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Interfaith Dialogues: Peace and Tolerance Initiatives or Self-Promotion?
In May 2022, King Abdallah II and Queen Rania of Jordan were awarded the 2022 Path to Peace Award in New York. The prize was presented by the Path to Peace Foundation. This organisation is affiliated with the Vatican’s Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations. Jordanian and international newspapers highlighted the Jordanian monarchs’ endeavours to promote peace in the Middle East and in the world. What did these efforts consist of and what are their goals?
A large part of the Jordanian peace enterprise unfolded in the religious sphere. The King promoted dialogue between diverse currents of Islam and amongst different religions. In 2004, he launched the Amman Message initiative, aimed at promoting “moderation” and defining “true Islam”. Three years later, the monarch kickstarted an interfaith dialogue between Muslim and Christian leaders. This effort was intended to promote peace and tolerance between the two religious communities.
More recently, in 2010, King Abdallah II presented the idea of the World Interfaith Harmony Week at the United Nations. The initiative led to the organisation, within the framework of the UN, of an annual World Interfaith Harmony Week. In a world context characterised by many episodes of religiously justified violence, the promotion of religious moderation and tolerance, going hand in hand with the fight against extremism, was enthusiastically welcomed on the international scene.
Besides promoting dialogue, the King’s interfaith efforts also helped spread a positive image of the Jordanian monarchy. The Path to Peace Award is but an illustration of the success of these efforts in terms of international nation-branding. To be sure, the interfaith projects did, indeed, establish relationships between the representatives of various religions, including Islam and Christianity.
In addition, they sparked hope among believers and their leaders for a future characterised by mutual tolerance and the appeasement of sectarian conflicts. The Amman Message, for example, regrouped the leaders of several currents of Islam. It brought them to agree on the things they have in common, highlighting how their shared understandings outweigh their differences.
Yet these initiatives, for which the King was praised, also attracted criticism. Some observers noted that they were very clearly internationally oriented – the Amman Message website was first published in English only, for example. These critics suspected the King to use them as mere tools to polish his image on the international scene. While trying to depict Jordan as the “very model of a moderate state”, King Abdallah II was said to have mainly aimed at pleasing its international partners, who also happen to be the ones upon which the state largely depends financially.
Some religious actors discarded these projects as political endeavours that had no impact in the religious sphere. By promoting a specific type of “official Islam”, the monarch delimits what religious message is acceptable within the borders of his state. This is potentially discriminating against religious groups that became politically threatening. Some analysts also criticised the fact that if initiatives like the Amman Message succeeded in bringing all parties to an agreement, it is in large part because they remained superficial and avoided real points of dispute.
Some Jordanians believe that the royal interfaith initiatives lack proper implementation. They see these efforts as the establishment of a ground for dialogue, on which the actual work remains to be achieved. Whether this happens or not is crucial in deciding what the king’s interfaith initiatives truly are: primarily means to achieve greater religious understanding or mostly efforts to promote Jordan.
Astrid Bourlond is a PhD-candidate in Islamic and Arabic Studies in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Utrecht University, specialising in religious policies in Jordan. Photo: CNS photo/Joe Vericker via Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations.