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City's Jews, Muslims voice praise for Hussein

Saturday, February 06, 1999

By Steve Levin and Ervin Dyer, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

Half a world away from where Jordan's King Hussein lay gravely ill in Amman last night, members of Pittsburgh's Muslim and Jewish communities praised the 63-year old king's efforts to reconcile with Israel and bring peace to all humanity.

Before going to Friday evening prayers at the Islamic Center in Oakland, Zahid Mahmud called Hussein a man who had brought the whole world one step closer to peace.

"Human life is highly valued in the Muslim community," said Mahmud, president of the Islamic Council of Greater Pittsburgh, which oversees affairs at seven local mosques. "Hussein's constructive participation in Middle East peace is something Muslims worldwide appreciate."

"The whole world is going to miss him and the voice he represented for peace and fairness for all," said David Shtulman, director of the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Jewish Committee, a group dedicated to improving interfaith relations among Jews and other religions in the U.S. and around the world.

"I'm hoping that there won't be any [negative] impact at all," said Shtulman, "but clearly, King Hussein is one of the most impressive persons in the Middle East. It will be a loss for the peace process."

Laurie Zittrain Eisenberg, visiting associate professor in history at Carnegie Mellon University, said Hussein had been able to rethink his political positions and learn from his mistakes.

During his nearly five decades in power, he went from attacking Israel as part of an Arab alliance in 1967 to signing a peace treaty in 1994. There is no one approaching Hussein's stature currently in the Middle East, she said.

"The death of King Hussein will be a great loss to the region. I can't think of another leader who has his wisdom and his maturity."

"Israelis genuinely trusted and loved the man," Eisenberg said. "I think we witnessed in King Hussein a remarkable psychological evolution in that he was able to envision an Arab-Israeli peace and then move forward on it."

She compared him with the late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. Both were leaders able to progress "from having led their countries in war against one another to a belief that the other man could be trusted and that there would be peace between their countries."

Mahmud said most Muslims in America had reconciled themselves to Hussein's recognition of Israel.

"The state of Israel for him is a reality and he believes there's no point in the children of Abraham fighting. They should be able to live in peace and harmony."

Mahmud's reference was to the scriptural story of Abraham's two sons - Isaac, whose descendants were to become the Jews, and Ishmael, whose descendants were to become the Arabs.

The king's oldest son, Abdullah, was appointed crown prince 10 days ago and has been acting monarch since his father was flown to the United States last week for medical treatment.

At 37, Abdullah is seen as a political novice, and some in the Muslim community fear that his transition to power may make him vulnerable to extremist groups, some of which want all of Jerusalem returned to Palestinian rule instead of being divided with the Israelis. Others feel that the prince may be pressured to align himself with Saddam Hussein, who would add weight to Hussein's push to remove some of his political restrictions.

But Eisenberg said those worried about the relative youthfulness of the crown prince and his ability to replace his father shouldn't be.

"Remember," she said, "that King Hussein came to the throne at the age of 16 after the assassination of his grandfather." He had witnessed his grandfather King Abdullah's death at the hands of a Palestinian nationalist.

"From what we know of Crown Prince Abdullah, he had already worked with Israelis in his role with the special forces unit of the Jordanian army," she said. "He has given every sign that he plans to perpetuate King Hussein's politics."

Shtulman said that if the succession of Abdullah did cause a significant change in Jordan's policy toward Israel, it would occur before the Israeli elections scheduled for mid-May.

Nicholas Lane, immediate past chairman of the national American Jewish Committee's international relations committee, said succeeding Hussein would be difficult because of the late king's personality and strength of character, best exhibited in his dogged effort to bring peace between his country and Israel, and improve Jordan's relationship with the United States.

"There is far too much to lose if those relationships are damaged" by Abdullah, Lane said.

In his opinion, he said, had Hussein's brother Hassan come to power, Jordan's relationship with Israel would have continued along the same road.

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