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Op-Ed - Exchanging People and Ideas to Bridge the World's Divides


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Written by Senator John Kerry

Published in the Huffington Post on June 4, 2010

One year ago in Cairo, President Obama promised America and the world's Muslims a new beginning "based on mutual interest and mutual respect." Translating this message into better relationships will take action from all of us.

In the coming weeks, I will introduce a bill in Congress to create a new professional exchange program between the United States and Muslim-majority countries. This pilot program would allow young American professionals to spend six months overseas experiencing a new culture in Muslim countries while gaining new work experiences. And it would allow citizens of those countries to spend six months in the United States, where they will gain valuable work skills and see what life in America is all about. In a small but significant way, both journeys will help to lay the groundwork for improved relations going forward.

We've done this before. After World War II, our leaders -- and particularly a young senator from Arkansas named J. William Fulbright -- recognized the value of building bridges through exchanges. While the Fulbright program began modestly in 1946, today, 300,000 men and women have been proudly called "Fulbrighters." The alumni list includes 40 Nobel Prize winners from 11 countries, and 7,500 new scholars every year. If you doubt that people-to-people exchanges are a good diplomatic investment, consider this: 20 of those young international Fulbright scholars who came to study in America went on to become heads of state.

Exchange programs like the Fulbright and others already build bridges among academics. This program will emphasize the next step: career development for young professionals.

Today, we stand at the crest of a demographic wave that will transform the early 21st century, particularly in the Arab world with the so-called "youth bulge." Societies will feel enormous strain as they struggle to keep up with a growing population's demands for more economic opportunities. We will need to meet these challenges head-on. By targeting professionals like teachers, city planners, public health workers and other professions, this program can be a valuable step in building professional capacity for societies to keep up. And by encouraging public-private partnerships, this program can help link our institutions, governments, charities, and businesses in common cause.

Of course, exchange programs alone cannot address the political issues that divide us. A year after Cairo, there is widespread frustration throughout many Muslim communities that not enough has been done to change the status quo -- to address poverty, to champion democratic values and human rights, and to bring peace to Afghanistan and especially the Middle East.

The truth is, we are addressing some monumental challenges. The road ahead is long, but we must travel it together.

For most of the past decade, our relationship was framed by trauma and terrorism, by two wars and political conflict -- and the fallout only polarized us further. Many Muslims perceived the United States as an aggressor -- projecting its power solely to protect its own security and economic interests, usually at the expense of Muslims. Too many in western societies implicitly, and at times explicitly, blamed an entire religion for the unholy violence of a few. At the same time, suicide bombers and extremists dominated the daily news. Too often, the extremists defined an "us versus them" discourse, and all of us suffered for it.

Since President Obama took office, we have witnessed a dramatic shift. Today, we are in a fundamentally better place than we were a year ago. The President's new National Security Strategy recognizes that countering violent extremism is only one element of our strategy and "cannot define America's engagement with the world."

America is now striving to think and talk differently about Islam. We recognize that a serious debate is underway within Muslim communities over how best to address extremism and combat prejudice. And we are now reaching out to the next generation and cultivating people-to-people relationships through science envoys, exchange programs, President Obama's Entrepreneurship Summit, and other initiatives hosted by U.S. embassies.

We still have to address the issue at the emotional core for many Muslims: the need for a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians. A two-state solution is not a panacea for the problems of the Middle East -- it will not solve the region's demographic challenges or address the Iranian nuclear program. But it can help to transform America's relations with the world's Muslims while dramatically improving the prospects of Arabs and Israelis alike.

Ultimately, our relationships should not be framed in terms of religion. They should be defined by our success in tackling the traditional issues we all face -- how to put people to work, how to provide healthcare, and how to educate your youth. These are the collective challenges we all face in the 21st century.

We have come a long way in the past year in helping turn a page in America's relations with the world's Muslims, and President Obama deserves enormous credit. I hope new initiatives like the professional exchange program can build on these successes.

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