Bringing Compassion to the Middle East – Karen Armstrong

Last week, I was invited to travel to the United Arab Emirates to speak about the Charter for Compassion. The Middle East is, of course, at the center of many of our current political problems and it is obviously not easy for a region, wracked by conflict, to embrace the compassionate ideal. Yet Muslims have been especially active in the promotion of the Charter, none more so, perhaps, than TEDster Badr Jafar, Executive Director at the Crescent Petroleum group of companies, based in the United Arab Emirates.

Badr was convinced that the best way of introducing the Charter into the Middle East was through the UAE, which was far enough from the tragic cycle of warfare to take a more positive and dispassionate view. For nearly a year now, despite his massive business commitments, Badr has spread the word about the Charter throughout the UAE and the Middle East. He is a heroic ambassador of compassion.

In this part of the world, the support of a charismatic leader of known integrity can make all the difference, especially at a time when a project emanating from the West is likely to seem suspect. When Badr presented the Charter to H.H. Sheikh Sultan bin Mohamed al-Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah, the Ruler, appreciating its relevance in the Middle East, became the first Arab leader to affirm the Charter, and warmly invited me to visit the UAE.

Sharjah is often called the cultural capital of the Emirates and that is in no small part due to the Ruler, whose achievements in the cause of education are already legendary and who is deeply respected in the region. In 1997, in a single year, he built the vast complex known as University City, which has become a centre of excellence in the Middle East. It includes two major universities, a medical school, a teaching hospital, and an institute of higher technology.

It is not often that I am lost for words, but when I arrived on the campus last week to give the first of two lectures and to meet with professors and staff, I was dumbfounded. Instead of the functional buildings I was expecting, I was looking at a vision of beauty. Set in landscaped grounds, almost as far as the eye could see, were white, perfectly proportioned domed buildings, marrying traditional Islamic architecture with state-of-the-art interiors.

The American University of Sharjah has recently been declared the best university in the Emirates — some would argue in the entire Middle East. Forty-four percent of the students, who come from some 45 countries (I met undergraduates from the United States, Canada, Britain and Australia) are women. At the University of Sharjah, next door, men and women from more conservative homes study and live separately, but at my lecture they were sitting quite comfortably together. The Ruler has wisely allowed people to modernize at their own pace.

When I heard that I had won the 2008 TED prize to make a wish for a better world, I knew at once what I wanted to ask for. I asked TED to help me create a Charter for Compassion, which would restore compassion to the heart of the spiritual and moral life and counter the strident voices of hatred and extremism that endanger us all.

It has long been clear to me that unless we learn to apply the Golden Rule globally, treating all nations, all peoples, without exception as we would wish to be treated ourselves, taking their aspirations and difficulties as seriously as we take our own, we are unlikely to have a viable world to hand on to the next generation.

In Sharjah, I met this next generation. It was quite clear that I was talking to some of the future leaders of the Middle East. At both universities, the students were bright, articulate, confident, and asked some of the most intelligent and searching questions I have heard from students anywhere. They understand the global vision of the Charter, not only because University City is an international community, but because many of the students also take part in a project called Global Vision. The project brings students to work in impoverished regions in East Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. They return to their studies with new insight about the problems and pain of the world. Both universities see adopting the Charter as a step toward building a more compassionate world, and have committed to promoting it.

On the last day of my visit, I was privileged to meet H.E. Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak al-Nahyan, Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, at his weekly Majilis in Abu Dhabi. Like the Ruler of Sharjah, the Sheikh gave the Charter his wholehearted support, which is absolutely invaluable to the Charter’s reception in Abu Dhabi, and to the young people who look to Sheikh Nahyan as a religious and cultural role model.

What I learned from my time in the UAE is this: the state of the world we pass down to the next generation depends on the commitment of compassionate leaders. The Charter is essentially a summons to action; compassion is not about pity; it is not about sentiment. Compassion requires a resolute, intellectual, imaginative and moral effort to put oneself into somebody else’s shoes. It requires us to refuse to inflict on others pain that we have experienced in our own lives, and to work tirelessly for a just world and a global democracy, in which all voices are heard, not simply those of the rich and powerful. Thanks to the conjunction of youth enthusiasm and the commitment of their elders, the UAE could become a global leader in promoting the Charter for Compassion.

Speaking of the duty every single one of us has to make the world a better place, Sheikh Nahyan told me a story he heard from an environmentalist. There was once a forest fire. All the animals in the forest gazed aghast, paralysed by the spectacle of the approaching inferno. But the elephant resolutely filled his trunk with water from a nearby stream and repeatedly, tirelessly attempted to douse the flames. When the other animals laughed at him, he simply replied “At least I am doing something to ward off the conflagration.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s