Focus Interview: Royal Institute for Inter-faith Studies
Director Kamel Abu Jaber greeted me with a warm smile when I entered his office today. “So you’re with the Quakers?” he enthusiastically asked. “That’s good,” he stated after I had explained my credentials. “I was at Earlham last summer. It is a very good place. I hope to return some day. You know, I was educated by Quakers.”
“Here? In Jordan?” I asked in disbelief.
“Yes. Yes. At the Bishop School here in Amman. A Quaker from Philadelphia, James Sutton, started the school in the 1920s.”
When I began to prepare to visit Jordan, the first things I did was to go look for Quakers. I knew Friends had a legacy in Palestine and in Lebanon but I couldn’t find anything about Jordan. Even in my brief research tonight on the Bishop School, I can’t find the story. Perhaps it’s a treasure hunt for another day!
The Royal Institute for Inter-faith Studies (RIIFS) is of particular interest to me because of my graduate research in Inter-religious dialogue. I had not heard back from RIIFS regarding my request to visit, so early Sunday morning (a working day in the Islamic world), I easily navigated the streets of Amman and knocked on their door. When the secretary learned my name she started to laugh! “I just sent you an email!” she exclaimed. And like magic, I appeared.
A little about RIIFS from their literature:
Established in 1994 in Amman, Jordan, under the patronage of HRH Prince El Hassan bin Talal, the Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies (RIIFS) provides a venue for the interdisciplinary study of religion and religious issues, particularly as they relate to Arab and Islamic society, with special concentration on Christianity in the Arab world. In addition, the RIIFS provides a focus for rational discussion of all matters directly or indirectly relating to religion and religious diversity, regionally, and globally. For this purpose, it maintains relations with similarly concerned academic institutions in different parts of the world.
During my visit, I spoke with several of the staff. RIIFS is mainly a publisher of inter-religious articles and books. However, in response to recent changes in the Middle East, RIIFS is beginning to engage in community-based activities that promote unity and the understanding of diversity. RIIFS works closely with the Anna Lindh Foundation and is planning a gathering in May that brings together 500 young people (ages 15–30) for a day of art, theater, lecture, and storytelling. The purpose of the gathering is to address some of the hot issues of Middle East youth including unemployment and trauma healing.
RIIFS is also beginning a study on the role of the media on religious minorities. The influence of the media on society is another hot topic and it is being addressed by many groups including Al Jazeera in reflection on Egypt’s Jasmine Revolution. I found it encouraging to see RIIFS responding to the events of the last few months; there is movement towards change.
Director Kamel Abu Jaber also spoke passionately about his vision to create an institute for comparative religious study. Consistent with the other new initiatives of RIIFS that focus on youth, this envisioned institute would provide young teachers and preachers of Christianity and Islam education about each other. While RIIFS continues to support the present work of HRH Prince El Hassan bin Talal in international inter-faith dialogue, there appears to also be a movement towards addressing the future leaders of the world. Abu Jabar remarked as I left his office, “Perhaps once you have your PhD, the institute will be established and you can come and teach here.” Insh’Allah my friend, God willing.
first published at the blog of Friends Journal