Imagine my horror when I woke up this morning to find that the campus newspaper had found a token Arab student reaction to a campus event with Rania al-Abdullah, the queen of Jordan:
“As someone from the Middle East, I am very proud,” he said. “This is the Arab woman that we want and that we are aspiring to.”
Now, I hope this person receives informative letters from insulted Arab women around the world. But let me not dwell on that, and instead pontificate a little bit on two issues related to Queen Rania. The first relates to the nature of the invitation itself: in what context does the Twitter Queen come to find herself being treated as a model Arab woman at an American university? The second relates to the nature of the queen herself: is the image that her public relations staff carefully constructs a fair representation? Those two things considered, is the queen actually a positive force for Arabs around the world?
It would be one thing to say that giving an audience to the Jordanian throne at an American university (an audience Jordanian students are rarely afforded) is a matter of diplomacy and dialogue. But it’s entirely another to confuse this monarch’s message in America, as Sana of KABOBFest has eloquently pointed out, with her lack of message or action in Jordan. It is quite apparent that al-Abdullah is renowned in the United States for what she says rather than anything she has done. Furthermore, insofar as the monarch’s “activism” is concerned, it could seem rather peculiar that someone in political power–a queen–is relegated to the realm of NGO work rather than substantive political reform.
It would only be strange, though, if we disregarded the possibility that her humanitarian image is a propaganda cover for her family’s authoritarian rule. Indeed, in much the same way that the United States drops “humanitarian relief” on the lands of Iraq and Afghanistan while also dropping murderous bombs, al-Abdullah is a “humanitarian” monarch. It is true that she did not create the repressive Jordanian regime that last year charged a University professor with “disparaging the King” for refusing to hang his holy portrait, but she certainly benefits from it, and stands to lose a lot from an equitable re-distribution of political power in Jordan–as true social activists in Jordan demand.
Much of the reaction to al-Abdullah in the States is informed by a sense that she is special, a unique voice, a light in the darkness of the Middle East. If by special we mean she has her pedestal by virtue of the fact that the King is backing her, the idea is not so problematic. But if by special we mean that she offers a compelling perspective for an Arab woman, we are probably racist, sexist, orientalist, or all of the above. You see, for all her hypocrisies, imagining Rania al-Abdullah in this light says a little bit about what we (don’t) know about her, but it also says quite a bit more about what we think about the rest of them– I mean, of course, the other Arabs.
Is it true that the Arab world has no better (a) leaders (b) women and (c) activists to show for itself than the queen of Jordan? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding no, but it just so happens that the foreign policy preferences of the United States find a happy constellation of tokenized criteria in the queen’s touchy-feely and compromising persona. Yet for some reason, perhaps due to some fantastic mystique of the crown, Americans rarely challenge the queen (perhaps because there is little substance to challenge), and we forget that in praising and admiring her from America, we commend a style of governance that we would never accept for ourselves.
Some people, including Arabs among them, praise al-Abdallah for working hard to dispel stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims. Let us make sure we distinguish between stereotypes and discrimination, because the problem for Arabs and Muslims in America and Europe is not exactly stereotyping but a hostility to plurality. What is the difference? The queen’s response to stereotyping is: no, we are not all crazy, covered terrorists wielding AK-47’s. Some of us can look beautiful, some of us can operate in the corporate business world, some of us speak perfect English, some of us do well according to your cultural standards. In other words, we can be like you. Look at me. Don’t you wish all Arabs were like you, I mean, like me?
I would have to say that such a message is not bold, courageous, or commendable. For one thing, what does this response do to challenge the logic of discrimination and intolerance? Nothing, it simply re-affirms it but re-defines Arabs so that they fit within the intolerant one’s image of himself. I would even argue that her image of herself as proof of a stereotype’s falsity is meant to prop up her position as “mediator” between the Arab rabble and the American political elite.
For another thing, is it really the fact that the kid in the refugee camp can be as glamorous and photogenic as the pampered queen of Jordan? What does al-Abdullah say or do that actually improves her American audience’s ability to empathize with those Arabs who actually are different, except to offer some offensive neo-liberal paradigm that “they are just poor and need your charity/pity”? What about those other Arabs, like the one Mahmoud Darwish writes about, the one with eight children, the one who toils in the quarry, has no prestigious name or title, whose grandfather was a peasant, who is from some forgotten village, has no address and wears a kuffiyeh on his head? Does that Arab not exist? What does al-Abdullah’s obeisance to narrow-minded “liberal” American standards do for this kind of Arab man, woman, or child?
Nothing. Instead he is the backwards Other that Rania needs your help to “develop,” to lift him up from his Godforsaken place in the world. So can we really say that this monarch’s YouTube and Twitter “activism” is actually positive for Arabs and the Arab world, or is it, in reality, violently disempowering?
That, I suppose, is an important question for Arabs in the United States to confront. Would it not be better instead to expose and challenge the racist, sexist, and orientalist underpinnings of Americans who are enchanted by the queen and her regime? Would this not be more liberating and empowering for us as a community, in a political and social sense? It would, and co-sponsorship or promotion by Arab student groups of images like the queen is actually counter-productive and should be avoided.Filed Under Jordan, Queen Rania, Rania al-Abdullah, Yale