Obama’s Cairo Speech: One Year Later

There’s nothing like respect for other people’s identity to build the foundation for successful business relationships

Pradeep Ramamurthy, a White House official who plays a key role in implementing the vision laid out in US President Barack Obama’s historic June 2009 Cairo speech which talked about dialogue between the West and the Muslim world, dislikes talk about “initiatives,” but not real action, coming out of Cairo: “This is about a new way of doing business, a new DNA for how [the US] government operates,” he told me at the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship held at the end of April.

In other words, it’s not about listing the distinct tasks coming out of the Cairo speech and checking off the boxes; it’s about inviting all players to look at the world through a new lens. And the Entrepreneurship Summit – a two-day workshop that examined ways to deepen ties between business leaders, foundations and social entrepreneurs in the United States and Muslim-majority countries – helped bring these players together. In fact, the summit provides a window into how the vision Obama discussed in Cairo is becoming a reality.

As is his style, Obama likes to find the intersection between values that are high priorities in the world and that serve as common ground for different communities. Entrepreneurship is at this intersection. The world needs business entrepreneurs who are creating new goods and services and generating new jobs. It needs social entrepreneurs who are building new institutions to solve social problems.

Entrepreneurship is a shared value in both Muslim and American civilisation. From the Wright Brothers who constructed the first plane to Apple founder Steve Jobs, entrepreneurs are celebrated figures in American history. But they are equally important in Islam. As Obama stated in the Cairo speech: “It was innovation in Muslim communities that developed the order of algebra, our magnetic compass and tools of navigation, our mastery of pens and printing, our understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed.”

The summit included business and social entrepreneurs from across the Muslim world, from Nigeria to Indonesia, and from Saudi Arabia to the United States. Perhaps the most commonly used phrase from the panellists was “the culture of entrepreneurship.” I was impressed by the energy, intelligence, pragmatism and self-criticism in the discourse.

When it comes to entrepreneurship, in a culture of risk-taking, failure is good. Those three words were repeated over and over by some of the most successful entrepreneurs in the room. In much of the Muslim world (as elsewhere), there is a bias within families towards government jobs and professional careers such as law, medicine, accounting and engineering.

Too often the first response that a creative young person in a Muslim society will get when they raise a new idea is, “Make that your hobby, and make sure to get a job in the government.” That attitude is not going to solve the problems of today or create the jobs we need for the future. As Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank which provides micro credit loans, said, “We should not teach young people to be job seekers. We should encourage them to be entrepreneurs, and therefore job givers.”

There was also emphasis on a culture of pluralism. In his beautiful keynote, the American business leader Sanford A. Ibrahim spoke of the diverse faiths of the various mentors in his business career, of his current colleagues and of the people he is mentoring. He made it a point to emphasise his knowledge of and respect for the religions of these people, not just their business acumen. It was a lesson he learned from his Muslim father, who told him in their home city of Hyderabad: “My participation in the festivals of other faiths does not diminish me as a Muslim; it enhances me as a human.”

The more I listened, the more I recognised this wasn’t just about Ibrahim’s generous spirit; this was a necessary attitude for a successful business and entrepreneurial culture. To work in a globalised world, you’ve got to be able to work with people from different backgrounds. There’s nothing like respect for other people’s identity to build the foundation for successful business relationships.

Moreover, talent comes in all colours and languages of prayer. As one panellist said, “I don’t care if it’s a black cat or a white cat. I just want a cat that can catch mice.”

In regard to a culture of education, human development and work ethic: “The only renewable resource I know of is the human brain,” said the Jordanian businessman Fadi Ghandour. “I’m tired of talk about discovery of new oil or other natural resources and new ways of refining or bringing these to market. I want to hear talk of the discovery of the power of the human brain and the investment needed to nourish it. It will cost billions, but it will be the best billions we spend.”

Improving education is, of course, a common applause line. Muslim cultures have an abundance of this all-important resource: people. But Ghandour went one step further and emphasised the importance of work ethic. A culture of entrepreneurship needs a population of people willing to roll up their sleeves to dream and build new systems. That takes a whole different attitude than simply hoping to take your place in old institutions.

This was a summit about new recipes, not just more cooking. And it shows that the Cairo vision is starting to take shape in reality.

Eboo Patel is an author and Founder and Executive Director of Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based institution building the global interfaith youth movement.

Filed under:

Leave a Reply