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Jordan's 'Philosopher Prince': Literacy Would Help Fight Fanaticism

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And now the last of this week's conversations from Amman, Jordan. Today, the lofty sentiments of a prince, Prince Hassan. There was a time when he was heir to the throne. His older brother was King Hussein. In 1965, Hassan was named crown prince, and he held that title for nearly 35 years. In 1999, King Hussein replaced him as crown prince. Hussein's son, now King Abdullah, became the royal heir. So, at the age of 67, Prince Hassan is in the odd position of former future king. The Oxford-educated prince is widely known as an advocate of progressive ideas for his country and for the Arab world.

PRINCE EL HASSAN BIN TALAL: They call me (speaking Arabic) in Arabic, which basically means a theorizer. And a theorizer is not a kind word. I mean, (unintelligible)well, you can go on with your theories.

SIEGEL: Which is just what he's done. He has advanced his ideas for peace and progress through the Arab Thought Forum, an NGO that he founded. I met Jordan's philosopher prince last week at his home on the Royal Palace grounds, surrounded by palm trees, gardens and songbirds. And I asked him what policies might combat the radicalization of Arab youth.

BIN TALAL: The only policy reform should include the triangle of political, social economic and civil society participation. Today, I think that you have vested interest groups, either political at the apex of government or socioeconomic-presenting projects rather than a vision of the future, or civil society crying their heart out but not being listened to. And of course the ever-present security services making the override into the area of, you know, we have to be stable, and therefore, security is paramount. I think that the emergence of youth as a cultural force is a hugely significant step, bearing in mind that I think more has been twittered in soundbites blogged between 2004 and 2014 than man has written since the inception of the written word (laughter). So, you know, if we can move from blogosphere to cogitosphere (ph) - cogens (ph), using the brain - then maybe we can give some content, because, after all, media needs good writers.

SIEGEL: But you're dismissing the statement that we need to be stable and therefore stability and security trump everything else.

BIN TALAL: I am, because I think that the definition of security can't just be weapons of mass destruction and the War on Terror when we are bankrupt culturally. I think there's cultural bankruptcy that we have to bear in mind. And that is to say if we look at the comparison of published works between the whole of the Arab world put together and, say, Spain, the whole of the Arab world doesn't read. So I think that the importance of Arabs abroad and millions of Arabs in North America and Latin America who I think should benefit as Israel benefits from dual-nationality so that this synergy can develop between those who have been exposed and those who have not. So the re-emergence of political Islam is very much a regional phenomenon, a dumbing-down phenomenon, if you will. Here, the bourgeoisie has left. The achievers have left. It's a bit like when the Jews left Russia, when the Jews left Germany, which is, again, why I think Europeans have got it right to say, look, we are talking about citizens. Jews and Muslims actually happen to be in the same boat. That's how I feel. These are the achievers.

SIEGEL: You sound like a prophetic intellectual. I wonder how many people who wield authority - even in your own country - would say there are values that are much more important than security and stability.

BIN TALAL: More than four decades I have been saying focus on the center of the construct - human dignity. If you want to talk about sustainability and development, don't talk to me about shiny buildings and frontier economics. Talk to me about self-determination institutionally.

SIEGEL: You raise a very interesting problem, which is that it's much easier for people far away from these conflicts to figure out what they're against and what we want to fight against as opposed to what it is that we're for and what we're fighting for and trying to mobilize for.

BIN TALAL: This is why I think that we should be struggling for the call for justice - the empowerment in law, particularly of women, in every aspect of citizenship. So calling for justice, full rights and responsibilities, we have tried in the Arab Thought Forum since 2011, the Arab Spring, and have succeeded at least in producing an Arab social charter, which is in response to thousands of young people's call for proscribing all forms of discrimination. Now, if that one day gets into constitutions, I think we would be on sounder footing.

SIEGEL: That's Prince Hassan of Jordan - formerly Crown Prince Hassan - wrapping up this week's series of conversations from Amman. Kelly, for me a new place in a region that you've covered very extensively.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

It's really fascinating reporting. And I find myself wanting to ask you, you know, I mean, the event we know about in Jordan was the brutal, sort of very public killing of this pilot, Moaz al-Kasasbeh. You went there afterwards. How has Jordan changed since then?

SIEGEL: Before that time, I'm told, people assumed that somewhere around perhaps 30 percent of Jordanians really sympathized with ISIS. It was a Sunni group. It was fighting against Shiite Muslims in a conflict that they see throughout the entire region. And this brought together great unity around calls for retaliation and revenge. But as we heard earlier in the week, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood's Party already regards that moment of unity as past, when one of their senior members was jailed for an offensive - as the government saw it - Facebook post - a year and a half in prison for that. So just how much of that unity persists, I don't really know.

MCEVERS: Right, and was there - is there now a sense too that the war is much closer to Jordan?

SIEGEL: I think, you know, people - it is so close that it seems kind of nuts for Jordanians to have seen this conflict as being not theirs. But, you know, if you look at Jordan, which is not at war, which does not have a Sunni-Shiite divide in the middle of it, it's almost reasonable for people to see wars raging in Iraq and Syria and potential conflicts in Saudi Arabia, in Lebanon. And to think, you know, that's not us, that's not our issue.

MCEVERS: Right, but now?

SIEGEL: Now it's certainly a lot more their issue. I'll tell you what one Jordanian told me - and he would never be quoted on this publicly. He said what he had really been afraid of was that ISIS would hand over Moath Kasasbeh, the pilot, alive. What would have happened then, he asked? Would Jordan have turned pro-ISIS in the streets if that had been the result? It still worried him.

MCEVERS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.