Madelyn E. Spirnak
Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs
Arlington, VA
May 5, 2009

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I am grateful to the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy and its President, Dr. Radwan Masmoudi, for inviting me to speak at such a welcoming event. It is with particular pleasure that I address leaders and members of the Muslim-American community gathered here this evening. As Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, I oversee the Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative – MEPI – as well as regional public diplomacy and press issues. It is within this context that I deal on a daily basis with democracy policy and programming in the Middle East and North Africa.

As you know, President Obama has made clear his commitment to pursue a deep and positive dialogue with Muslims around the world based on mutual respect and in support of our mutual interests. That is one of the reasons he gave his first televised interview as President to Al Arabiya, an important pan-Arab media outlet. It is also why in a Nowruz message to the Iranian people and government he emphasized that he seeks a new dialogue on the full range of issues that we face.

It is why he spoke of new partnerships on behalf of education, health care, and opportunity in his speech before the Turkish Parliament.

Secretary Clinton has spoken of a new diplomacy powered by partnership, pragmatism, and principle and the importance of using all of the tools at our disposal to achieve our national interests, but also to implement policies that will have a positive effect on the lives of people throughout the world. And as the Secretary told a group of civil society activists when she met with them in Indonesia, the challenges that we all face are too great to limit ourselves to interactions between governments. It is important for us to reach out and develop partnerships with all elements of civil society to help us meet and conquer these challenges.

The Secretary has made it clear that public diplomacy lies at the heart of America’s smart power. True public diplomacy is not simply lecturing other people. True public diplomacy is about engagement – it is actually having a real dialogue – and listening as much as talking.

You may have noticed this administration’s language of mutual respect and its willingness to engage leaders and nations abroad. We may not – and will not – always agree.

But we are prepared to listen to and talk with partners with whom we disagree in order to understand each other better and advance mutual interests.

We Americans are proud of our country, the ideals it stands for, and the benefits we have obtained – some after significant struggle. Many in this room may have emigrated from other lands, seeking to make a new home in the United States. America’s promise of acceptance and tolerance – both politically and religiously – are principles we can all be proud of. It is therefore a natural extension that in our diplomatic exchanges and dialogues with people around the world we will continue to encourage the development of civil society and democratic and representative governments.

During the President’s trip to Turkey, he made important and powerful comments on democracy in his address before the Turkish parliament. He stated that “democracies cannot be static – they must move forward.” The President stressed that “our partnership with the Muslim world is critical not just in rolling back the violent ideologies that people of all faiths reject, but also to strengthen opportunity for all its people.” Let me be clear.

In my discussions with Islamic leaders, with scholars, with diplomats, and with community leaders – all agree that the use of Islam to justify terrorist actions is completely antithetical to the teachings of Islam. We reject this false connection and call terrorist operations what they are: crimes.

The President has laid out a foreign policy vision that rejects the false choice between our values and our security; the world needs to see that we can be true to our values and ideals while advancing our interests.

In his second day in office, the President signed executive orders to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center and ban torture. President Obama also visited the State Department that day to convey his “commitment to the importance of diplomacy and renewing American leadership.”

He appointed Senator Mitchell as Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, and Ambassador Holbrooke as Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

With an eye on Middle East peace, he stressed that his administration will “actively and aggressively seek a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as Israel and its Arab neighbors.” The President has made clear his commitment to seeking two states, Palestine and Israel, living side by side in peace and security.

We have at our disposal various diplomatic and programmatic tools that are presently benefiting or will benefit those in the Middle East and North Africa who are seeking a more open and progressive political environment.

And through partnership, we want to work with the people of the region to create new political, economic, and educational opportunities. We fully understand that political, social, and economic progress must be led by those in the region, but these efforts merit strong U.S. support through both diplomacy and resources. With this in mind, the programming that the U.S. government develops and implements in the Middle East and North Africa continues to address deficits in political openness, economic opportunity, human rights, access to quality education, and the status of women and girls.

Weak or under-developed democratic institutions in many countries in the region fail to provide citizens with ways to actively participate in the decision-making that affects their lives.

I thought I would highlight some of the ways in which the U.S. is working with local partners striving to make positive changes in their societies. Through our assistance programs, we are:

  • rebuilding Iraq and supporting the transition to stability and democracy;
  • helping Palestinians realize a two-state solution with Israel – living side by side in peace;
  • promoting democratic reforms;
  • expanding education to give youth job skills and roles in society; and
  • supporting free trade agreements, infrastructure and business development.

And we provide direct support to local activists seeking a more democratic region. The Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) assists efforts to expand political participation, strengthen civil society and the rule of law, empower women and youth, create educational opportunities, and foster economic reform throughout the Middle East and North Africa. In support of these goals, MEPI works with non-governmental organizations, the private sector, and academic institutions, as well as governments, contributing over $530 million to more than 600 projects in 17 countries and territories since its establishment.

Through direct support to local organizations in the Middle East and North Africa, MEPI is strengthening the sustainability and capacity of those who serve as the region’s most dedicated and successful agents of change.

MEPI has funded projects implemented by more than 250 such organizations working to advance reform in their home countries. And approximately half of MEPI’s projects are grants made directly to these local organizations.

For example, the United States and its implementing partners have supported women candidates in Moroccan local elections following the introduction of a quota for their participation and helped to prepare these women for political life. In Lebanon, pre-election programming has encouraged greater citizen participation in politics at all levels, with recognition that while governments have responsibilities to their citizens, the Lebanese also have a duty to play a positive, active role in their political affairs. And in the Palestinian territories, Secretary Clinton visited some of our programs focused on women and youth and observed that “for a Palestinian state to be prosperous…, it has to have more people who can do the jobs required in the 21st century… I think that is absolutely probable if we can provide the circumstances in which these young people can flourish.”

Throughout the region, our embassies have made a concerted effort to reach out to youth vulnerable to extremism through English language training programs, high school and undergraduate exchanges, and sports programs.

These programs target youth at risk and provide an alternative vision of hope and opportunity. A major goal is to encourage enduring links among the many alumni of our educational and cultural exchanges with American counterparts and friends. These alumni are a source of credible alternative voices to extremism and its advocates, and proponents for democratic progress in their own societies.

The Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor -- DRL -- also funds sustainable reform programs that work to strengthen democracy, promote human rights and independent journalism, and advocate for labor rights, including supporting civil society work with women and youth. DRL currently funds approximately 40 programs in the Middle East and North Africa for a total of approximately $33 million. In addition, DRL-funded Iraq democracy, human rights, and women's programs, totaling more than $260 million, assist the cooperative efforts of Iraqi citizens, civil society, and democratic institutions to reduce violence and build a sustainable, accountable, and responsive system of governance.

And as we develop our future assistance and public diplomacy strategies, we will seek to further engage the youth of the region through programs that will help them build skills necessary to compete in the job market -- and will encourage regional business leaders to create new job opportunities. We also will continue to focus on programs to improve the status of women and girls.

Throughout the region, our embassies and consulates emphasize outreach to local religious leaders and educators. We bring a significant number of religious educators to the U.S. on educational visits to observe religious diversity here and to see Muslim life in America first hand. I have participated in discussions with visiting Muslim clerics and heard directly from them how such people-to-people contact and dialogue have the potential to lessen violence, promote cooperation, and encourage continued cross-cultural interaction.

With all of our programs, our eye is on results. Both reform and development projects region-wide are judged for their immediate and long-term impact, especially in terms of how they directly affect peoples’ lives. At this time of financial struggle, we need more than ever to be accountable for programs and their effectiveness. We owe that to U.S. taxpayers, and to the people we are trying to help.

Perhaps the most important element of the President’s speech in Turkey – a secular democracy with a predominately Muslim population – was the President’s expression of “our deep appreciation for the Islamic faith, which has done so much over the centuries to shape the world.”

President Obama stressed that “The United States has been enriched by Muslim Americans. Many other Americans have Muslims in their families or have lived in a Muslim-majority country.” And you’ll recall the line that came next: “I know, because I am one of them.”

I can proudly say that I have chosen to live and work in Muslim-majority countries for eight years of my Foreign Service career and have worked on Middle East and North African issues in most of my other assignments. And this is why I can assert whole-heartedly that Islam and secular democracies are fully compatible.

Muslims are an integral part of America. Muslim-Americans are not “outsiders” looking in; you are a part of the fabric of this country and have been for generations. We in the government welcome dialogue and have an open door to your communities, which play a constructive and important role in improving the public policy of our country.

I encourage each of you to actively engage with the Administration, work with Congress, and become active in local politics. Also, as you continue your programming overseas, you will help us foster a greater understanding of America and its policy objectives.

Rest assured that the United States government remains committed to democratic principles and human rights and will continue to support those in the Middle East -- and throughout the world – those who seek to enjoy these universal freedoms. As President Obama proclaimed in his inaugural address: “America is a friend of each nation, and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity. And we are ready to lead once more.” Thank you.