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U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Doha Echoes Call for New Beginning

March 10, 2010

I was honored to represent The Asia Foundation at the seventh U.S.-Islamic World Forum co-hosted by the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy and the State of Qatar in Doha last month. The Saban Center has convened the forum for seven years, shaping an event that is duly recognized and anticipated as the premier gathering of American and Muslim leaders for discussion of critical issues and partnership opportunities.

This year, the three-day forum focused on President Barack Obama’s call – in his historic Cairo University address last June – for  a “new beginning” in relations between the United States and Muslims worldwide, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. Speakers, panelists, and participants were invited to explore what has changed in the eight months since Obama’s Cairo address – in  particular, whether the call for change has been reflected in substantive policy recommendations and program initiatives that advance U.S.-Muslim relations.

Senator John Kerry speaks with Foreign Minister of Qatar Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassem Bin Jabor Al-Thani at the U.S.-Islamic World Forum. Photo by Ralph Alswang.

U.S. Senator John Kerry speaks with Foreign Minister of Qatar Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassem Bin Jabor Al-Thani at the U.S.-Islamic World Forum. Photo by Ralph Alswang.

There were a few moments in which friendly exchanges yielded to pointed comments, stern expressions, or awkward silence. These occasional tensions reflected the mix of optimism, expectation, and impatience that has followed the President’s call for change. While hard questions were raised on Afghanistan, and other tough issues were scrutinized and debated, it was clear that Arab and Muslim nations are still looking to a negotiated settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the ultimate yardstick of American resolve to turn noble pledge into decisive action. Participants set the bar high, but signaled every confidence that President Obama is sincere in his commitment.

The keynote speeches and panel session remarks of Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Qatar Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassem Bin Jabor Al-Thani, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Malaysian opposition leader and parliamentarian Anwar Ibrahim, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry drew common threads of urgency, resolve, and practical realism on the challenge of reversing reciprocal misperceptions. Secretary Clinton and Senator Kerry underlined positive steps taken to advance the Cairo commitment in recent months. These include:  investments and exchange opportunities in business, education, public health, science and technology; the economic and political empowerment of women and youth; new policy guidelines for U.S. military operations and development initiatives in Afghanistan; American efforts to think and talk differently about Islam; and acknowledgment of the need for deeper mutual understanding. Participants seemed to appreciate the candor with which senior American officials acknowledged areas of slow progress and the many challenges that remain. Arab and Muslim leaders in turn recognized their shared obligation to address extremism and combat prejudice, and affirmed their readiness to support the Middle East peace process in a manner inspired by the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative.

U.S. Special Representative to Muslim Communities Farah Pandith delivers a talk during the Forum. Photo by Ralph Alswang.

U.S. Special Representative to Muslim Communities Farah Pandith delivers a talk during the Forum. Photo by Ralph Alswang.

The program agenda devoted over six hours to five concurrent working groups. They focused on: the role of religious leaders and religious communities in diplomacy; democracy and Islamic parties – opportunities and challenges; scientific, intellectual, and governance cooperation on emerging environmental challenges; and new media to further global engagement. The fifth group, to which I was assigned, was tasked to focus on transformative partnerships in U.S.-Muslim world relations – empowering networks for community development and social change.

Ably facilitated by Professor Peter Mandaville of George Mason University, our group featured a striking mix around the table, including a renowned British facilitator of interfaith and intercultural understanding; a former Pakistani rock star turned nasheed artist and philanthropist; an American Internet pioneer and political strategist; a Senegalese NGO leader; the director of an American inner-city Muslim action network and social justice campaigner; a senior African-American imam; a Pakistani law professor and youth activist; a fearless champion of women’s rights from Somalia; an extraordinarily charismatic Egyptian activist and preacher; and representatives of several private international foundations and philanthropic associations.

Working together, we came up with a core set of values and guiding principles that lie at the core of successful partnerships for community development and social change in a variety of contexts, from Harlem, through Cairo and Lahore, to the remote reaches of West Africa. Reflecting on lessons learned from our very diverse experiences, we developed illustrative project activities and advocacy initiatives that would give voice to the economic and political aspirations of youth and stimulate the exchange of knowledge between community development activists in industrialized nations and their counterparts in the developing world. In some cases, the examples and experiences tabled were expressly rooted in the common values and experiences of Muslim communities worldwide. In others, the unique Muslim dimension was part of the broader universe of development challenges facing women, youth, the poor, and other marginalized communities everywhere, which resonate across continents, borders, cultures, faiths, and ethnic identities.

As a prelude to the Doha Forum, an Asia Foundation colleague and I spent most of January in Afghanistan on a program strategy mission that we hope will further link Afghan partners with counterparts in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and other Muslim- majority countries in which we work. The Doha Forum experience affirms the benefits of looking at these issues from a global perspective. Later this month, the Foundation and USAID are co-hosting a regional conference on the role of leaders of influence in national development efforts in Dhaka, Bangladesh (March 21-24). Religious leaders of all faiths will share their experiences in promoting development in the 14 Asian countries represented in the conference, and add their collective knowledge and insights to the refinement of the Bangladesh Leaders of Influence program. As we prepare for Dhaka, our experiences in Doha remind us how important it is to look beyond Asia for additional opportunities to link Asian religious and secular leaders with counterparts in Arab nations, Africa, Europe, and North America.

The U.S.-Islamic World Forum delivers a potent mix of formal diplomatic dialogue alongside the broader, more informal discourse needed to sow seeds of common understanding. While there was little new or especially striking in the expectations underlined by participants, nor in the occasional impatience voiced in the plenary proceeding and during informal tea breaks, something truly remarkable occurred in the rich discussions and networking among participants over the three-day gathering.

Kim McQuay is The Asia Foundation’s Regional Director for Law and Governance, based in Bangkok. He can be reached at kmcquay@asiafound.org
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