Queen Discusses Education and Prospects for Peace in the Middle East with CNN's Wolf Blitzer

April 22, 2009

BLITZER: President Obama has been reaching out to the Muslim world. Yesterday he hosted Jordan's King Abdullah. I spoke about a lot of what's going on in a special one-on-one interview with Jordan's Queen Rania.

BLITZER: Your majesty, thanks very much for joining us. Welcome to Washington.

QUEEN RANIA: Thank you very much. Pleasure to be here.

BLITZER: You're going to be meeting with the president of the United States, the first lady of the United States. You have a lot going on. But education, especially educating young girls in Jordan, in the Arab World, in the Muslim World, that's your passion right now. You have a huge challenge ahead of you.

QUEEN RANIA: Absolutely. I think education, a global education should be a priority for all of us. When we think of Millennium Development goals, I think the one key to unlocking a lot of the changes that we're facing the world is through education. And the sad fact of the matter is that we have 75 million children out of school today and it is actually an investment that we should really focus on, even in an economic downturn because it's an investment that doesn't devalue, it pays dividends many times over, and it's actually quite an inexpensive investment. It takes us - it costs us only 11 billion dollars annually to put every child in school in low income countries.

Now when you think of the hundreds of billions of dollars that have been mobilized in order to help the banking system, 11 billion is something that we can afford.

BLITZER: In the Muslim World, in the Arab World, there seems to be so much discrimination, though. And correct me if I'm wrong, against little girls getting the same level of education that little boys get.

QUEEN RANIA: Well, in the Arab World there have been good investments made in terms of increasing general enrollment in trying to achieve gender parity but the fact remains that we have 6 million children who are out of school in the Arab World, two thirds of them are girls and - but I think the real challenge is now to really focus on the quality of the education, so although we've managed to put more children to school, we haven't managed to give them the skills that they need when they get out of school and there hasn't been the link between the educational system and the private sector, which means that one in four of our young people is actually unemployed.

BLITZER: I know in Jordan you are doing the best you can but elsewhere in the Arab World, certainly in parts of the Muslim World there is this discrimination against girls. Girls can't even go to school, for example, in Afghanistan under Taliban controlled areas. How big of a problem is this because we hear these reports and to those of us in the West it's a source of great outrage?

QUEEN RANIA: Well, Afghanistan is an extreme case. And when you look across the Arab World, the situation differs in each country. But for the most part now in the Arab World, there is an understanding that education for girls should be a top priority and I think mindsets are changing in that regard.

That said, we still do have some discrimination which we have to overcome.

BLITZER: Because we heard a highly publicized case the other day of Saudi Arabia, of a 47 year old man marrying an eight year old girl and apparently this was very legal.

QUEEN RANIA: Well, it should not be legal and it certainly wouldn't be legal in Jordan. But as I said, mindsets have to be change. What we confront when it comes to gender parity are the obstacles are very much in terms of the traditions, the mindset, the cultural attitudes. And those, unfortunately, take a long time to change. They need patience and persistence and a long time to - working along that path. But hopefully we are getting there.

And as I said, it's not only just focusing on gender parity, (inaudible), but it's also focusing on the kind of education that we do give our young people. In the Arab World we still focus too much on rote learning, on memorization, not so much on - we teach children what to think rather than how to think.

BLITZER: Because we've heard so much over the years, especially here in the United States since 9/11 about the madrassas, these religious schools where these young boys are taught, according to what we heard in the 9/11 Commission testimony and all of that, basically to hate the West.

How big of a problem in the education system are these madrassas in the Arab and Muslim World?

QUEEN RANIA: As I said, you cannot generalize about the Arab World as a whole because the situation differs in many different countries. So, for example, in Jordan I have a program called Madrasati. I don't want “madrassas” to always be associated with something negative because Madrasati, actually the translation is "my school" and in that program, what we've done is a needs assessment over the 500 worst schools in Jordan and we look at everything they need and then we try to partner with people in the private sector, in government, in NGOs and the community trying to help fix those schools and to really revamp them.

And as a result, we've had a change in mentality where their responsibilities for education shifted from just being a public responsibility to being everyone's.

BLITZER: Have you gone through the textbooks? Because the textbooks supposedly are a source of a lot of this hatred where they teach young kids to hate the West, certainly to hate Israel.

QUEEN RANIA: I'm a strong believer that in education we should - education should be agenda-free. Certainly free from any political agendas or religious agendas because every child should be given the ability to learn how to think and not what to think. They should be able to be given the tools of how to explore the rest of the world, how to surf the Internet, how to acquire knowledge and then they can make their own judgments about the rest of the world and there is nothing worse that anyone can do than to seed stereotypes of prejudice in young people's minds and to try to shape the way they think and they view the world. Because I think at the end of the day, when we grow up, we have to have the right tools to make our own judgments and our own decisions.

And if that happens, then that's something we should fight anywhere, whether it's in the Arab world that you see that happening, everywhere. Whether in the West, in some cases here in the United States, all over the world, you have people trying to pass on their own prejudice and stereotype onto the younger generation.

And that, for me, is a terrible thing that's almost equivalent to abuse of children.

BLITZER: President Obama met today with Jordan's King Abdullah as the White House announced the new U.S. president is launching an effort to achieve a comprehensive peace in the Middle East. His predecessors clearly fell well short of that goal. Can the new president succeed? I spoke earlier with Queen Rania of Jordan.

BLITZER: Your late father-in-law, His Majesty King Hussein, I had the privilege of interviewing him on several occasions. He was a pioneer. He was -- he broke through, made peace with Israel, just like the late Anwar Sadat, the president of Egypt did. Is there hope right now?

Because a lot of us who have covered the Israeli-Palestinian peace process for so many years, we just see the same old-same old happening. Are you at all upbeat that this peace process, under the leadership of President Obama, can get off the ground?

QUEEN RANIA: Look, I think that we all know what needs to be done in the Middle East. What has happened is that there has been frustration because of an endless process, an on-again/off-again negotiations that have not reached anywhere.

So this incremental process of process, we need to go -- we need to fast-track -- we need to fast-forward and go from process to the endgame, because without an end in sight, all that is done is fuel frustration...

BLITZER: Is there an end in sight?

QUEEN RANIA:  Of course there's an end in sight, if we have the political will to reach an endgame. So all that is done is to really fuel instability in our region, make people lose hope, and that just serves the extremist ideology in our region.

And we really need to understand that this festering conflict in the Middle East has changed the security dynamic in our region, has changed the ideology that's prevalent in our region, has changed people's -- a lot of people have gone from moderation to extremism as a result.

So it does always feed the extremist agenda. And, you know, at present, Obama's outreach to the Arab world has been very encouraging. He has stated that he wants relations that are based on mutual trust and respect.

He has stated his commitment to a two-state solution. We have yet to hear from the Israeli government the same kind of commitment to a two-state solution.

As you know, there is the Arab peace initiative that is on the table, that has been endorsed by 22 Arab countries which guarantees a two-state solution so it gives the -- it grants the Palestinians their right to statehood and the Israelis security and acceptance in the region.

And at the end of the day, security for Israel has to come from them being accepted regionally and not from conflict or barriers or war.

And for example, the conflict in Gaza that took place earlier this year, all that has done is harden hearts and minds in the region. And all that has done is given the extremists in our region the upper hand and more of a rallying call.

BLITZER: We're out of time, but a quick thought on the new president of the United States, and the new first lady of the United States. Certainly President Obama, as you point out, has reached out.

He has granted interviews to Arabic language television stations. He sent messages. He has got a special envoy, former Senator George Mitchell. How is he seen in Jordan and the Arab World?

QUEEN RANIA:  Well, I think he has been perceived very, very positively. I think he inspires a lot of confidence and a lot of optimism and hope for our region. And people in the Arab world are sitting and waiting to see him articulate his plan for the Arab world.

That said, he has already come up with some good, encouraging signs. But we are waiting to see how on the ground we are going to pursue, and how commitment -- how much commitment is going to be given to the (INAUDIBLE).

I think the core issue in our region is the Middle East conflict. And that's the key to unlocking a lot of the instability that is present in our region.

So people are optimistic. He certainly has a lot of credibility in the Arab world. And he has political capital, and I hope that he can expend that in the issues that really matter to us.

BLITZER: I know you and His Majesty King Abdullah are going to your best to try to help him get peace in the Middle East.

QUEEN RANIA:  Absolutely, because I think that's the one thing that we can give the rest of the world that will benefit us for many, many generations to come.

BLITZER: Good luck.

QUEEN RANIA: Thank you.