Diplomatic Pouch / May 3, 2010
By Larry Luxner
President Obama's well-articulated vision of bringing America closer to the Arab and Muslim world took a step closer to reality Apr. 29, when more than 350 ambassadors, State Department officials, business executives and other dignitaries gathered for an "entrepreneurship and public diplomacy luncheon."
The unprecedented event at Washington's Willard InterContinental Hotel, just a few blocks from the White House, gathered some of the nation's most successful, innovative, creative — and funny— Arab immigrants in one ballroom.
Speakers ranged from Egyptian Ambassador Sameh Shoukry to Walter Isaacson, president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, to comedian Maysoun Zayed, who bills herself as "a Palestinian Muslim virgin with cerebral palsy from New Jersey."
Sponsored by Al-Mubadarah: Arab Empowerment Initiative in collaboration with the Aspen Institute, the luncheon followed on the heels of Obama's Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship.
The idea behind such efforts is quite simple: to deepen and broaden U.S. ties to the Arab and Islamic world beyond the usual context of conflicts and the struggle against terrorism. This means focusing on things like expanding business ties, educational exchanges, and by consequence, boosting America's standing throughout the Middle East while neutralizing religious extremism.
The Arab Empowerment Initiative, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, is the brainchild of President and CEO Hazami Barmada and Chairman Victor Shiblie — who also happens to be publisher of The Washington Diplomat.
"The United States wants to build new relations with the Arab world, based on mutual interests and mutual respect," said Egyptian diplomat Hassoun Hassana, the Arab League's ambassador in Washington. "When President Obama went to Cairo, he was received with honor and applause. We all welcome his vision, and I believe that we can work with the United States on many different levels — governments, NGOs, civil society, the academic world, think tanks and the business community. But it's a collective effort, and we can only succeed if we work together."
Added Shoukry: "This is a very tangible way of presenting the ability of the United States to interact and provide assistance to the Arab and Muslim world."
Farah Pandith, appointed nearly a year ago as the State Department's first-ever special representative to Muslim communities, said Obama's new policy "is not about trying to win hearts and minds, but rather an attempt to begin a movement of change, extending our hand in partnership."
Pandith urged her audience to "step back to January 2009, when the president — for the first time in American history — talked directly to Muslims around the world on his inauguration day. But it was in Cairo, in June of last year, when he laid out the foundation of the vision he wanted to build: mutual interest and mutual respect."
Two weeks after that Cairo speech, Secretary of State Clinton named Pandith to her current position. Since then, the Indian-born diplomat has been to 20 countries from Bosnia to Qatar to Nigeria.
"For us, a Muslim in São Paulo is just as important as a Muslim in Cairo, and a Muslim in Stockholm is just as important as a Muslim in Kuala Lumpur," she said. "My job is to work with our embassies around the world, engage with civil society, hear what's taking place at that level and move ideas up. We want to see where the U.S. government can use its strength to promote ideas and bring partners to the table who we don't usually see."
Pandith pointed out that 45 percent of the world's 6.8 billion people are under the age of 30.
"So much of what we do is about talking to youth, trying to understand the nuances and complexities of issues, and what they're thinking. This is what are embassies around the world are doing — not just public-affairs officers but every part of our embassies," she said. "If we do not connect with this generation now, we will be missing a historic moment in time."
Specific examples of how the Obama administration is connecting to Arabs was offered by Pradeep Ramamurthy, senior director for global engagement at the National Security Council.
"As the president said in his speech, the relationship between the United States and the Arab world was defined for too long by a narrow set of issues — mainly security and counterterrorism," he said. "We recognize fully that words are cheap, and that speeches like this have limited utility — because it's easy to say something and then do something else. But we are committed to following up our words with actions."
Over the last nine months, he said, the United Stats has sent "science envoys" to a number of Arab countries, helping, among other things, to prevent the spread of H1N1 flu virus in Saudi Arabia during the hajj, or pilgrimmage, to Mecca.
"NASA has extended its presence by bringing Arab scientists to the United States," Ramamurthy explained. "We don't see this as an initiative. By definition, an initiative is something a small number of people care about and everybody else ignores. This is about creating a vision that becomes the DNA of how the United States relates to Muslim communities around the world."
The White House official acknowledged that "in the face of Afghanistan, violent extremism and Middle East terrorism" it's easy to be skeptical. But Ramamurthy said he firmly believes the United States can rise to the challenge.
"Whether it's Detroit or Beirut or Ramallah, all people care basically about the same thing: will my child have a better life than I did? Are there opportunities I can seize that I have not seized? Our vision is to focus on areas of opportunities. We're trying to expand relationships and social innovation. We are constantly in a learning process. That process, we hope, will be informed by your experiences and by bringing you here today."
He added that the United States remains firmly committed to a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, but that the challenges don't end there.
"The day after there's Middle East peace, there will still be a need for jobs, health care, education, science and technology. We want to pursue all these things simultaneously," he said. "I think every day about how the United States can improve this relationship. That's my promise to you, and it's also my job description."
Just in case participants weren't sufficiently inspired by all the previous speeches, Texas businessman Farouk Shami entertained the audience after lunch with his rags-to-riches story that began in the Palestinian town of Ramallah.
"I came here as a student on a scholarship and worked waiting on tables. So if you need a waiter to clean up here, I have lots of experience," he said to laughter. "I arrived in the United States 25 years ago with $71 in my pocket. I still have over $70 of that."
Shami decided to attend cosmetology school in Arkansas and later began experimenting with hair-coloring products. But he quickly became allergic to hair-color chemicals.
"I thought it was a curse," he said. "My doctor suggested I stay from the business and all those harsh chemicals, but I was born and raised in Palestine, and Palestinians don't give up. So I invented the first ammonia-free hair color and patented it."
Shami incorporated his company, Farouk Systems, and began producing BioSilk for the U.S. market, where it's been a moneymaker for the last 18 years. Other leading products include SunGlitz and Cationic Hydration Interlink (CHI) brands, which are now exported to over 50 countries.
Farouk Systems today employs 2,000 people, said Shami, who's also a board member of the American Task Force on Palestine. His other new ventures include a furniture factory in Laredo, a manufacturing plant in El Paso that will make solar panels, and a plastic injection-molding operation in Brownsville. All told, Shami expects to create another 5,000 jobs across the Lone Star State in the next few years.
But success in business was not enough for this Arab-American; he wanted to score big in the political arena as well. So last November, he announced his bid in the Democratic primary for governor of Texas.
"I thought, 'now we have a black president of the United States. So how about a brown governor of Texas?'" he quipped. "I came in second out of seven candidates. Maybe I didn't get the votes, but I've got the guts."