Obama administration bridges US-Muslim divide

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Over the past year, the Obama administration has been reaching out and listening to Muslim communities around the world, focusing on a “new beginning” based on mutual interest and respect that President Obama called for in his June 4, 2009, speech at Cairo University in Egypt.

His vision has yielded new partnerships between the U.S. and Muslim communities, demonstrating Obama’s own lesson from his days as a community organizer in Chicago that “real change comes from the bottom up, from the grass roots, starting with the dreams and passions of single individuals serving their communities,” as he told participants at the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship April 26 in Washington.

The president said that even as he committed the United States to addressing outstanding security and political concerns, such as the conflicts in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and the Middle East, “I also made it clear in Cairo that we needed something else — a sustained effort to listen to each other and to learn from each other, to respect one another.”

“I pledged to forge a new partnership, not simply between governments, but also between people on the issues that matter most in their daily lives,” he said.

The entrepreneurship summit brought together about 250 entrepreneurs from countries with significant Muslim populations to highlight how entrepreneurship can expand opportunities while also deepening engagement with the United States. Obama told the attendees that both peoples are bound by the common aspirations of wanting to live a dignified life in peace and security, to have access to good education and health care, to speak freely and have a say in how they are governed, to have a government free from corruption and to provide their children with a better future.

Despite these many commonalities between the United States and Muslim communities, they too often fall “victim to mutual mistrust,” Obama said, acknowledging that the vision he outlined in his Cairo speech “would not be fulfilled in a single year, or even several years.”

“But I knew we had to begin and that all of us have responsibilities to fulfill,” he said.

Some of the developments over the past year, such as the Obama administration’s efforts to engage Iran, the tripling of U.S. civilian assistance to Pakistan, and its efforts to restart talks between Israel and the Palestinians, have made international headlines. But many of the new approaches, designed to empower individuals, have managed to evade the spotlight.

Several science envoys, including Nobel Prize laureate Ahmed Zewail, have been sent around the world to identify partnerships and deepen scientific cooperation. The United States and the Organization of the Islamic Conference have teamed up on a new effort to eradicate polio. The Global Technology and Innovation Fund was launched in April to mobilize as much as $2 billion in capital for small and medium-sized businesses throughout the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

Over the past year, people-to-people exchanges between the Muslim world and the United States have increased more than 30 percent, with some English-language programs doubling. There has also been an increase of more than 40 percent in American undergraduates studying in Muslim-majority countries and among significant Muslim communities.

Addressing the U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Doha February 14, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that along with working together to solve common challenges such as promoting democracy, economic growth and human rights, including the empowerment of women, the U.S. and Muslim communities must also engage in a meaningful and honest dialogue to promote greater understanding.

“The power of conversation has been proven time and time again to me. Wherever I go, whether it’s Pakistan, Indonesia, or Iraq, I ask for an open dialogue and I invite honest criticism. And that’s exactly what I have gotten,” she said. “In almost every instance, I come away convinced that we’ve reached greater understanding. And that understanding serves as the base for whatever else we expect to do together.”

President Obama’s vision is not about “a single country seeking to write a new chapter on our own,” she said. “It was a call for all of us to take responsibility for retiring stereotypes and outdated views and for bringing a renewed sense of cooperation.”

Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Judith McHale echoed that sentiment in a May 6 speech, saying that to withstand the “inevitable ups and downs in official government-to-government relations,” there is a need for collaborative networks among people and institutions which are “deeply rooted enough for dialogue and cooperation in other areas to continue.”

In the interconnected world of the 21st century, “the time when we could leave the practice of foreign relations to the diplomats is long past,” McHale said. “While we in government can lead, and convene, and even cajole, we can’t do it all.”

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