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Her Highness Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al-Missned Offers Advice for Class of 2006

Her Highness Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al-Missned
Her Highness Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al-Missned, chairperson of the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development, delivered the keynote address at Carnegie Mellon's 109th Commencement on Sunday, May 21. The following is a complete transcript of her address.

...Distinguished Audience,

It is a great pleasure to be here in Pittsburgh and receive the honorary degree you have generously bestowed upon me. I am especially happy to address this enthusiastic gathering of graduates and their families.

At first glance, Doha and Pittsburgh don't seem to have much in common and I suppose many of you probably don't know very much about my country — Qatar — except for the fact that Carnegie Mellon has a campus there. But it has always been my experience that beneath the surface of differences, lie deep and poignant similarities.

We all share common values — we want to live in a world where we are close to the people we love, where we can express ourselves and practice our beliefs, where we are secure to earn our livings and support our families.

The Qatar Foundation and Carnegie Mellon both try to fulfill these simple aspirations of people. This year the Qatar Foundation is celebrating its 10th anniversary and partnerships with institutions like Carnegie Mellon are helping realize our vision. We both trust the power of our imaginations to change the world. We both believe in a culture of innovation — dedication, quality, energy and confidence in shaping the future.

Looking out at this audience, I feel the same contagious energy I feel from our students back in Qatar. And I have something to ask of you. Something urgent. I ask you to take seriously the responsibility of being Carnegie Mellon graduates — to cross boundaries and to question, especially to question the dominant narratives that are shaping the way we see and understand each other. I encourage you to cross boundaries culturally, without fear, as you do academically and intellectually.

Distinguished audience, we live in a time when we are told that there is a cultural fault line between the "West" and "Islam." We are told that the "West" and "Islam" are at war, that the ideologies of the West are incompatible with Islam, and that each civilization is trying to destroy the other. Depending on which side you stand, one or the other is the villain.

In this narrative both Islam and the West are presented as static and unitary entities, bound to clash. But surely this is not the case. What and where is the "West?" The diversity within America and Europe is tremendous, as are the differences between Europe and America. Indeed the "West" is an association of societies, sometimes in conflict with each other.

Likewise, Islamic communities accommodate diverse and evolving beliefs. Even within the Sunni tradition alone, there are four accepted schools of thought. Within contemporary Islamic political groups, which are often all painted the same color, there are also vast differences. While these groups share a common vocabulary, their deeds and objectives differ tremendously.

So I ask you to think outside the confines of the clash narrative and replace it with a narrative of cooperation. And surely there are many examples of cooperation between our societies. We need only look to the example of Education City in Qatar, where Carnegie Mellon has found a home away from home, to see a community of diverse cultures, religions, and academic disciplines coming together in the common goal of imagining a better future.

We can also look to the attitudes of people, rather than depend on the narratives of politicians. The prevailing narrative tells us that Muslims, especially Arabs, hate America, because they envy its wealth, its democracy and its culture. However, the Zogby International Poll of October 2005, conducted in six Arab countries, concluded that despite a disagreement with American foreign policies, Arab people admire the values of the United States. Even when asked where they would like to live or where they would like a relative to study, respondents chose Western European countries and the United States.

So, it is clear that the basic assumptions underlying the current narrative of confrontation is an engineered crisis, not an attitudinal one shared by most people in the world. The challenge lies upon young generations, critical thinkers like you, to deconstruct this faulty narrative before it becomes a prophecy.

Certainly, we, as Muslims, have not done enough to demonstrate the true spirit of our religion, which is based on mutual respect and social justice. And I ask you to join us by looking closely at some of the assumptions that are sustaining the cultural fault line. One of the most common is that Islam and democracy are incompatible.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me first address the argument that Islam cannot accommodate democracy. We need only to look briefly to our history to show that this is completely untrue. Civil society, a cornerstone of democracy, has always played a vibrant role in Islamic cultures. Islamic society, from the earliest period, has had a system of checks and balances that prevent all power from lying in the hands of the state. For example, the Ulama — intellectuals and legal scholars — have been compared by some experts to the mass media in contemporary society.

Further, judges were also independent from political authority. The high judge, similar to the Supreme Court, was appointed by the ruler but could not be removed by him. If the ruler did not abide by the law, the high judge could lead a revolution against him. Other systems such as Diwan al mazalim served as a small claims court, a court of popular appeal and as a mechanism to ensure social justice.

In short, we cannot blame the contemporary deficits in freedom and democracy in the Arab world on Islam. The blame is to fall squarely on the shoulders of governments in the region, often supported by foreign powers, whose interests in governing are not in the interests of the people. People need to govern themselves and this can be done in different ways according to their beliefs and wishes. Democracy is, after all, not one form of government, but can be achieved by a variety of political systems that entrench it as a way of life. As Al Farabi put it — democracy is the "attainment of happiness."

And the way of life that democracy promotes is desired by most Muslims, who like everyone, want to live in peace, security, and fulfilment of their needs. A survey of over 10,000 Muslims in various countries show that for Muslims there is no perceived contradiction between Islam and democracy.

It is interesting to note that in the poll I just mentioned, the majority of those surveyed also support a woman's right to vote, and work outside the home. Majorities in every nation surveyed also believe it appropriate for women to serve at the highest levels of government in their nation's Cabinet and National Council. So that brings us to another faulty narrative — Islam is against women's rights.

Distinguished audience, the debate over women in Islam is simply one aspect of the larger issue we are discussing, the engineering of faulty narratives that sustain perceptions of difference and confrontation. And this is not a new debate, nor is it unique to Muslim countries. The reality of our past is overlooked and replaced with an unrecognizable narrative of oppression.

Islam has always guaranteed the full rights of women and women have always occupied a central role in Islamic civilizations. It is important for Muslim women, and particularly women from the Arabian peninsula, to reclaim their own history, to recall figures like Ayesha, the wife of the prophet, whose thoughts and recollections formed a central part of Islamic scholarship; Nasibah bint Ka'ab, the woman warrior who fought in the battle of Uhud; and the scores of business women, judges, scholars and poets that people Islamic history.

It is important to remember that these women were consulted in forming legislative order in Islamic societies and they heavily influenced polices that were to govern social, political, economic and military issues. These same policies are the matrix of our life today.

And it is also important to clarify the reality of the present. For example, the Arab Human Development Report of 2002 showed that the Arab region demonstrates the fastest improvement in female education of any region, with female literacy expanding three fold since 1970, and primary and secondary enrolment doubling. In Qatar, for example, over 70% of those enrolled in postsecondary institutions are women.

Yet we must be careful not to revert to denial. There are problems in our societies based on stagnation and inequality as there are in all societies. But the perceived deficit in the freedom of women is actually a whole-scale deficit of freedom of all citizens in the Arab world, not only in the freedoms of women. Again, let us not use Islam as a scapegoat. The culprit for this situation is oppressive regimes that deny the rights of all citizens, and antiquated traditions, which place constraints on women's progress as full and equal members of society. And it is our responsibility in the region to find creative solutions to these problems, solutions that are native to our culture and religion. Such solutions are not importable, but must come from within our communities from the will of the people.

Distinguished audience, that brings me to my final point today — the will of the people. People in Muslim communities do not want to live in a state of continual war and insecurity; they want the same things you do. Especially our youth. One prominent subtext in the discourse on the Muslim world today is the portrayal of our youth as submerged in a culture of violence and martyrdom, brainwashed from early childhood, whose only mission in life is perpetrating hatred and destruction. Let's look at the reality.

Reality states that extremism among youth is not uniquely a Muslim phenomenon. And, yes, we are failing our youth horribly. The rate of youth unemployment in the Middle East and North Africa is estimated at 25.6% — the highest in the world. It is clear that our leaders have been unable to link educational orientation to labor market requirements. And, of course this creates dissatisfaction in our youth. Yet, despite these challenges, our youth are like you. Their needs and wants are no different than yours.

And what is it that Muslim youth actually want? Polls show they want educational opportunities, health care, political participation, and distribution of income and wealth. Isn't that exactly what you want too?

Don't we all want to be secure that we can compete in the global market place?

Don't we all want to be able to participate in the decisions that govern our lives?

Don't we all want to cultivate ourselves in a culture of empowerment, security, and social justice?

Graduates, my message to you is simple — do not accept the world you see before you. Change it. You have a responsibility to do this and the first step is to deconstruct the stories which are pushing us into a state of panic and confrontation.

On the campus in Qatar, Carnegie Mellon students and staff are getting to know Muslims. Getting to know each other is a first step in rising above the maddening discourse of hatred that is bombarding us.

Second, in fine Carnegie tradition, think critically for yourselves. In the Muslim tradition we have a concept we call ijtihad, which means using fresh and imaginative thinking to forge innovative solutions. I invite you all to engage in a global ijtihad, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, to forge a new narrative of hope.

And in the more blunt words of Andrew Carnegie himself:

"He that cannot reason is a fool.
He that will not is a bigot.
He that dare not is a slave."

Thank you.

May 22, 2006

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