Thursday, September 22, 2005

Jordan’s King Abdullah II told a gathering of American rabbis yesterday that Jews and Muslims are irrevocably “tied together by culture and history” and that he is willing to take radical measures to combat Muslim extremists.

“We face a common threat: extremist distortions of religion and the wanton acts of violence that derive therefrom,” the king said. “Such abominations have already divided us from without for far too long.”

Criticizing al Qaeda terrorists Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab Zarqawi for “abuses of our faith,” the king, speaking at a heavily guarded lunch meeting at the Ritz-Carlton in Northwest, made clear he wishes to establish himself as the voice of moderate Islam.

He pointed to a July conference he held in Amman, Jordan, for 180 Muslim scholars as a key part of his effort to undermine the far Islamic right. The conference was supported by fatwas — or legal rulings — from 17 major Islamic scholars.

“Muslims from every branch of Islam can now assert without doubt or hesitation,” he said, “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.”

Now, King Abdullah said, it’s time to mend fences with the worldwide Jewish community.

“It cannot be denied that the relationship between Jews and Muslims has been very difficult in recent years,” said the king, a close U.S. ally who met with Vice President Dick Cheney yesterday and will meet with President Bush today before flying home.

“Nonetheless,” the king added, “at this moment in history, we have no choice but to take bold strides towards mutual forgiveness and reconciliation.”

His 12-minute speech, laced with quotes from the Old Testament and the Koran, was met with standing ovations from the rabbis, most of whom were from cities along the eastern seaboard.

“He’s taking the lead for the moderate approach in the Islamic tradition,” said Rabbi Marc Gopin of the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University.

Secular leaders “need to learn from your example,” the rabbi told the king as he presented him with a copy of the Old Testament in both English and Hebrew. They need to “learn from true heroism of one who confronts his adversaries,” the rabbi added.

Yesterday was the last of several interfaith meetings the king has held during his U.S. tour.

Other stops included a Sept. 13 speech at Catholic University, a Sept. 15 talk at New York’s liberal Protestant Riverside Church and a Tuesday meeting with about 15 Islamic leaders at the Islamic Center on Massachusetts Avenue Northwest.

The king has met with Jewish leaders before, embassy aides said, but yesterday was the first time he reached out to an exclusively rabbinical audience. The invitation-only kosher lunch included participants from the Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist branches of Judaism.

At home, however, the king encounters massive anti-Semitism. According to a July poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press on global attitudes toward religious groups, 100 percent of Jordanian respondents said they either had a “very unfavorable” or “somewhat unfavorable” view of Jews.

Not only are there no known Jews living in Jordan, but also 1.7 million Jordanians are Palestinian refugees, many of whom fled their homeland in 1948 when Israel was proclaimed a Jewish state.

Thus, King Abdullah, 43, decided to present his reconciliation effort in Washington rather than his home country, said Robert Eisen, a religion professor at George Washington University who helped coordinate the lunch.

“The king may not, for various reasons, be ready to open up Jordan to a pluralistic dialogue between religions,” he said. “The fact he’s coming over here to start is a significant step down the road.

“The United States is the place where some of the warring elements in the Middle East can dialogue with each other. He’ll see how his people react to this at home and then take the next step.”

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