When I read Secretary Clinton’s speech at the U.S. Islamic World Forum last night, I spent a lot of time nodding vigorously.
As Secretary Clinton ticked off countries in the midst of popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa – Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, others – I couldn’t help but think about the prescience of the formation of Partners for a New Beginning. The inspiration for this initiative - a collection of public-private partnerships committed to broadening and deepening engagement between the United States and Muslim communities abroad- came from Obama’s Cairo speech, where he called us to seek “a new beginning” between America and Muslims around the world “based upon mutual interest and mutual respect.”
The U.S. government’s relationship with the Middle East and North Africa has long been state-to-state, focused on preserving the status quo. PNB lifts up the importance of civil society relationships between people, companies, and organizations. We are justifiably proud of the vibrance of our civil society here in the United States – our NGO sector, our philanthropic institutions, the growth in attention paid to corporate social responsibility - and in the last four months, we have watched as people power in the Middle East and North Africa has shown equal vigor.
Clinton ticked through the myths that had previously justified the status quo – myths that recent uprisings have revealed and shattered. Myths like: governments are able to stay in power without showing regard for people’s aspirations. Violence is the only path to change. Claims that “Arabs do not share universal human aspirations for freedom, dignity and opportunity.”
She pointed out that young leaders in the region are rejecting these false narratives – they are too connected, too informed, too hungry for change not to challenge the status quo. The legacy of the land they have inherited – of dictatorship, of injustice, of complicity – doesn’t meet their expectations. They strive to turn this legacy on its head.
It’s not an easy task. Entrepreneurs need access to capital to create job growth and training (like the new Middle East Venture Capital Fund). Institutions of science and technology need support to spur innovation. Young people need access to education to build more robust human capital. We must invest heavily in exchange, advancing ties between individuals across societies to build that mutual respect Obama talked about in his Cairo address.
In his inaugural address, the president said “…as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself.” What we’ve seen is one fulfillment of this freedom trajectory. The realization of the dream of democracy and open societies doesn’t rest only with what people in Washington do – it rests on how people partner with people. On how our organizations, our companies, our students and our universities partner with local communities in the Middle East and North Africa.
As the secretary said, today’s generation of young people know a better life is within reach – and they are willing to reach for it.
Will Americans reach with them?