At summit on entrepreneurship, Obama's approach to Muslim world on display

Entrepreneurs from more than 50 mostly Muslim-majority countries are gathering at the summit on entrepreneurship in Washington to learn more about how individual action can expand opportunity in the Muslim world and beyond.

Ben Curtis/AP/File
President Barack Obama addresses an audience at Cairo University on June 4, 2009. In his Cairo speech, Obama announced that the US would host a summit on entrepreneurship to address ties between the Muslim world, and American business leaders, foundations, and social entrepreneurs.

Like George W. Bush, Barack Obama has a vision for transforming the Middle East and the wider Muslim world.

But whereas Mr. Bush emphasized change through democratization, Mr. Obama has tended to eschew the political in favor of individual endeavors in the economic and social arenas.

One result is the “summit on entrepreneurship” that Obama is hosting in Washington this week. Entrepreneurs from more than 50 mostly Muslim-majority countries are gathering Monday and Tuesday to share and learn more about how individual action can expand opportunity and improve living conditions in their nations.

Speaking to the gathering Monday, Obama said the summit was motivated by “a quest for new partnerships, not simply between government, but between people.” And he gave two reasons for the focus on entrepreneurship: first, “because you told us this was an area where we could learn from each other”; and second, “because throughout history, the market has been the most powerful force… for opportunity.”

Placing particular emphasis on “social entrepreneurship,” Obama said he learned as a community organizer in Chicago that “real change comes from the bottom up.” In that vein, he paid special tribute to summit participants ranging from a West Bank university student planning recreation centers for Palestinian youths to an Afghan woman risking personal danger to promote universal education for Afghan girls.

Unlike the president’s recent nuclear-security summit, this conference involves no country leaders or officials, but instead features private-business and social-organization representatives. It’s the result of a pledge Obama made last June in a speech in Cairo to enhance US involvement with young and rising entrepreneurs in Muslim-majority countries.

“We made a very conscious choice to have this be focused on individuals, on people-to-people exchanges, if you will, rather than simply just having governments represented at the summit,” says Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. At the same time, he adds, “We wanted to have a combination of important business leaders, but also smaller and medium-sized entrepreneurs, younger people just getting started.”

After years of a relationship with Muslim countries driven by terrorism and focused on political change, the Obama approach makes sense, some regional experts say.

“The attempt here is to have more of a dialogue with the Muslim world that focuses on something other than terrorism and that does more on the people-to-people level, the market side and the economic side of the equation,” says Isobel Coleman, director of the Council on Foreign Relations’ women and foreign policy-program in New York.

The White House has come under some criticism over the two-day conference, with skeptics saying the main difficulties that entrepreneurs encounter in many Muslim-majority countries are the authoritarian and bureaucratic regimes governing them. The summit does nothing to address that issue, the critics say.

“We believe that the summit will provide a forum for people who face different obstacles, depending on where they’re coming from,” Mr. Rhodes said in briefing reporters on the summit’s goals. He added, “The best way to help people begin to overcome any barriers to entrepreneurship is to have a robust opportunity to address those issues, to learn from one another, and to pursue solutions that can help empower them going forward.”

Ultimately, real change in the region will require both private-sector initiative and political change, Ms. Coleman says. But this week’s conference can be seen correcting an imbalance, she adds. “There was a heavy reliance over the past eight years on change at the government level,” she says, “and that raised a lot of expectations at the public level that we could never meet.”

The conference places a special emphasis on the role of women entrepreneurs in Muslim communities. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is expected to focus on that issue in remarks closing the meeting Tuesday and in a breakfast recognizing Muslim women entrepreneurs Wednesday.

The United States has not always fared well as it has tried in recent years to spotlight the role of women in bringing change to Muslim countries. Bush special adviser Karen Hughes memorably confronted a barrage of pushback from women in Saudi Arabia when she criticized the Saudi government’s prohibition on women driving.

Coleman, who has just written the book “Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women Are Transforming the Middle East,” says the US in recent years has learned a lesson about Muslim women: “Don’t focus on driving, and don’t focus on what they wear.” Instead, she says, the US can “do much” by focusing on more universal concerns.

“What these women care about is jobs, the economy, education, and control of their own financial issues,” she says. “There has been a focus on education in recent decades, but they still confront a system that suboptimizes the education levels they’ve achieved.”


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