Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 - 29 March 2006
Issue No. 787
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The royal purpose

The visit to Egypt by the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall is celebrated as a golden opportunity to mend fences between the West and the Islamic world. Gamal Nkrumah and Mohamed El-Sayed trace the royal couple's trail

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The royal couple with Mr and Mrs Mubarak (top) and Prince Charles with Tantawi

The timely visit of the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall to Egypt comes at a most opportune moment. In the aftermath of the international brouhaha that followed the publication of 12 cartoons satirising Prophet Mohamed were first published by the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten last September and have since been reprinted in numerous European papers. It is for this precise reason that the heir to the British throne strongly condemned the cartoons. Throughout his visit to Egypt, he stressed that Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, is a religion of understanding, compassion and mercy. The three Abrahamic faiths stem from the same root -- a deep and solid faith in monotheism and a merciful and compassionate creator.

"The recent ghastly strife and anger over the Danish cartoons shows the danger that comes of our failure to listen and to respect what is precious and sacred to others. In my view, the true mark of civilised society is the respect it pays to minorities and to strangers," Prince Charles said.

The heir to the British throne is still trying to prove a point: that the people who uphold the Abrahamic tradition must learn to live happily together and to respect and come to terms with the cultural differences that sometimes seem to poison the relationship between Westerners and Muslims. It is not the differences per se that are the root cause of the tensions, but rather the bigotry, overzealous dogmatism and fanaticism that creates the seemingly conflictual situation. Prince Charles is determined to bridge the cultural divide. And, he is up to the task.

The royal couple met with President Hosni Mubarak soon after their arrival in the country. Throughout his visit to Egypt, he seemed rock solid. And, no more so than at Al-Azhar where he visited the historic mosque and received an honorary doctorate from Al-Azhar University. Highly talented and articulate, he delivered an eclectic and obviously well-researched speech.

The hair may indeed be grey, but Prince Charles appeared sleek in a well-fitted dark suit. He talked in a low, slow and measured voice.

The heir to the British throne was warmly received at the majestic Mohamed Abdu Hall at Al-Azhar University by a cosmopolitan crowd of students from a host of Muslim nations -- African, Asian and European. Al-Azhar clerics in their distinctive traditional garb welcomed the visiting dignitary and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall. The prince expressed his deep interest in speaking to the faculty and students of the world's oldest university. "I count it a very special privilege to visit the University of Al-Azhar," he said. He paid special tribute to his friend the late Sheikh Zaki Badawi, who encouraged him to visit Al-Azhar. Badawi's widow, Maryam, was among the attendants.

The prince was led to the podium by Minister of Religious Endowments Mahmoud Hamdy Zaqzouq, the President of Al-Azhar University Ahmed El-Tayyeb and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi.

In his welcome speech, Tantawi stressed the vital importance at this particular historical juncture of healing the rift in Western-Islamic relations and cementing cultural ties between the West and the Islamic world. Tantawi advanced his argument by recalling Prince Charles's own previous comments on the subject, and especially those he extrapolated in October 1993. "It is odd, in many ways, that misunderstandings between Islam and the West should persist. For that which binds our two worlds together is so much more powerful than that which divides us," Tantawi quoted the prince as saying in a lecture he delivered at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies.

"We must not be tempted to believe that extremism is in some way the hallmark and essence of the Muslim. Extremism is no more the monopoly of Islam than it is the monopoly of other religions, including Christianity. The vast majority of Muslims, though personally pious, are moderate in their politics. Theirs is the 'religion of the middle way'."

Indeed, the onus of the occasion was on the spirit of tolerance and moderation and of the common values shared by what Prince Charles described as the "Abrahamic tradition".

"The roots of the faith that we share in the One God, the God of Abraham, give us enduring values," the prince explained. "We need the courage to speak of them and affirm them again and again to a world troubled by change and dissension. That is the message which, above all, I wish to leave you with today. First, and highest among those values of our common inheritance, and born of our love of God, must always come respect for each other, and for His creation."

The heir to the British throne's words touched a chord with his listeners and his speech was interrupted by several ovations. "I do not claim to be a scholar, other than having studied history at the University of Cambridge, but I do have a great interest in exploring the Abrahamic tradition into which I was born. This tradition has shaped me and made me who I am. Today I stand before you as one belonging to the family of faiths connected by that tradition."

Monotheistic religions, the prince said, shared a common past and should look forward to a common future. "Despite the advances in technology and mass communication in the second half of the twentieth century, despite mass travel and the intermingling of races ... misunderstanding between Islam and the West continue. Indeed they might be growing. Tragically, the intervening 12 years have confirmed my fears and, for so many, those years have been profoundly bleak."

Prince Charles intends to deploy the resources available at his own The Prince's Trust, founded in 1976, to further advance the cause of inter-faith dialogue. "In my own very modest way, through the work of my Prince's Trust, my Foundation for the Built Environment and my School of Traditional Arts, I have thought to find ways to integrate communities and to celebrate the virtues of Islamic cultures in the United Kingdom."

Prince Charles commended the celebrated Islamic civilisation. "Can we not draw inspiration from the great explosion of knowledge and understanding which took place under the Abbassids between the ninth and 13th centuries, when their capital Baghdad was a world centre of learning; or from Islamic Spain between the 10th and the 14th centuries, when in cities such as Cordoba and Toledo, the work of Christian, Muslim and Jewish scholars led to the flowering of the Renaissance? We need to remember that we in the West are in debt to the scholars of Islam, for it was thanks to them that during the Dark Ages in Europe the treasures of classical learning were kept alive."

The Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall inaugurated the opening of the British University in Egypt with Mrs Suzanne Mubarak on Wednesday. Today, they are due to leave Cairo for a visit to the Western Desert oasis of Siwa and visit the Temple of Amun. In Siwa, following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great and Hannibal, he would meet tribal Bedouin chiefs. On their way back to Cairo the royal couple will stop at the Commonwealth Cemetery in Al-Alamein, tomorrow. The Duchess of Cornwall is especially eager to pay tribute to those who lost their lives in the famous Al-Alamein Battle during World War II in which her father was injured.

"I look forward to a world in which we share a vision that acknowledges our differences with respect and understanding; that recognises what others hold sacred -- and to a world in which we see that we cannot, and must not, abuse our great traditions and their teachings as a weapon in the service of selfish, worldly power," the prince stressed. "I have no illusions about the difficulty of this task. But I believe it is one which now, above all times, we must undertake, and undertake together. There is no other way to preserve the innermost values of our faiths which we hold most dear. We must work together to create a world in which the fruits of faith -- understanding, tolerance and compassion -- enrich and safeguard the world of our children, and our children's children. We must not let slip this opportunity and this challenge in an age which requires our determined, committed and heartfelt efforts to live in peace together."

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