Talking To Diana: How To Successfully Start A Speech

"Many saw her as a cultural saint and her death caused much distress: she had transcended her class and race"

Talking To Diana: How To Successfully Start A Speech
Caption: The author's lecture on Islam for princess Diana at the RAI, London

How do you begin a speech for an audience of one, which consists of Her Royal Highness (HRH) Princess Diana?

Motivational speakers have posted dozens of short videos introducing the best method to start a speech and capture the listeners in those first crucial moments. Some recommend a short story. Others advocate the use of humour. The question of course is what short story to select? A personal story or something from literature? As for humour, it is always a risky business to tell a joke which may seem funny to the speaker but falls flat. All of these suggestions pose a dilemma. Besides, neither stories nor jokes translate well from one culture to another and can be a disaster in the telling.

Faced with the challenge of giving a talk on Islam at the Royal Anthropological Institute in London to Diana when she was still HRH, I thought about the opening. That initial few minutes would either capture her attention or I would lose my audience of one. Should I start by talking about the Prophet of Islam (PBUH) and his message in the tradition of Judaism and Christianity? Or perhaps speak about the Golden Age of Islam? Or maybe cast the talk in theological terms and discuss some of the sublime verses of the Quran?

I was also aware that the media had built up a drumbeat of hostility against Islam. Islamophobia was robust and abroad. The war with Saddam Hussein of Iraq was about to take place and the media was talking freely about Islam as a potentially violent, misogynist, and backward religion.

The Salman Rushdie crisis, around his book The Satanic Verses, was at its height and people in Britain were divided clearly into two groups—those that supported Rushdie and the idea of freedom of expression and those who believed the book was blasphemous and religious sensitivities should be protected in a multicultural society. The division ran broadly along religious lines and Muslims found themselves vehemently opposing the book. In some places they burnt it, in other places they yelled that they would assassinate Rushdie. Of course, the television cameras loved the controversy, and it was the staple diet of the media at that time.

So, my concern about the opening of my talk had a context. Everything I said would be interpreted in terms of what was happening in society then. There was no escaping from the cultural context of how Islam was seen and being discussed.

I decided to take the risky path of attempting light humour. I had decided to wear my national dress, the shalwar-kameez and waist-coat. I began my talk by saying, if Her Royal Highness expects me to pull out a copy of The Satanic Verses from the depths of my voluminous oriental garb and burn it, she will be disappointed. I have come to build bridges, not to destroy them.

This was not Rory Bremner material, I am the first to admit, but Diana did respond with a shy smile. That encouraged me to tell the story I had prepared for the occasion as an introduction to my subject. I recounted the story of the Prophet and the old woman who tormented him every time he passed by the lane where she lived. She would throw garbage on him from her window and he would quietly walk by. One day, nothing happened, and the Prophet inquired about the old lady. He was told she was ill. He bought some fruit and went upstairs to meet her and ask about her health. The old lady was very moved. With tears in her eyes, she complained that even her relatives had not asked about her. It was not surprising then that she became an early convert to Islam.

The story was a simple one but it contained both human compassion and human interaction. From then on it was smooth sailing for me. I briefly touched on the Golden Age of Islam, and the special features in Islamic societies such as respect for knowledge, compassion, and justice. I introduced the concept of mystics and Sufis whose philosophy was “peace with all.” I gave examples of the treatment of women in Islamic thinking. The Prophet had said paradise lies at the feet of the mother. He had repeated this saying thrice to underline its importance. All this of course was in the ideal and sometimes there was a gap between the ideal and practice. It was usually because of the ignorance and prejudice of men in society. More education was needed. I also talked of the growing Islamophobia and the anger among many Muslims who felt no one heeded them and disrespected their religion.

My concern about the opening of my talk had a context. Everything I said would be interpreted in terms of what was happening in society then. There was no escaping from the cultural context of how Islam was seen

After my talk Diana stood up and came towards me. We had been instructed about royal protocol. Only royalty could initiate a conversation and if that happens everyone else was expected to move back so as not to impede conversation or overhear it. As she walked up to me and stood talking quite close, I was struck by her wholesomeness, her radiant physical presence. Diana was elegantly dressed and was a picture of youthful vitality. She exuded a translucent glow that was touched by an undefined spirituality, and it embraced and uplifted me.

As I had written in my book Journey into Europe (2018), I was impressed by her intelligent questions, curiosity about Islam, and her desire to help improve relations between Islam and the West. She asked whether I felt she could play a role in improving relations between Islam and the Muslim world. There is a lot of hurt, especially among the young, and the application of balm through friendship and showing respect will help matters and ease tensions. Diana’s charisma and kindness, I believed, would make her a natural ambassador between the two civilisations. She seemed to absorb these ideas and asked again about her possible role.

My book also contains the rare photograph taken by the royal photographer of that occasion. I presented Diana with my book Discovering Islam and an article I had written on Islam in History Today. The next morning several British papers displayed a glorious color photograph of a radiant Diana holding the book with its cover facing the cameras. Headlines proclaimed, “The Student Princess” (Daily Mail) and “I’m Not Diana’s Guru, Says Top Academic” (Daily Express).

Had Diana deliberately chosen to hold my book in this manner? As she often did, was she sending a message to the world? Was it about herself, expressing an act of defiance, or to share information about the author?

What author could resist that kind of support? I was won over. So, when it was announced that Diana was to make a solo state visit to Pakistan, her first to that country, in 1991, and she invited me to tea at Kensington Palace to ask for advice, I readily consented. To win over Pakistanis, I suggested she quote their beloved poet Allama Iqbal at the state dinner in Islamabad and I gave her several beautiful verses that captured the poet’s universal mystic humanism. I also suggested she wear the Pakistani shalwar-kameez. She did both—and the Pakistanis loved her for it. The headlines in the Urdu papers the next morning paid her glowing tributes.

Kate Snell in her book Diana: Her Last Love (2000) dedicated an entire chapter to my meeting Diana. Although Snell’s sensational title does not, I hasten to assure the curious reader, refer to your good author it identifies another Pakistani, the excellent Dr Hasnat Khan who Diana called “Mr Wonderful.”

Whatever the lurid reports in the media, her embrace of children suffering from HIV/AIDS, her courage walking among land mines to expose the dangers they hold, her general compassion for the poor and vulnerable in society were all indications of a soul on a spiritual journey

“Professor Ahmed highlighted several aspects of the religion that would have sent powerful messages to Diana”, Snell wrote. “First of all he had spoken of the compassion of Islam, perhaps a touchy subject given the public feeling at the time. ‘This seemed to generate enormous curiosity in the Royal guest,’ notes Ahmed. Secondly, Islam has at its core a family structure and, says Professor Ahmed, a concern for women, and a respect for the mother figure. Bearing in mind Diana’s own childhood, and the breakdown of her own marriage at this time, what Ahmed was saying undoubtedly had a resonance in her own life.”

“Islam and Islamic philosophy, especially Sufism, had captivated Diana,” Snell explained. “Sufism is the mystical, inner philosophy of Islam. Its message of ‘peace with all’ has long drawn Muslims and non-Muslims alike.”

Snell’s book even had a photograph of Diana lying on her hotel balcony in her bikini at a ski resort in the Alps reading a book on Islam. “Diana was even photographed in April 1994 reading Discovering Islam, a book by a Cambridge University professor, Akbar Ahmed, on the balcony of a chalet whilst on a skiing holiday at Lech in Austria.”

Snell also provided the background to my presence at the London event: “His involvement with the debate coincided with a letter dated 27 June 1990 that had just arrived at the London headquarters of the Royal Anthropological Institute. The letter was from Diana’s private secretary at the time, Patrick Jephson. It was addressed to the Institute’s director, Jonathan Benthall, and informed him that the Princess would be pleased to accept an invitation to visit the Institute’s offices in Fitzroy Street and that she would be grateful if this engagement could include a briefing on Pakistan.

Benthall, who was already acquainted with Ahmed, got straight on the phone to the Professor in Cambridge and told him of the request to give a private briefing on Pakistan for the Princess of Wales. He asked whether the Professor would be prepared to speak at such an event. The Professor accepted instantly. Although he had never met the Princess, he felt pleased and excited by the prospect of talking to someone who was so eminent and who had such a high public profile. The two men agreed that an introduction to Islam would be an appropriate topic to be covered at the briefing.

Two months later, on Thursday 13 September 1990, Professor Ahmed made his way to the Royal Anthropological Institute, in Fitzroy Street, London, wearing a traditional shalwar- kameez.

Ahmed was extremely curious about Diana. “I felt she was an intelligent person, yet the media often gave her a rough time. I felt I could make an impact with her if I could somehow ‘get through’.”

The lecture on Islam was due to be held in the general office on the ground floor of the Institute. Promptly, at three thirty, Diana arrived and was directed to a seat on the front row, just below the lectern.

Professor Ahmed describes it as an enormously memorable occasion, not least because it was most unusual for a member of the Royal Family to be lectured to in this way – with Diana seated on a chair whilst the speaker stood above her at the lectern.”

I first heard the awful news of Diana’s tragic death from a friend and colleague who was like me attending a major international conference of scholars at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. We had gathered to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Pakistan with lectures and films. We were given very comfortable separate lodgings on the beautiful campus when I heard a loud knocking early in the morning. It was Professor Brian Spooner, a distinguished English anthropologist teaching at Pennsylvania University in the USA. He looked grave. I have bad news for you, he said. Princess Diana has died. I was still groggy and not sure how to react to the terrible news and was surprised to feel my eyes moisten with tears. I subsequently rang my wife who was at Cambridge. She too was shocked. Later, she told me that she received an invitation for me to attend the funeral at Westminster Abbey. It was to be a grand affair and only 2000 guests were invited, although the funeral proceedings were to be seen by over 30 million people on television. I would have liked to be there to show my respect, but could not avail myself of the invitation. A thought entered my mind and buzzed about like a troubling fly: who would have remembered me in the midst of the turmoil of her death to send me an invitation?

Viewing The Crown television series recently and seeing Diana again made me think of her and our first meeting. From the vantage point of hindsight, I wondered about my opening story. I was aware of some of the famous opening lines and the challenge of attempting something memorable and yet meaningful. I had thought of Mark Anthony’s speech after the murder of Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s play named after the Roman general, considered by many as perhaps the Bard’s greatest peroration. I thought of Nehru’s brilliant “Tryst with destiny” speech on the first day of Indian Independence, of Kennedy’s winning “I am the man who accompanied Jackie Kennedy to Europe,” and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech. There are so many such world-shaking opening lines. In contrast, mine was a low key even obscure event which agitated no more than one professor at the University of Cambridge to try to do his best and reach out on behalf of his community.

Would anything have happened differently had I opened with an alternative? Or was there something in the trajectory of Diana’s life—her love for Hasnat Khan and later Dodi—that connected her to Islam? Eventually, did her acquaintance with Islam bring her some moments of love and relief in her turbulent life hounded by an avaricious media and jealous peers or was it the cause in some indefinable manner of her tragic death?

Whatever the lurid reports in the media, her embrace of children suffering from HIV/AIDS, her courage walking among land mines to expose the dangers they hold, her general compassion for the poor and vulnerable in society were all indications of a soul on a spiritual journey. That is precisely why so many saw her as a cultural saint and her death caused such distress. She had transcended her class and race.

Whatever the answer, I saluted the beautiful spirit of Diana and blessed her. Generous and gracious to the last; a true princess. For me, her luminescent glow will never dim.

Ambassador Akbar Ahmed is Distinguished Professor of International Relations and holds the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at the American University, School of International Service. He is also a global fellow at the Wilson Center Washington DC. His academic career included appointments such as Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution; the First Distinguished Chair of Middle East and Islamic Studies at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD; the Iqbal Fellow and Fellow of Selwyn College at the University of Cambridge; and teaching positions at Harvard and Princeton universities. Ahmed dedicated more than three decades to the Civil Service of Pakistan, where his posts included Commissioner in Balochistan, Political Agent in the Tribal Areas, and Pakistan High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland