Christopher Hitchens

In all the stultifying discussion of Prince Charles’s fitness to grasp the orb and sceptre of kingship, there is one qualification that is almost never canvassed. I refer to his ability to give the annual Christmas broadcast to the Commonwealth. No light matter this – it was a dreaded annual penance for his grandfather – and made no lighter by his presumptive inability to end the chat by saying: ‘My wife and I ... ’ But never mind. He is in every other respect ideally suited to the task; even better at discharging blank or ‘false-alarm’ fusillades than he is at receiving them.

I can attest to this, having recently read ‘Islam and the West’, the text of a short address given by the Prince to the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, a body of which he serves as patron.[*] (Royal seals are not wanting in King Charles’s old royalist military HQ: the other two patrons are the House of Saud and the Sultan of Brunei, the latter best-known for his under-the-table donation of a few off-the-record millions to the cause of the Nicaraguan Contras.) Anyway, in his speechlet to the Sheldonian version of a multicultural audience, HRH got off some real ripe ones such as the following: ‘We live today in one world, forged by instant communications, by television, by the exchange of information on a scale undreamed of by our grandparents. The world economy functions as an interdependent entity. Problems of society, the quality of life and the environment, are global in their causes and effects.’

I remember that his mum used to be fond of saying that modern science had given us great opportunities, both for good and ill, until somebody broke her of it. But, veering back to the Islamic theme, Charles did manage one shrewd point. He announced, correctly as far as I know, that ‘Cordoba in the tenth century was by far the most civilised city in Europe.’ Dilating a bit on its splendours of learning and research and inquiry, he singled out ‘Averroes and Avenzoar’, though suggesting that their work was solely in the field of medicine. Still, I always warm to an Averroes fan. In Cordoba once, I made a special trip to the Averroes memorial, which on its plinth gives the full name of Averroes Ibn Rush’d. And I know something about this name that the heir to the throne seemingly does not.

A few decades ago, in what is now Pakistan, a certain enlightened Muslim father decided, on what might be called Ataturkist principles, that his family should take a surname instead of the more customary patronymic. And, seeking to make his own hommage to the Cordoban synthesis of religious toleration and high learning, and to Averroes in particular, this man decided on the family name Rushdie. His eldest son, Salman, has since managed to keep the name, and himself, alive. He’s also written rather eloquently about religious and cultural fusion in medieval Andalusia. But this famous name was not mentioned, even in passing, in a speech on ‘Islam and the West’ given by Rushdie’s liege-apparent. Did the monies of Riyadh and Brunei furnish more than a few richly-worked Korans for the Oxford Centre? Did they also ensure a ‘non-controversial’ address from a monarchy whose sworn historic duty is the defence of the realm and its subjects?

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[*] Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, 24 pp., £2.95, 27 October 1993, 1 871163 03 X.