Human rights activist and advocate for early childhood education, Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan joined Fareed Zakaria for an interview aired on CNN in October. You can watch the interview on YouTube or scroll down to see part one and two later in this post. The queen brings up a lot of interesting issues about Islam in the Arab world, but one of her most pointed arguments concerns the cultural aspects of extremism and conservatism that are often represented as part of the religion itself.
The queen wants to separate these cultural aspects from Islam. To paraphrase, the queen says that trends in conservative dress, extreme violence, terrorism, and so on are very much a cultural interpretation of religion rather than a phenomenon of religion itself. The social pressure to fit in and wear the veil is not a religious choice per se. Instead, we must respect a woman’s choice to wear the veil as a personal decision between her and God. The Western mainstream view of the veil’s ties to religious extremism may be blinding the people to the more subtle — but no less real — representations of Islam around the world.
Prejudice that the veil solely represents the oppression of women is just one example of a cultural misunderstanding about Islam. These misunderstandings are created when stereotypes and appearances rather than actual interactions shape the way we see the world. “We shouldn’t judge people through the prism of our own stereotypes,” says the queen in her interview on CNN, adding that
I think we need to look at it deeper. It’s not just a matter of religion because Islam has been around for a very long time, why is it that we are suddenly seeing this rise, as you are saying, in conservative practice? For me, it has much more to do with the environment in the Arab world than the religion itself.
The tendency to judge cuts both ways and Queen Rania references this point citing a recent Gallup poll that indicate a tendency in the Arab world to judge the West unfairly as well. The Gallup Center for Muslim Studies and the Muslim West Facts Project, two initiatives of the Gallup Center, offer some interesting reports on the subject of East/West relations and religion.
The report “Mainstream vs. Extremist Views,” for example, debunks the stereotype that Islamic faith is the underlying cause of terrorism in the world. It finds that the predominant attitude in the Muslim world is against religious violence. Moreover, Muslims who sympathize with terrorism are a very small group, and in the mainstream, Muslim opinion states that the aspect of the Muslim world they value least is “narrow-minded fanaticism and violent extremism.”
Queen Rania brings up a good point: it’s not that people in the Muslim world or in the West don’t care about the quality of relationships between East and West. Rather, it is that they don’t see their efforts to understand the other making any progress. There needs to be a dialogue in the mainstream that reflects these changes and insights into religion and culture. This is why the queen started a videoblog on YouTube. Her most recent video is an acceptance speech for a YouTube Award. She lists the top 10 reasons she started her videoblog in a spoof of the David Letterman Show’s popular Top 10 lists.
The queen’s motivations are the same reasons we have started this project called Inside Islam. As we ask in our upcoming radio show on December 4, 2008, “Women and Sharia,” who speaks for women in Islam? Check out the post by Here on Earth radio host Jean Feraca for the most recent progress on this show and to leave a comment for her to mention live on the air.
We want to hear your voice about other Islam-related issues, too. Whether it is linking to us from your blog, leaving a comment on one of our posts, or sending me an email, we want to know what you think about culture and religion as they relate to Islam around the world.
Video: Queen Rania interview with CNN (Part 1)
Video: Queen Rania interview with CNN (Part 2)