Interview with His Majesty King Abdullah II

Fareed Zakaria
01 March 2015

مقابلة جلالة الملك عبدالله الثاني مع قناة سي إن إن الأمريكية

CNN: Your Majesty, thank you so much for joining us.

King Abdullah: Great to be here, Fareed. Thank you.

CNN: This is the first time you’re speaking to the world since the death of the Jordanian pilot and that brutal video. Tell us what was your reaction when you first saw the video.

King Abdullah: Well, in actual fact, I didn’t see the video. Many of us refused to see what I think is propaganda. Obviously, I had a detailed brief of what happened. We couldn’t escape seeing pictures in the newspapers. Disgust, sadness to the family; I had met the family on many occasions. My heart went out to the father, the mother, the brothers and sisters, his wife – they’d only been married for five months. Anger, as a son of the Arab Army, the Jordanian Armed Forces, Moath, God bless his soul, is a brother in arms; and so I think all Jordanian soldiers, past and present, were angered and disgusted by the brutality of what Moath was put through.

And I think if Daesh, as we call them, try to intimidate Jordanians, I think it just had the reverse effect. If you look at our history, we’re a country that’s used to being outgunned and outnumbered and we’ve always punched way above our weight. I think, if anything, Daesh has now got a tiger by the tail. And it just motivated Jordanians to rally around the flag; and the gloves have come off.

CNN: What do you think they were trying to do with the video?

King Abdullah: They’re always trying to intimidate, scare, put fear into people’s hearts; and, you know, this is a group that works by intimidation. They’re trying to invent falsely a linkage to a Caliphate, link to our history in Islam, which has no truth or bearing to our history; to bring in young men and women that think that this is an Islamic nation, and it has nothing to do with our history.

And actually the barbarity of the way they executed our brave hero, I think, shocked the Muslim world and specifically Jordanians and people from this region that it had nothing to do with Islam. And it’s this intimidation that I think they use as their major weapon.

CNN: The Jordanian government promised an earth-shattering response – earth-shaking response, as I recall. So far, what we’ve seen hasn’t quite seemed that dramatic. Is there more to come? How should we interpret what’s going to happen?

King Abdullah: Well, you know, earth-shattering is − from all military capabilities − not something that happens overnight. There has been a massive response from our air campaign, there are continued operations going on in Syria. We are coordinating with our friends in Iraq. And there is a long-term approach to this issue.

And, again, this is one of the issues that I’d like to point out to you. I mean, one of the things that Daesh has been saying is: why is it that we are being picked on by fellow Muslims? Why did the Jordanians get involved in this war?

Well, this has been our war. It has been our war for a long time, against these people that, for lack of a better term, many of us are calling Khawarij. These are outlaws of Islam that have been trying to use expansionist policy the minute that they set up and tried and expand their dominion over Muslims. They try to make themselves look as the victims. That it is, you know, us Muslims picking on them. Well, what about the hundreds if not thousands of Muslims that they have killed in Syria and in Iraq over the past year and a half? The tribes that we have a responsibility to reach out to in eastern Syria, and equally as important in western Iraq, that have been executed in large numbers over the past year and a half. So this is our war. And we have a moral responsibility to reach out to those Muslims, to protect them, and to stop them before they reach our border.

CNN: In Syria, are you not inevitably allying with the Assad government, in the sense that if ISIS is your main threat, Winston Churchill said when, you know, he said if Hitler were to invade hell, I would make common cause with the devil. Do you have to, at some level, de facto side with Assad?

King Abdullah: Well, this is part of the confusion when it comes to the international community. I mean, how do you deal with Syria because at the moment, there’re two stories.

There’s the issue of dealing with the regime, and there’s the issue of dealing with Daesh. We have always believed in Jordan that there has to be a political solution for Syria. What has taken prominence at the moment is Daesh, at this stage.

So are we trying to chew gum and walk at the same time? And this is something that has to be decided by the international community.

We believe that there has to be a political solution that brings the moderate forces and the regime to the table because there is this bigger problem. That has not been clarified at the moment. So, coalition, Arab-Muslim-Western, so to speak, can only do so much in Syria against ISIS. But at the end of the day, it’s got to be the Syrians themselves, especially when you want to reach the heartland of ISIS, which is Raqqa up in the north.

CNN: President Obama has gotten into a little trouble, or at least has received some criticism, because he says he doesn’t want to call groups like ISIS ‘Islamic extremists’ because he doesn’t want to give them the mantle of legitimacy by acknowledging that they’re Islamic. Do you think he’s right?

King Abdullah: I think he is right and I think this is something that has to be understood on a much larger platform, because they’re looking for legitimacy that they don’t have inside of Islam. When we’re asked in this debate, you know, are you a moderate or extremist − what these people want is to be called extremist. I mean, they take that as a badge of honor. If you ask me, am I a moderate or an extremist? I’m a Muslim!

These people, in the term that is being used more and more, in Arabic are called Khawarij. These are outlaws of Islam, and if you look at the way that they are actually represented inside of our religion, they are, these are takfiris inside Islam. If Islam is 1.5 billion Muslims, they represent only 1 percent. Out of that, maybe 200 to 500 thousand of these people are actually jihadists. These are the crazies of this element.

So to label Islam under the term of extremists and moderates is actually completely wrong.  I think by making this comparison that they’re extremist Muslims, actually is working exactly what these people want. No, we are Muslims, I don’t know what these people are, but they definitely do not have any relationship to our faith. When Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, came out with his manifesto, even extremist organizations completely backed away from what he said. So he has nothing to do with the tenets of Islam, which is a religion of tolerance that reaches out to other people.

CNN: How should the West handle this? Should this, the response to ISIS be essentially an Arab response, a Muslim response or should the West be in the lead?

King Abdullah: This has to be unified. I mean, I’ve said this to leaders both in the Islamic and Arab world and to the world in general, this a third world war by other means. This brings Muslims, Christians and other religions together in this generational fight that all of us have to be in this together. So it’s not a Western fight. This is a fight inside of Islam, where everybody comes together against these outlaws. And there’s a short term-part of this, which is the military part of the issue; there is the medium part, which is the security element of it; and then there’s a long-term element of this, which is obviously the ideological one. And that’s the one that’s the more complicated, the more difficult one.

CNN: In Sunni Islam, as you know, there is no real priestly hierarchy. There are no popes or really anything like that. But there is historically a great weight given to people who have some family association with the Prophet. And the Hashemites, your family, is regarded as descending from the Prophet.

Given that, do you think that when you hear talk − not just from the people in ISIS, but people who did the things they did in Paris, do you think that any of this has any basis in Islam?

King Abdullah: There’s a difference, and I’m sure we can get into this, between freedom of speech and hate speech. So both Rania and I were present in Paris because it was the right thing to do to stand up against violence and terrorism. But we were also there in Paris to stand in the name of a young Muslim policeman by the name of Ahmed, who was the first policeman to be at the scene of that crime, who paid with his life defending the laws of France. We were there to also defend those innocents that were killed in the name of Islam, whether it was the 150 schoolchildren that were killed in a school in Pakistan, whether it was, you know, the thousands that were killed in a Nigerian village in a single day, or the thousands of Muslims that are being killed every day in Syria and in Iraq.

So the issue of the blasphemy, if anybody understood the Prophet, may peace be upon him, and how he used to look at life, he was persecuted at the beginning of bringing Islam together, and he always forgave. There were some brutal things that happened to him, to his family, and he always forgave those around him. So for these extremists now to be able to be the defenders of his honor, when they don’t understand who he was, I find so insulting because he would have always forgiven. But that’s not what they want to do. They want to create that hatred.

My brother, His Holiness, the Pope, again spoke out that vilifying of religions is something that we all have to stand together on. And then you see this, the good stories that unfortunately are not reported enough in the media. So when you look at what’s happened over the past several months, when extremists in Sweden went and painted insulting graffiti on a mosque’s door in a city in Sweden, the Swedish people came out and put paper hearts on the door of that mosque. In Cologne, when Islamophobic groups went out chanting against Islam, the Great Cathedral of Cologne turned out its lights in protest against that. Last week, young Muslims in Oslo held hands around a synagogue to show a ring of peace.

These are the messages that we’re all united together against this fight and not to fall into the trap that the extremists want on either side to create hate between religions. That’s what we have to concentrate on.

CNN: Your Majesty, people are puzzled about the way ISIS seems to be able to finance itself, the sophistication of its media operation. But let’s start with the money. How do they have so much cash?

King Abdullah: Well, money does get supplied by individuals in our part of the world, and you’ve seen a UN resolution recently to try and move us, the international community, to make sure that those accesses are cut off. You’ve also got to remember that ISIS was fairly successful in taking over territory, whether it was in Syria and more recently in Iraq where they over-ran banks, and managed actually to capture a lot of money. And then they ran their own economic industry. So they were selling a lot of oil, producing about a billion dollars-worth of revenue a year. That’s been degraded quite significantly because of coalition airstrikes. But they had their own ability to run their own economy quite successfully.

CNN: Do you think that defeating ISIS will require or should require American boots on the ground? American ground forces?

King Abdullah: Well look, I think that a lot of us are looking at this being our fight, an Arab-Muslim challenge, trying to keep Western boots off the ground is I think an essential part of how we move forward. And I think this is why most of us are looking at it that way. At the end of the day…

CNN: Why? Do you think it would be…

King Abdullah: No, I mean…

CNN: …a gift to ISIS to have American boots?

King Abdullah: Well, I mean that could be an element of it because I think the perception that they will use as occupation is the wrong issue. They will obviously always use the idea of this is a crusade, which it is not, because it is actually, this is our fight.

But at the same time, when you look at Syria and you look at also Iraq, it’s the integrity and the sovereignty of those countries − it has to be the Syrians dealing with their issues and the Iraqis dealing with theirs. That doesn’t mean that they can’t be aided by air, possibly special forces type of operations in the future. But those are things that are being looked at.

What is I think more important is to look at the challenges in the holistic approach, and I think this is the challenge for 2015. Where the fixation today is obviously on Iraq and Syria, we can’t forget the problems of Sinai, we can’t forget the problems of Libya, and we must not forget the challenges to Africa of Boko Haram, Shabab, and the problems that these franchises, so to speak, are presenting to Asia. So like-minded countries, Arab, Muslim, and the rest of the community, need to come together and own up to how we can share responsibilities, work together and deal with these problems in a holistic approach.

CNN: Do you think that Prime Minister Netanyahu has genuinely been making an effort to create a two-state solution to the Palestinian problem?

King Abdullah: At this stage, nothing proactive will happen from either side, unfortunately, until we get past the elections. My hope is that once we get past the elections, there is a serious commitment from both sides to move on the two-state solution.

And the reason is, if this is our generational fight against these Khawarij, these outlaws of Islam, we have been talking about this global threat, what these people use as one of their main recruiting issues, rightly or wrongly, because the Israelis will say that these problems got nothing to do with us, and get upset sometimes when I say that all roads lead to Jerusalem. They use this as an argument. So we saw that the spike in recruiting in the summer when the war in Gaza happened, and 700 women and children died as a result, foreign fighters flocked to Syria and to Iraq because of what they perceive as the injustice of the Palestinians and Arab Jerusalem.

So, if we’re going to have any chance of winning this generational fight, this third world war by other means − if we can’t fix this Israeli-Palestinian problem, this ongoing situation that’s been there for many decades, then we have at least one hand tied behind our backs, if we’re going to deal with this.

And so this is the challenge to both the Israeli and Palestinian leadership: You’ve got to understand that now this problem has become much bigger than yourselves. How are we going to be able to win this? How are we going to be able to justify us Muslims with the rest of the international community fighting against these people if this thing keeps bubbling? That’s the major challenge I think.

CNN: Your Majesty, pleasure to have you on. Thank you so much.

King Abdullah: Thank you.