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Monday, September 1, 2008

Queen Rania to Fareed Zakaria:” We need to build channels of communication”

FZ Queen Rania. Thank you so much for doing this.

HMQ It's a pleasure to be here

FZ Let me ask you. You're probably the best known face of women in Islam. Many people talk about Islam and they worry particularly about the role of women in Islam and they feel that Islam has placed women in a subordinate and subjugated role. How do you react to that charge.

HMQ Well, I personally think that Islam in and of itself does not subjugate women and does not hold them back but certain people choose to interpret Islam in a way that does hold women back. Now you might ask why would they do that and I think that a lot of men in particular choose those interpretations in order to validate and justify their own conservative, traditional and sometimes chauvanistic attitudes. So what we need to be looking at is, you know some of these traditional mindsets, we need to challenge some of those social attitudes that hold women back and that's what we need to focus on. It's not necessarily that you have to look at. you know, Islam itself. You know, holy scripture does not hold women back. it's the people that decide to interpret in such a way for their own, or sometimes political agendas. The other thing is that in many Muslim countries, they suffer from economic problems and what I have found and what development has shown is that whenever people feel the pinch, whenever the going gets tough, the first to get sacrificed are women. You know, they are always the last in the door and the first out the door. And so when there is hardship, womens rights tend to suffer and so you combine those two things - economic hardship as well as age old mindsets and very conservative attutudes, then you find that women really are sort of suffering but...

FZ But not alll of them are suffering. Women choosing a more trditional form of dress, for instance the first time I went to the Middle East in the early 70s you'd find women exactly dressed as you are and now you go to Cairo or Amman and you see more the chador, the veil.. There is a kind of conservatism and religiosity that has taken a grip in the Muslim world.

HMQ Again, I think it has more to do with the cultural aspects, with the political climate, the economic climate, with the social situation in those countries. A lot of women feel the pressure to dress in a certan way..

FZ Why?

HMQ... because that's what society, that's what society pushes. I mean, again, you know, political leaders sometimes, who have certain agendas and justify them through Islam put pressure on women to dress in a particular way. Sometimes it's not of their own choosing and sometimes they are just embarrassed to not bedress in a particular way, so I think we need to look a bit deeper. It's not a matter of just religion because Islam has been around for a very long time. Why is it we are suddenly seeing, as you say, this rise in conservative practice. For me it has much more to do with the environment in the Arab world rather than the religion itself..

FZ Do you ever get criticised for not wearing a veil?

HMQ Absolutely. You know very often, likewise, there are many women like me who don't wear a veil. So long as it's a choice. I have nothing against the veil and I think that, wrongly, many in the West look at the veil as a symbol of oppression. Now as long as a woman chooses to wear a veil because of her belief and because of her own personal relationship with God, she should be free to dress whichever way she wants and we should be smarter than to apply more meaning to a symbol of clothing than we should because, you know, all over the world there are many symbols of dress, many ways of prayer etc. We shouldn't you know,judge people through the prism of our own stereotypes. And I think that there has been a stereotype that has developed in the Western world over women - a veil means oppression. You know, that's not necessarily the case and unfortunately these stereotypes have been very dangerous between East and West and we really need to start challenging them because, you know they are really not an accurate perspective

FZ There are also many prejudices about the West in the Arab world..

HMQ Absolutely

FZ.. Arabs, still 30% feel that 9/11 was something that was actually perpetrated by the American government. How do you.. how does one change that?

HMQ I really think there's a crisis of trust between the West and the East. We both look at each other through a veil of suspicion. I feel that, you know, dialogue has lost out to violence and compassion has lost out to recrimination and suspicion. And it's very important to start mending those bridges because we all stand to lose if we don't do that. As soon as moderates on all sides realise that they need to stand together the sooner the extremists will stop having the upper hand. We need to build channels of communication.

...there's an interesting Gallup poll that came out earlier this year in which.. they asked many in the West if they thought that the Arab world was interested in improving relations and the majority said no they don't and likewise in the Muslim world they asked if the West was interested in improving relations and they said no. But on the positive side, all the majorities on both sides said that the quality of the relationship between east and west is something that is important to them so the problem is not that people don't care it's that they don't see the care reflected so it's very important for us to start creating platforms for dialogue. I for example had a small project on YouTube where I had a page and I encouraged people to send in their stereotypes and we started to try to challenge them and you know, the idea was to get people to question their assumptions and to question certain beliefs that they held to be true and that was a very enlightening experience because there was a lot of anger out there, there was a lot of misunderstanding, there was a lot of ignorance but that is just a drop in the ocean of what needs to be done. I think we need to take these initiatives at all levels.. in schools, in universities, in mosques and churches, through media organisations, through community centres. We need to get to the tipping point where people start to...where the dialogue becomes a lot more permissive because so far it hasn't. So far it's still the small minority of extremists that are setting the agenda and they are really creating very strong feelings of suspicion on both sides so they still have the upper hand.

FZ: But in some communities, it isn't just a small minority. If you look at, for example, the Palestinian community - you yourself are Palestinian, but if you look at the Palestinians in Gaza, they elected Hammas, a Hammas government. How should the West deal with a situation where you have an elected government that espouses a certain kind of terrorism or does not believe in a two state solution to the Israeli/Palestinian problem

HMQ: Well in my mind, the success of Hammas has been the result of the failure of the international community to deliver to the Palestinian people. In my mind their success is the result of a sense of hopelessness and helplessness of the Palestinian people. You really could see no light at the end of the tunnel and they were perceiving the Palestinian Authority through the government of General Abbas as being inefficient, as not delivering. You know, their way of life has been going from bad to worse. If you look at Gaza for example, unemployment is now at over 50%. Over 80% of the prople living there rely on UN organisations for food for example. So you know this is a situation that's not tolerable. They don't have access to basic health services, schools. Road blocks are all over the place. They can't even move. So in a situation like that, I think out of desperation, people must have elected Hammas because Hammas was viewed as providing social services or opening kindergartens for kids or providing education for girls etc but at the end of the day, the Palestinian Authority as we view it as a legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and the sooner the in fighting inside the Palestinian camp ends the sooner thay can start having a unified standard that really delivers to the Palestinian people because at the end of the day it is the Palestinian people who are paying the price. And the onus is on the international community to try to embolden and strengthen the moderate hand so the moderate hand can show that it is delivering to the people and that's where they will be able to have more power and more leverage. I don't think people by nature are extremists. You will never find a population of extremists. Extremists have existed throughout the centuries in all religions and what happens is extremists start to have more leverage when the situation is bad, you know

FZ: You see the situation very carefully because you are right next to Israel and you, as I say, you're Palestinian, you see the Palestinian community of Jordan which is what, 60%. Are they more radicalised because of the fact that the peace process is going nowhere. How do you take the temperature of the mood of the people

HMQ: I would say that people have become cynical of the peace process because, you know, it hasn't delivered so when you talk about peace and say that we need to deliver to the people etc, a lot of people say. you know , you've been saying that for decades now, what's happened? So people you know, have become very cynical about it and that is a very dangerous situation because at the end of the day we're talking about people's lives. We're not just talking about a business proposition where you can say, you know, that's not gonna work, that;s not gonna happen.. we're talking about people who don't have access to basic services, who can't have normal lives and at the end of the day if their situation doesn't improve, then all you will see is more radicalisation, more extremism, more people being pushed to the end becuse they, you know, they have no light at the end of the tunnel.

FZ: But it seems as though the process is at a standstill. Wouldn't you agree?

HMQ: The process has not been getting us where we want to go and I think, as I said earlier that is a failure of the international community to apply the right amount of pressure to get both sides to get along. They need to have...you need to have an international player that really applies the right kind of pressure, that gets them to focus on the issues that are important. We want solutions, There hasnt been a road map in place for a long time. This is not rocket science. But we needed the political will on both sides, the courage and committment to really see this process through and the understanding that, you know, people's lives are at stake here, that this is much more important than short term political gain and this most important issue this, in the long tern has a detrimental effect on all of our region and the international community. You know, I would say that one thing I would hope for example that the international community can do is to stop looking at the Arab world as independent problems because we need a more holistic approach. What happens in Palestine is very much related to what happens in Iraq, is very much related to what happens in Lebanon. Because what we're looking at is an extreme ideology that has linkages across borders and the stronger the moderate majority gets, the weaker they are so we need, you know, we need a holistic approach that looks at moving the political process forward, that looks at moving Arab societies in the right direction whether it's economically, socially or otherwise and then we can really start to see some comprehensive solutions to these issues.

FZ: We will be right back.. (music)

FZ: We're back with Queen Rania of Jordan. You are an Arab woman, a local woman, a Palestinian, a Jordanian..You come with all these different identities. Do you think that you are a Muslim woman of today. That you are able to fulfil yourself in every way that you want to

HMQ: Islam has never stood in my way. In fact it's always been an empowering aspect in my life. Faith is something that gives so much to your life, that gives you confidence, that really grounds you, that makes sure that your priotities are set in the right way and Islam has given me much comfort in that regard. And when you look at the Muslim woman, I think that some people tend to look at the Muslim world as a monolithic whole but in reality the Muslim world has many different countries and different women, different countries have different levels of progress. You'll find a lot of progress achieved in some countries and in other countries they are so far behind and there are different kinds of challenges. But on the whole I would say that women are beating new paths, they are breaking glass ceilings every day in the Muslim world. You know, if you look at the Forbes most powerful women you will find some Muslim women there so that I find encouraging.

FZ : When you go to Saudi Arabia.. here you are, this very articulate, a very modern woman. It is not exactly the way Saudi women are presented for the most part.

HMQ: Well actually I have been to Saudi Arabia quite a few times. I have delivered speeches there, very frank speeches..

FZ: To segregated audiences?

HMQ: To segregaed audiences but you know I'll take what they give me. At the end of the day people listened, they were very welcoming. The thing is that I am a part of the Arab world. I am not someone who has been imposed from anywhere so people can relate to me because even if I dress differently or the fact that I work and some Arab women don't etc but they still related to me

FZ: But why do you think that so many women are voluntarily chosing to wear the hijab, to wear the veil in a way that they weren't 30 or 40 years ago. What do you think is the dynamic there that is making for this increased religiosity

HMQ: I think that all over the world a lot of societies are feeling challenged by globalisation. They are feeling that maybe Western values are being imposed upon them. They fear that maybe they are losing their sense of identity so there is a whole movement to feel indiginous now. You know, you see that in many countries now. And sometimes, you know, going back to your traditions gives you that sense of maintaining your identity. What we're trying to do in Jordan is to demonstrate that you can be an Arab, you can be a Muslim and sometimes you can be a world player. You can be progressive. You can have political, economic and social reform but these things are not mutually exclusive so setting that model of moderation is extremely important.. You know regarding Arab women, there was also a poll conducted, a Gallup poll that showed that the majority of Muslim and Arab men believe that women should have equal legal rights, that they should be able to vote without influence, that they should be able to apply for jobs that they are qualified for so there is a change of attitudes. 18 out of 22 Arab countries have ratified the convention of ..of positive discrimination against women so we are seeing progress. I am not trying to paint a rosy picture. There are still a lot of challenges for women in the Arab world, not least of which is literacy rates, unemployment rates, cultural constraints that limit their civil, their personal liberties so we still have a long way to go but there is progress being made and mindsets are slowly slowly changing. You will always have though elements of society who have political agendas and who will justify those political agendas through Islam and sometimes that will reflect on how they feel women should behave and should dress. But again, you know, it's all about education, it's about reform and hopefully, as long as we keep the balance and it doesn't tip to one side then we can hopefully we can help those societies.

FZ: One of the things you've had to deal with in Jordan is the fact that you're right next door to Iraq. In fact the last time I was in Jordan it was having a massive real estate boom because all the of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who were fleeing Iraq were coming to Amman and buying up houses. From your standpoint, how is it going, just on a human level. Does it seem as though people are moving back to Iraq

HMQ: You are absloutely right that we have had a real estate boom and it might have been affected by the...market. No. At the minute there are no significant numbers of Iraqis moving back to Iraq. Now we are lucky that the sitiuation in Iraq is stabilising slowly and eventually our Iraqi guests will start to make their way back home and resume normal life but at the moment they are still in Jordan and that has been a tremendous strain on our country. As you know Jordan is not a resource rich country. Their presence has put a tremendous strain on our infra structure

FZ: Remind me. You have about five million people in Jordan and you have a million Iraqis

HMQ: Yeah around that so you can just imagine what kind of pressure such a sudden influx can have on a country like ours, on our educational system on our health system, on .. we have a scarcity of water. However, we have been able to absorb them so far. We would like to have seen more assistance from the international community as we feel this is not a resposibility we should shoulder on our own so we would expect more assistance in that regard until these people can go back and resume normal life in their own country. And at the end of the day, the stability of Iraq is something that is important to Jordan and is important to the entire region. Hopefully they are moving in the right direction but they are not there yet. They still have some way to go.

FZ: In a broader sense, looking at the Middle East, do you think that the processors of moderation are winning. Do you think that betwen the Dubai model and the Al Qaida model..

HMQ: I wish I could say that conclusively. I think a lot depends on the political process. I think if we can deliver on peace and if we can... I think it's a matter of two things.... on the political process such as delivering on peace, and I think it depends on the government's abilities to look beyond just economies. I think a lot of investment needs to be done in the human capital in the Arab world, in changing the social landscape. We shouldn't just be looking at invesment in educational expansion for example, we need to reform our educational system, make sure that we have the right curriculum for our young people, make sure that we invest in labour intensive areas, so that we can provide jobs. You know, one in four young people in the Arab world is unemployed. We are talking about 70 million young people in the Arab world. One in five live below the poverty line so in the Arab world we need to create 5 million jobs every year just to prevent a rise in unemployment. So that kind of vision is necessary. Investing in poverty innovation, sustainable development and you mentioned the Dubai model. The increase in fuel prices does not mean bad news for everyone. A lot of the Gulf countries have actually benefitted from that and have excess liquidity which gives them an opportunity, a window of opportunity to make the right investments. And this window doesn't often come, you know, and you should grasp it when you get the chance. If we can redeploy some of these petrol dollars into the right kind of investments in human capital and not just physical infrastructure, then we can have a paradigm shift in the way the Arab world looks in the social and economic landsacpe. Because not all, in fact most Arab countries are not oil producing so you risk a situation like this, of having a great disparity between those countries who have oil and those who don't which could result in fractures appearing which could result in a lot of inequity and unless we address those growing inequities then you create instability, political instability and sometimes radicalisations. so you know that's why dollars alone won'y buy you public security. but the right kind of vision and the right kind of investment could start opening windows of opportunity for our entire region. And could start to address some of the intractable problems that we have been facing over the past decades.

FZ: Let me ask you one question about women that people do often ask . I'm often asked the same kind of questions I am asking you. One of the things people talk about with Islam is the fact that the Koran seems to allow men to have four wives. What do you say? Is that something that inherently puts women at a disadvantage

HMQ: I wouldn't want to comment on that because I am not a religious scholar and I wouldn't want to say something that is not religiously accurate but the Koran came at a time in history and marrying four wives, it's only supposed to happen under certain circumstances. Now some people can take that and use it as a validation and justification for wanting to have four wives but in general, Islam does emphasise the fact that you have to be just with all your wives and actually says that that's very difficult to do so almost discourages you from taking more than one wife and historicaly they took more than one wife under very specific circumstances but as I said I am not a religios scholar so I wouldn't want to go into the interpretation of this.

FZ: Do you feel that, though, that those kind of forces that are inclined to a work to a more modern interpretation of Islam are moving to condemn the regime, the more backward forces. There's a lot of people that feel that the world of Islam, the moderates are scared, they don't speak out, they, you know

HMQ: Moderates generally can be a little complacent whether it's in the Arab world or elsewhere. You know, that's why you find that the extremists are always the ones with the loudest voices. And I find that very frustrating because I often try to send a message that although... to be honest, let's be very frank about this, most terrorist attacks in recent history have been conducted by Muslims but what I like to remind people is that Muslims, the majority of Muslims are not terrorists and although these people are maybe the loudest in Islam, they are not the majority and they are certainly not representatives and they are misrepresentatives of Islam. So, back to your question, I think moderates will have more leverage by demonstrating success, by delivering, by showing. That's why it's important for a country like Jordan to succeed because we want to show... we want to be a model, a showcase of the fact that, you know, you can be moderate, you can be Muslim, you can be Arab and you can still be progressive, modern and provide opportunities for your people so for moderates to have the upper hand, they need to be able to deliver. They really need to be able to showcase success.... a concept

FZ: And finally. You have four children and you are a very busy, talented, accomplished woman. Sarah Palin has five children and is in the midst of hoping to become vice president. What advice would you give to a working mother with four or five children. How have you managed to make it all happen.

HMQ: I never manage to make it all happen and they expect to make it all happen. You know, I think the first thing you need to do is be kinder to your self. Many women think that they have to achieve that perfect balance between family and work and everything else and that balance just does not exist. There are some days when you feel you have everything under control and other days when it's just all chaotic. It's about reorganising your priorities every day, about being flexible, about accepting help and asking people to assist you. It's