Engagement in the 21st Century
Special Representative to Muslim Communities
The Arab and American Business Fellows here today are a remarkable group of young leaders. Their presence at this conference, along with the other distinguished delegates, exemplifies my concept of engagement for the 21st Century---Engagement which must be built first on listening, seeking to view and understand the world through the eyes of others, and forging uncommon partnerships.
Secretary Clinton has said, “the President has led us to think outside the usual boundaries. He has launched a new era of engagement based on common interests, shared values, and mutual respect.”
Stemming from this, Secretary Clinton envisioned engaging with Muslims around the world through a new paradigm and established the Office of the Special Representative to Muslim Communities for the first time, asking me to form partnerships and engage in a new way.
I will tell you more about my role and about how we are seeking to engage through partnerships, but first I would like to give you some background.
I am an American Muslim. I was born in Kashmir, India and grew up in Massachusetts. I have worked in the private sector. I have served on boards of not for profits. I have served on boards of academic institutions. I have volunteered in every community in which I have ever lived.
I have also had the privilege of serving in government with three distinct entities: US Agency for International Development, The National Security Council and The Department of State.
From these experiences, I bring to the table an approach to the issue of Muslim engagement from a variety of perspectives, and I know the power of uncommon partners.
I know the advantage of working through complex problems with a diverse team of experts from across government, across inter-department lines, across sectors, and beyond old frameworks.
Muslim communities around the world, particularly in areas where the they are minorities, face challenges of integration, assimilation, identity, lack of opportunities and violent extremist ideology to name a few.
While our embassies have of course been engaging with these communities and others for years, it is clear that we need to do more to build partnerships and work together to find solutions to problems effecting them.
Thus, we must work to find, empower, and network Muslims around the world, particularly among Muslim youth. We must act as a convener, facilitator and intellectual partner.
Secretary Clinton said at the Council on Foreign Relations: America shares interests and values with people and nations around the world. Going forward, we will advance those common interests through partnership, the power of our example, and the empowerment of people.
As we think about diverse communities of Muslims around the world, we need to work in partnership to build a future together that is based on these principles.
The challenges being faced by Muslim communities today are very real. Some of the challenges I mentioned earlier – lack of opportunities, illiteracy, violent extremism, navigation of identity, as well as others including women’s empowerment are front and center of every conversation I have with Muslims whether in Dusseldorf or Dhaka.
We must be honest about the challenges that do exist, but we also must seize this moment to build on the new vision Secretary Clinton and the President have outlined. And we will. By reaching out to the next generation, building networks of like-minded thinkers, and providing connectivity to diverse groups of partners. We will do this by reaching out beyond governments. We must work directly on a people to people level and use the power of partnerships with individuals, businesses, academia, philanthropies and more to move ideas forward that are from the bottom up not the top down.
One of the most serious issues facing Muslim youth, is their struggle with identity issues. With the deafening voices online, on the street and in local neighborhoods, many Muslim youth are battling with which category they fit into. There are endless questions that compound the normal questions of growing up: who am I, what are my values, what do I want to do when I grow up, how can I be both Muslim and modern, how should I should dress, what language I speak, or what is the difference between culture and religion? This is true of Muslims as minorities in a country as well as Muslims in Muslim majority nations.
Some of the US government initiatives on this issue have been built directly from working on the ground with Muslims who want to explore identity in various ways. They have asked to learn more how American Muslims – who come from more than 80 different ethnic backgrounds and are very diverse -- have been able to navigate through some of these complex waters.
We will continue to share how American Muslim youth deal with this experience through programs like the Citizen Dialogue where when asked American Muslim non government citizens travel to communities to talk about these issues of identity and any other subject that comes up with their peers overseas.
We must also create platforms for youth from around the world to engage with one another, and with religious leaders and others to help young people understand and balance their many identities.
A second issue we must seek to address is the unemployment and lack of economic development in many Muslim communities the world over.
To this end, I am working with the White House and other offices in the State Department to promote entrepreneurship education, enable access to funding for entrepreneurs of all kinds – traditional, social, and technology -- and encourage mentorships between business leaders and budding entrepreneurs.
Entrepreneurship can unlock potential within communities and hinges on creative solutions, critical thinking, and ingenuity—all qualities which are vital for any community to succeed in today’s global economy.
A third issue is the substandard education leading to illiteracy and lack of leadership opportunities afforded to many Muslim girls and women.
We know low levels of literacy can impede economic development in a rapidly changing, technology-driven world. We envision leading technology entrepreneurs working together with the foremost women’s activists to create cutting-edge initiatives that increase literacy and promote education and leadership amongst women throughout Muslim communities.
We must apply a local understanding and a nuanced approach to engagement by interacting, listening, brainstorming and acting together. And we will do so with respect. There is a wonderful and healthy diversity among the world’s approximately 1.3 billion Muslims. Within these communities, though, there remains a reservoir of untapped potential for excellence. We must work to not only find talent, but to cultivate it, and especially look to the next generation to make positive changes in their communities.
We know that no two communities are exactly alike, but we will use the reach of the U.S. government to find the best projects, entrepreneurs, writers…. connect them with diaspora communities or others with similar ideas in other parts of the world to share best practices, collaborate, and create.We will use 21st century tools to go beyond the government to government approach and facilitate productive partnerships between people.
We will create idea incubators meant for people to come together to engage in futuristic thinking. Unconventional ideas and creativity can flourish by bringing people together who rarely convene —youth, elders and entrepreneurs; women and executives; scholars and activists.
We will engage these partners through our embassies and use our convening power to get the right partners in the room. We will challenge them to be honest about obstacles and opportunities, and brainstorm together about actions they and we can take as partners together.
Through all of our efforts, we know that there is no need to re-create the wheel. Many people are already taking amazing actions to make their communities more prosperous and resilient—we will seek out these people and their programs.
We will help lift their voices, where appropriate growing small scale initiatives into bigger initiatives. We will help share the most impactful practices that no one has heard of yet.
We know this will not be a quick process…but it is essential that we do this now. There is a need and there is a demand. It is a process, one that requires patience and persistence.
It takes time to build action-networks of like-minded thinkers—within countries and across regions.
These thinkers will come together from diverse sectors—doctors and comedians, bloggers and local government officials. These diverse perspectives will encourage collaboration that rarely occurs and creativity that may be unprecedented.
We will work together …and engage with them not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because we have an interest in strong partners and know that the people we engage with today, will become some of our strongest and most important allies in the future.
In conclusion, I reiterate that all of our efforts will be based in mutual interest and respect. We will partner with and engage Muslim communities to achieve common good and to work together to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems.
All of us here today must work to build better relationships, increase understanding and leverage opportunities for dialogue to solve challenging problems that we all face. This is the issue of our time, how we chose to engage will determine the future.