An afternoon with Prince Charles

Fareed Yousaf joined an exclusive gathering to talk interfaith harmony with the Prince of Wales

An afternoon with Prince Charles
The warmth and strong social conscience of His Royal Highness Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, could not fail to touch the 14 people who were members of an exclusive cohort of invitees to his residence, Clarence House.

Clarence House is the official residence of HRH The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall. It is a beautiful London Townhouse built by John Nash in 1825-27 for George III’s third son, the Duke of Clarence. It was previously home to Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother.

I was invited by my friend Shoaib Bajwa, an influential business strategist and an advocate of religious liberties globally, who I have known from many years. He is always the most pleasant of company.

Among the guests were senior British civil servants, highly successful businessmen from diverse backgrounds and top-quality PhD scholars sponsored by the Al-Azhar University of Cairo to research religion at Oxford, Cambridge, St Andrews and other top universities in the UK. All had the opportunity to spend time with His Royal Highness at his residence over tea and lunch.

The Prince of Wales speaks to Naguib Sawiris and Wafic Said

The Prince was engaging, charming and welcoming. Quite apart from being a champion of faith and religious harmony, he was keen to understand more about the scholars’ experiences of study in England and how they are adding value to our understanding of Islam. It was that dialogue that led to thought-provoking discussions about Islamic extremism, pockets of intolerance within Islam and solutions to address them.

The truth was, the scholars argued, that Islam had been portrayed as a religion of intolerance when in fact it was nothing of the kind. Muhammad, who was studying at St Andrews, spoke movingly about the confusion between culture and Islam, arguing that Islam is a religion which could be practiced in any setting in a manner that enhanced tolerance and integration.

Muhammad’s perspectives are precisely of the kind Al Azhar University wants to encourage research on. The Al-Azhar program to send scholars to international universities serves a conduit for a new generation of Muslim scholars who inspire leadership and dialogue across the borders of culture and faith. His Royal Highness himself holds an honorary doctorate from Al-Azhar for his work to encourage inter-faith dialogue and supports Al-Azhar’s mission of peace and coexistence among nations.

I had the pleasure to meet and speak in detail with Wafic Said, a very successful businessman and also the founder of the Said Business School at Oxford University; and Naguib Sawiris, a key family member of business conglomerate, Orascom Group and a keen philanthropist. They all spoke with the Prince about the importance of tolerance and interfaith harmony in today’s world from the perspectives of social unrest, politics and business. After discussing opportunities for cooperation between Britain and Commonwealth countries in education and trade, Shoaib Bajwa invited the Prince to visit his birth town Lahore in Pakistan.

Shehryar Taseer, the son of the late Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was also present, dressed in elegant and striking attire. The Prince of Wales spoke at length about the late Governor who was assassinated by his own bodyguard, his family and generally about the political situation in Pakistan. It was clearly an inspiring discussion for Shehryar, who, quite apart from being a successful businessman, was also keen on supporting charitable activities globally.

Wafic Said remarked on the generosity of the host. That he was so impressed is a testament to the determination of the Prince of Wales to inspire and encourage future scholars and leaders from varied communities, religions and backgrounds.

Lunch was arranged at Wafic Said’s house, just a short walk from Clarence House. The lunch was exquisite, served in an elegant setting with proverbial Arab hospitality. The Kanafeh dessert, a traditional sweet dish made with cheese pastry soaked in sweet, sugar-based syrup was particularly delightful. It even impressed Camila Fayed (the daughter of Muhammad Al-Fayed) a fashion and restaurant entrepreneur who joined us at the lunch. I also got a chance to have a very enjoyable conversation on current global affairs, including the role of Britain after Brexit, the rise of China as a new global power etc. with John Casson, a senior British diplomat. He served as Private Secretary on Foreign Affairs to former British Prime Minister David Cameron in 10 Downing Street.

The mission of all the attendees was to combine moderate scholars with people who wield vast social influence in Muslim societies, and in doing so, to rebalance the negative portrayal of Islam – and of religion in general. Whilst there is still a great deal to do, I believe this exclusive gathering made significant strides in achieving that noble aim.