Celebrating Women, Celebrating Civic Engagement: A message from Queen Rania of Jordan

I found this at The New Service, and have to say, I think Queen Rania is amazing!

March 10, 2010 — Colleen Hammelman, Innovations in Civic Participation

Guest post by Talloires Network Intern Alissa Brower. Cross-posted from the Talloires Network blog.

In celebration of International Women’s Day, this article places a spotlight on one female leader who has had a great deal of influence on civic engagement in the Middle East. Recently, Jordan’s Queen Rania Al-Abdullah delivered a speech to students at the American University in Cairo about their impact in society and the difference they can make in the larger community. Her objective was to encourage students to realize the kind of difference they can make in society and take advantage of attending a university that provides support for civic engagement and community service.

Her majesty started her speech with a story that symbolizes where civic engagement and understanding can start. The story itself can be considered a celebration of women making a difference in the world, as it involves a young girl who wanted to change the living conditions of a less fortunate community. The story begins with Raghda visiting an elderly community outside of central Cairo. Raghda met a woman who invited the girl into her home. What Raghda saw when she stepped inside was nothing like what she had expected. Raghda, accustomed to a very comfortable lifestyle, could not believe a family of eight was living in a one-room home with no floor and no ceiling. When she looked up at what should have been the ceiling, the girl saw a blue sky. At this moment, Raghda realized that something must be done to improve these unsatisfactory living conditions. She felt a responsibility to help these families in need. After having this experience, Raghda El Ebrashi, who is also an AUC alumna, founded Alashanek Ya Balady, an organization that helps families rise above poverty.

(Coincidentally, Queen Rania is not the only one who recognizes Raghda’s dedication to civic engagement. Last year, the Talloires Network awarded Alashanek Ya Balady third place for the MacJannet Prize 2009. To learn more about the program, click here.)

The story showed students of AUC that they have the capability to help those in need; they simply must have the will to put those capabilities to use. And, being students at an institute of higher education provides them the opportunity to implement that will. In her speech, her majesty proclaimed, “Our universities must be incubators of this social blue sky thinking.” The American University in Cairo has embraced this duty, promoting community among its students and allowing “social practice [to take] its place alongside academic theory.” AUC has taken steps toward fostering greater social recognition and development among its students, and the Queen wants other universities to do the same.

Queen Rania addressed the importance of service-learning in the education system. Service-based learning initiatives are gaining more ground in universities worldwide. The Corporation for National and Community Service of the United States, a country that has had one of the longest histories in implementing this initiative, defines service-learning as “a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities.” Institutes of higher education have adopted this approach of a new system of learning, creating comprehensive curricula that engage both academics and service alike.

AUC has also contributed to this trend. Specifically, the university offers a number of opportunities to engage in service, including community-based academic courses, aiming to make “community service an integral part of the students learning experience.” Queen Rania encouraged the AUC to continue to embrace service-learning “so students can balance their quest for a career with their call to help others” and serve as a model for other universities in the Middle East.

Queen Rania has become a major proponent of citizens engaging in community service efforts in their communities. She has used her title and influence to spread this message throughout the Middle East, encouraging citizens to share “a sense of duty and pride in promoting the common good.” Because of her international efforts to enhance the role of citizenship, Queen Rania certainly is one of many women worth celebrating on today’s holiday.

To learn more about International Women’s Day, please visit the website.

The Talloires Network is an international association of institutions committed to strengthening the civic roles and social responsibilities of higher education. Tufts University’s Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service and Innovations in Civic Participation serve as the Network’s secretariat.

For all that we say democracy is awesome (and it is, of course) there is something very refreshing about a well-educated, articulate leader who works for decades to make her country a better place!  If you have to have a royal family in charge, I’d rank the Jordanian Hashemites highly.

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The Islamist by Ed Husain–Book Review

The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left by Ed Husain

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Saw the author on “The Doha Debates” last year.  During the program he was very articulate and dedicated to combating extremism.

This book is Ed Husain’s story of his personal journey into and out of the Islamist movement in the UK.  As Husain depicts it, Islamism is the idea that the Islamic faith requires an Islamic political state–that political power and religion are one.  Husain’s family, from India/Bangladesh, practiced a Sufi Islam which focused on spiritual connection to God and to other humans and he sees this as a more “mainstream” Islam.  Living in Jordan, a moderate Islamic state, I’m not sure that his Sufi brand of Islam would necessarily be accepted–though most of the Muslims I know here do support secular governance.

The first few chapters, relating his time in the islamist movement, including Jamaati-e Islamia and Hizb tTahrir, were distanced, written almost dispassionately.  It is like he can’t even relate to the boy he once was.   This was frustrating for me, as I’d hoped the book would help me grasp the emotional and intellectual pull of such movements for the young people raised in the West.   However, as he related the incidents which brought him out of the movement, including the violence, hypocracy, and time spent, ironically, in Syria and Saudi Arabia, his passion in delivery grew.  By the end, he was writing eloquently and passionately against Islamism.

I learned quite a bit from the book:

1–Husain related how the Islamists gained power in Britain (and similarly in the US) until the British authorities believed them to be speaking for and representing the views of all Muslims.  This gave them legitimacy–whereas most of these groups were outlawed in the Middle East.

2–Husain argues that Islamists must be countered, fought, and challenged.  I realized that in all my studies of Arabic and Islamic culture, we never talk about the extremists: Islamists, Wahabis or others.  I had never heard of most of the groups Husain mentioned tho they are well-known here in Jordan and elsewhere (especially Hisb Tahrir which has many factions and is involved in violence in Palestine, Bagladesh, and I believe India among other places).  Husain implies, and I agree, that the refusal to talk about such groups in mainstream education means that we don’t understand the movement and can’t launch effective opposition to it.   Our courses should not ignore such groups–nor suggest that “all” Muslims belong to them.  Acknowledging and debating their merits would be much more effective.

3–Husain traveled to Saudi Arabia (where I have never been and have NO desire to go) where much of the desires of the Islamist movement are fulfilled and was appalled at what he saw there.  He strongly denounces the Wahabi form of Islam (a very repressive one) which funds a great deal of the Islamist movements and seeks converts around the globe.  Husain reported that it is a country where the more women are wrapped and hidden away (women must wear full-face veils and long, loose black robes in public, must only go out with close male relations, only recently gained the right to drive, etc.) the more Saudi men objectify them.  He said that his wife, dressed appropriately, was often leered at, insulted, and propositioned even while he accompanied her.  Others I know in Jordan who’ve lived in Saudi report conflicting stories–that on the compound everything is fine and there’s no reason to “go out”, that Saudi men are very respectful during the Hajj, etc.   I don’t know from personal experience, but from the public behaviors of Saudi men in Morocco and here, I can’t believe it is a place I would ever want to go.

4–Husain described all the ways the groups in which he participated manipulated the laws, freedoms, and rights of British citizens.  The police seem, from his telling, to be naive in their treatment of Islamist youth groups; universities and other moderates completely incapable of countering their methods.   We need to teach our youth how to think critically about what they see and experience around them, to look beyond what such people say and see clearly what they do, believe, and propagate.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in learning more about the inside of the Islamist movement, particularly as an introduction for one mostly unfamiliar with the phenomenon.

FYI Ed Husain co-founder and co-director of The Quilliam Foundation, a think-tank devoted to combating Muslim (and I assume other forms of) extremism.

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Swine Flu

Ok, so CNN is making a big deal about Swine flu, but is anyone else?  The answer, for me, is YES!  Many, many of the families, friends, and non-Christian Jordanians I know ask me about it all the time.  Do I know anyone with Swine Flu?  Is there Swine Flu in Michigan? These are the questions I get very frequently.

So here’s my problem:  The ones who ask me also warn me about hanging out with Christians because they eat pork and thus have (or may get) Swine Flu.  Boy am I irritated with whoever decided to call it Swine Flu!  Strangely, while most were very tolerant of my “christian” status last year, Swine Flu seems to be a perfect opportunity for EVERYONE to tell me now that Christianity is wrong, Islam right, and that God told us not to eat pork because it’s bad and now he’s punishing the Christians.

So, in my bad Arabic, I can explain that people don’t get Swine Flu from eating pork, but they don’t believe me.  I can’t imagine what the news is saying over here that everyone (except my Christian friends of course) seems to believe you get it from eating pork.

What’s worse, is that I don’t have the Arabic to engage in a theological discussion with them, so I end up sitting through interminable lecturs on the Quran and Mohammed–usually telling me things I already know (historically) and arguing points of “truth” that I am incapable of rebutting.  Great huh?

My best response (because it seems to stop the discussions and discontinue further ones) is that in the US, we don’t talk about religion openly, that our belief is between us and God.  This is good, because I can then talk about the separation of church and state, and how that is different than in Jordan (which is a Muslim state).

So why am I venting about it here?  Well, I guess because the thing that makes me so irritated is that I, of all people, have to DEFEND Christianity.  In the US, I would hardly even call myself a “Christian” with a capital C: I have serious doubts about the divinity of Christ (tho I really love most of what he might have said–hence I tend to think of myself as a “christian with a small c”), and am even more dubious about religious “Christian” institutions.  Yet, here, I am a Christian ethnically rather than theocratically by virtue of being American, which is highly-influenced by Judeo-Christianity and thus differs from Muslim Jordan.

I thought that some of you might be interested in these musings.  Feel free to comment!

Jordan summer pics

Some random pictures of Jordan this summer.  Enjoy.

Amman July 2009

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The Middle East: A Cultural Psychology by G. Gregg

The Middle East: A Cultural Psychology (Culture, Cognition, and Behavior) The Middle East: A Cultural Psychology by Gary S. Gregg

Very interesting, insightful, yet easy-to-read, this is a great overview of Middle Eastern society in the first 3 chapters, then of the development of the people who live in them for the final 7 chapters.  I especially enjoyed that the author used many Arabic sources, and used ethnographies and sociological studies rather than purely “psychological” literature to understand the complexity of this culture.

Best points:

1) Gregg takes a big-picture view and notices that cultural structures and value systems are created in an ecological context. Hence shifting alliances evident in Middle Eastern and North African societies respond to the dynamic availabilities of food, forage, and environment in the region.

2) Gregg spent a whole chapter delving into the different value systems of the honor/modesty code and Islam. They are not one and the same (even if many tie them together), sometimes Islam supports, sometimes conflicts with, the honor-modesty code. Also, the whole male-protector (machismo) and female-secluded and protected aspects of the region (the honor part of the honor-modesty code) are prevalent throughout the Mediterranean area–which is why southern Italy treats women very similarly to Jordan. It is NOT simply a part of Islam–Italians, Greeks, and Spaniards tie it to Christianity. I think it’s really important not to assume that such things are tied to the religious beliefs or dogma when they may be socio-cultural (or even ecological) in origin.

3) Terrorism/Violence/Authoritarianism is NOT part of “traditional” society. Rather, they are a result of underdevelopment where powerful interests control the benefits of modernization and the majority are excluded from them. This is something I’ve been trying to articulate to people in the U.S. for ages–it’s not inherent in people, it’s tied to the oppression they face every day. According to Gregg, the authoritarianism especially is a result of both tradition and modernity failing.

In brief: if you’re interested in Middle Eastern and North African societies cultures and value systems, read chapters 1-3. If you REALLY want to understand how these people develop over a lifetime, or are a psychology buff, go beyond to chapters 4-10.