one of the "opinion-leaders" who attended an Amman Message conference in Jordan this summer. In July 2004, according to a translation provided by the indispensable Middle East Media Research Institute, Qaradawi declared that there could be no dialogue between Muslims and Jews "except by the sword and the rifle."

I'm guessing that's not what Abdullah meant by "tolerance." So I sought clarification from one of his religious advisers. Joseph Lumbard is an American-born scholar with a Ph.D. from Yale. His title is "Special Adviser to His Majesty for Interfaith Affairs." I asked him what Qaradawi would think of the king's speech to Jewish leaders.

Silence, followed by a short chuckle. "We constructed that speech with people like Qaradawi in mind," says Lumbard. "When we rehearsed the speech, we tried to anticipate their objections." As an example, Lumbard directed me to a passage from the Koran (2:62) that King Abdullah included in his speech:

Truly those who believe and those who are Jews, and the Christians and the Sabeans--those who believe in God and the last day and do righteous deeds, they shall have their reward from their Lord and no fear shall be upon them, nor shall they sorrow.