Inside File: Advice to the Prince about Islam

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The Independent Online
FOR avid viewers of To Play the King, it might be instructive to know that life sometimes imitates art - but never completely. A recent episode of the television series demonstrates the perils of the king - fictional, of course - promoting a line which is at odds with that of the elected government and being urged on in his enterprise by politically motivated advisers.

In real life the Prince of Wales, on whom the fictional king is clearly modelled, does indeed rely on advisers, but the reality is less contentious. The story of his recent address on Islam is a case in point.

Since 1991, the Prince has taken a personal interest in the plight of the Marsh Arabs in southern Iraq. He had followed with interest a mission there by Emma Nicholson, the MP who has done more to draw attention to Saddam Hussein's genocide in the marshes than any member of Her Majesty's Government.

Consequently, Ms Nicholson had a series of meetings to brief the Prince. In November 1992, he wrote, with her advice, the foreword to her Amar Appeal.

Ms Nicholson's next step was to get the Prince to make a public speech about the issue. This he agreed in principle to do. But here begins the - for HRH inevitable - gap between agreement and action. Other advisers are familiar with this: 'A common perception is that one always leaves him feeling that one has let him down in some way,' said one. 'That the Prince had hoped one would lead him to some great vision about what to do. But really, he needs to come to some conclusion over the pudding (in real life the fare at the Prince's table is not restricted to soup) and say 'it seems to me what we need here is to exert pressure through conventional means' or 'we might think about setting up an independent foundation'. But that often doesn't seem to happen somehow.'

At one point, sources say, Ms Nicholson went to the Duke of Edinburgh to ask him to speed up the process. The Prince's problem was that he did not think it appropriate to make a speech on the subject of Marsh Arabs alone.

But so it was that the opportunity arose: the Prince's speech entitled 'Islam and the West', delivered to the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, was an authoritative tour d'horizon spanning the history of the Muslims from the fall of Jerusalem to the Crusaders in 1099 to the defeat of Iraq in 1991. It clearly drew on the expertise of several Arabists (and probably also benefited from the hand of Stephen Lamport, the Prince's Deputy Private Secretary on loan from the Foreign Office, who incidentally co-authored, with Douglas Hurd, the Westminster-based novel Palace of Enchantments).

Already on page 2 of 11, the Prince expressed his 'despair and outrage at the unmentionable horrors being perpetrated in southern Iraq'. He devoted half a page to 'Saddam and his terrifying regime'.

Senior Foreign Office diplomats were later furious at press reports alleging that the FCO had thought the speech damaging to efforts to win the release of British prisoners in Iraq. Some pointed out that in that respect, it was more appropriate for the Prince of Wales to denounce President Saddam at this time than for the Government to do so. The Iraqi leader was preoccupied with getting sanctions lifted, not a speech by the Queen's son.

As for claims that the Foreign Office had been given too little time to vet the speech, one senior official said: 'I certainly had plenty of time to make sure there weren't any horrors.' As for parallels with the King of Sweden, who last month successfully appealed to President Saddam to let Swedish prisoners out, a British diplomat said: 'Slightly different monarchy, isn't it? If ours started doing that, they'd be doing nothing else.'

'Know then that the King by himself is a feeble creature, on whom a very heavy burden is laid and who consequently needs the help of his fellow men.' The words, from a chapter entitled 'The Need for a King for a Bureaucracy', were written by Ibn Khaldun, the Moorish 14th-century philosopher and sociologist. Today he would have been advising Prince Charles on Islam.