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    Middle East
     Jun 4, 2008
KEBABBLE
Prince Charles, defender of Islam
By Fazile Zahir

FETHIYE, Turkey - The recent visit by Britain's Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip to Turkey was hailed as a great success. The 82-year-old British monarch won favor with the local people by describing Turkey as a "confident and dynamic democracy" and praising close ties between Ankara and London.

She underlined British support for Turkey's bid to join the European Union, showed respect for the past by visiting the tomb of modern Turkey's secularist founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in Ankara and for the present government by covering her hair when she visited an ancient mosque in Bursa and listened to a reading

 

from the Koran.

The Turkish press on the whole recounted the visit as the queen's second to Turkey, the first having taken place 37 years ago in 1971. At that time, too, the public response was positive and excited crowds surged past protective barriers and swarmed the royal party's open-top cars. Back then, she took the opportunity to present a trophy to the winner of a horse race held in her honor. On this visit she was surprised and pleased to discover that the Queen Elizabeth Cup Race has continued annually ever since.

Some members of the press speculated that this was actually her third visit - a secret visit allegedly having taken place in 1961 to plead for clemency towards some Democratic Party politicians sentenced for execution. Apparently, she was turned down and left having seen no more than the airport. Despite odd rumors like this one, Turkey and Britain have on the whole a cordial friendship, with the British having at times been Turkey's only supporter for EU accession.

One particular member of the royal family, the queen's eldest son, Prince Charles, has come under suspicion of having his own particularly strong connection to Turkey.

In October 1996, London's Evening Standard newspaper quoted the Grand Mufti of Cyprus, who claimed that the prince had converted to Islam. "It happened in Turkey. Oh, yes, he converted all right," the Grand Mufti was quoted as saying. "When you get home, check on how often he travels to Turkey. You'll find that your future king is a Muslim." This was one of several reports linking Prince Charles and Islam highlighted by authors Ronni L  Gordon and David M Stillman in The Middle East Quarterly in 1997.

There have been various alleged proofs offered for the conversion myth. Numerous times over the past three decades, Charles has spoken to support both Muslims and Islam. In 1989, when the Iranian ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against author Salman Rushdie, Charles reacted to the death decree by reflecting on the positive features that Islam has to offer the spiritually empty lives of his countrymen.

In 1993, speaking at Oxford University, he said, "Our judgement of Islam has been grossly distorted by taking the extremes to the norm. The truth is, of course, different and always more complex. My own understanding is that extremes, like the cutting off of hands, are rarely practiced. The guiding principle and spirit of Islamic law, taken straight from the Koran, should be those of equity and compassion. Islam can teach us today a way of understanding and living in the world which Christianity itself is poorer for having lost."

In a June 1994 television documentary, he declared his preference to be known as "Defender of Faith" rather than "Defender of the Faith", prompting then prime minister John Major to comment, "It would be a little odd if Prince Charles was defender of faiths of which he was not a member."

In a speech at the Foreign Office Conference Center on December 13, 1996, he called on Islamic pedagogy and philosophy to help young Britons develop a healthier view of the world. "There is much we can learn from that Islamic world view in this respect. Everywhere in the world people want to learn English. But in the West, in turn, we need to be taught by Islamic teachers how to learn with our hearts, as well as our heads."

In 1997, the Daily Mail of London reported that he had set up a panel of 12 "wise men" (in fact, 11 men and one woman) to advise him on Islamic religion and culture. No comparable body was established to advise him on any other faith in his future realm.

He is vice patron of the Center for Islamic Studies at Oxford University, a center built by a US$33 million Saudi gift with the stated aim of putting Islam at the heart of the British education system.

In 2003, Prince Charles went to America for an eight-day tour. His mission was to persuade President George W Bush and the Americans of the merits of Islam. He has voiced private concerns over America's confrontational approach to Muslim countries and its failure to appreciate Islam's strengths. He thinks the United States has been too intolerant of the religion.

Charles's most recent visits to Turkey were in 2005 to mark the 90th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings and again in 2007 with Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, for a four-day tour.

Whether or not he has converted, which is of course strongly denied by Buckingham Palace spokesmen, he is an immensely popular figure throughout the Middle East. The Saudis regard him as a candid friend of the Islamic world. British academic John Casey, of Cambridge University, says the Prince of Wales' hero status in the Arab world (for his pro Islamic comments and actions) is permanent and "No other Western figure commands this sort of admiration."

Cynics claim his friendship is based on upper-class hobnobbing with the Dubai polo set. Others believe that the UK Foreign Office capitalizes on his popularity and uses him as a point man for British business interests in Muslim countries. Casey commented in the London Daily Telegraph, "The Charles of Arabia phenomenon is here to stay, for it helps assure British commerce with the Muslim world."

Whether or not a conversion did take place in Turkey will probably never be known, Charles is unlikely to give up his claim for the British throne by making a full disclosure. He may even encourage the image of himself as a spiritual dilettante flitting from faith to faith to hide an special leaning toward Islam.

Fazile Zahir is of Turkish descent, born and brought up in London. She moved to live in Turkey in 2005 and has been writing full time since then.

(Copyright 2008 Fazile Zahir.)


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