By Ben Judah
September 19, 2022
Ben Judah, the author of “This Is London,” is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center.
King Charles III will surprise us. The man whose family has served as the physical symbols of colonialism has spent his life trying to free his mind from the calcified prejudices of empire. Britain’s new head of state is a loud admirer of Islam, a critic of Western interventionism and a champion of multiculturalism who will win his country new friends — and some populist enemies — across the world.
The new king has for decades sought to free himself from what he calls “Western materialism” by immersing himself in the world’s second-largest faith. As the Prince of Wales, he threw himself into the study of Islamic textiles, gardens and architecture. But he did not stop there. The king has also studied Arabic to understand the Quran.
This passion can only be said to have inspired Britain’s new monarch. In speeches as early as 1993, he warned that “the degree of misunderstanding between the Islamic and Western worlds remain dangerously high” and “I believe wholeheartedly that the links between these two worlds matter more today than ever before.” Rejecting the popular narrative of a “clash of civilizations” brewing between the Muslim world and the West, the then-Prince of Wales went on to declare that Islam is “part of our past and our present, in all fields of human endeavor. It has helped to create modern Europe. It is part of our own inheritance, not a thing apart.”
As bigotry and Islamophobia grew rampant after 9/11, he doubled down. “This planet’s survival will depend on you understanding that you can achieve unity through diversity,” he said in 2006 in Pakistan, going on to quote the Quran: “Only they pay attention who have hearts; only they believe (or see signs) who have hearts.” His views put him far outside the mainstream: not only his opposition to France’s bans on Muslim face coverings but also his criticism of Danish cartoons that mocked the prophet Muhammad,
Charles’s admiration of Islam is visible in his personal life and work. He laid out a carpet garden at his beloved home at Highgrove that was inspired by Islamic designs with the plants mentioned in the Quran. He is patron of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies and his Prince’s Foundation’s School of Traditional Arts teaches a wide range of courses on Islamic traditions. He has made visiting Muslim shrines, holy places and even the hugely important Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo part of his royal travels. The Grand Imam of Al-Azhar called him a “fair Western voice” on Islam and celebrated their meeting. Britain’s new top Royal diplomat — though he might not have said so explicitly — wants to heal the wounds left by the 9/11 era.
His efforts to establish cultural dialogues aren’t limited to Islam. He’s also built remarkable bridges to Jews, hosting a royal Hanukkah party in 2019 at Buckingham Palace and befriending leading rabbis and honoring Holocaust survivors by commissioning portraits of them into the royal collections. Regarding the legacy of empire and those victimized in other countries he’s gone further than his mother ever did by saying in 2021 that “slavery was an atrocity” and, intriguingly, that the “time has come” to confront its legacy.
But it is the new king’s fascination with Islam that has the most obviously political implications. As Prince of Wales, he audibly opposed Western neocolonialism. When Tony Blair’s government prepared to follow the U.S. lead into Iraq, Charles made his opposition known to government. “Marching in carrying a banner for western-style democracy was both foolhardy and futile,” is how journalist Robert Jobson reported the exchange in a Charles biography. The king is also a noted supporter of the Palestinians, most recently and pointedly wishing them “freedom, justice and equality” while repeatedly pressing the British government to do more.
The king’s embrace of Islam has occurred against a backdrop of rising Islamophobia across the West, a political context he is well aware of. Speaking in 2016, he implicitly criticized the newly elected U.S. president, Donald Trump, and his policy of banning many visitors from Muslim-majority countries. Charles lamented the rise of “many populist groups across the world that are increasingly aggressive to those who adhere to a minority faith. All of this has deeply disturbing echoes of the dark days of the 1930s.” This is what makes Charles’s stated ambivalence of his title Defender of the Faith, instead saying he sees himself more as “Defender of Faith,” consequential. Britain’s new king is a man whose mission is to put multiculturalism — not nationalism — first.
Now, critics might question how much Charles, who has multiple palaces and a reputation for finicky indulgences, has really shed Western materialism. He has also acknowledged, both before and since acceding to the throne, that as sovereign he is expected to be more circumspect about his opinions. It is unclear how much he will continue to express political statements and actions. He has already been criticized from the right for pledging in a call with the French president to continue working together, “starting with the protection of the climate and the planet.”
As Charles III embarks on his reign, he will be intensely aware that the power of the monarchy is to use its symbolic power to put certain things above politics as a national mission — just as the queen did with the Commonwealth. “I’ve always thought of Britain as a community of communities,” he told faith leaders this past week. An outspoken king that gives an Eid message, champions diversity and detests Islamophobia can win friends and heal wounds abroad. By the same token, it could also make enemies in the United States if Trump or his movement ever take back the White House with the sort of supremacist politics Charles has rejected.