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Six years after President Obama’s inspiring Cairo speech, scientist Navid Madani reflects on what changes his words have generated, and what still needs to be done.
President Barack Obama’s historic lecture in 2009 in Cairo, Egypt, about the United States and engagement with Muslim societies, was dubbed ‘a new beginning’. Today, as terrible news continue to roll in from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and other conflict zones in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), it is worth reflecting on how we can initiate and implement the calls to action from Obama’s speech — such as building roads, schools and hospitals in countries devastated by decades of unrest, and providing essential aid to millions of displaced people, whose numbers continue to grow.
I wonder how we can win the hearts and minds of the region’s young men and women who are becoming increasingly marginalized. We must restore their hope.
I believe the best way to help stabilize Muslim societies in MENA—to enable the poor and strengthen the middle class—is through scientific and medical exchange, which ultimately will benefit all countries involved.
Data in the past two decades overwhelmingly suggests that military intervention, economic sanctions, and isolation of specific countries in the region only negatively affect ordinary people and accelerate the shrinking of the middle class in the region as a whole1 2.
Many of these effects are synergistic and self-sustaining; without political and economic stability, health and well-being suffer, and vice versa.
Continued military campaigns are not long-term solutions. Instead, we must follow a path of education, engagement, integration, and exchange. Science and medicine can be the vanguard of this strategy.
The seeds have already been planted by a variety of exchanges over the years between the United States and several countries in the region.
MENA countries lack ground-level science education and mentorship of women and youth; it’s one way out of despair.
For example, in 2012 the first international and the fifth national HIV/AIDS conference in Iran gave a platform for American and European scientists to speak about the recent advances in the battle against the disease. The conference led to other major international workshops at Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia in 2013 and Vienna, Austria in 2014, as well as educational workshops and student exchanges.
Additionally, there are mentoring and exchange programs for female scientists in the Arab world funded by grants from USAID and the National Science Foundation. The Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME), which is set to launch in 2016 in Amman, Jordan, is yet another brilliant example of using pure science to foster scientific and technological capacity building between regional neighbours as well as United States and Europe in turbulent times.
These initiatives, though valuable, are not enough. The programmes are accessible for only a select, fortunate few who are usually already equipped with enough knowledge to encourage them to find opportunities for exchange rather than conflict.
In addition to funding medical and higher education exchange programmes, we should encourage similar efforts at elementary and high school levels. This will create more diverse opportunities for young adults and boost their interest in science.
In my opinion, MENA countries lack ground-level science education and mentorship of women and youth; it’s one way out of despair. Here lies the opportunity for international science collaboration, which can create opportunities for early- and high-school age participation through competitions, scholarships, workshops and internships.
In an interview, the Egyptian American space scientist Professor Farouk El-Baz sums up this notion perfectly, “it is simplistic to think of a ‘space programme’ as shooting rockets into space. In reality, it is the upgrading of a scientific research and the technological advancement of a whole generation of young people.”
How this upgrade should take place is open for debate, but these programmes should generally focus on training educators, teachers, physicians, and scientists both in the region and in the United States. The aim is to help create and strengthen medical, scientific and educational institutions to benefit society as a whole.
Programmes that could be initiated by MENA-based and American scientists are of great value not only to address specific challenges but to use collaboration as a model for solving conflicts.
A scientific engagement strategy is one practical approach. Implementation should not face major roadblocks and complications because a mutual scientific respect will have been established amongst the societies. Achieving engagement through science will empower MENA citizens, the vast majority of whom are under the age of 35. We will give rise to a generation who truly believe they have a stake in their future and will strive to make their countries and the world a better place.
President Obama broached the subject of engagement six years ago; those seeds, having been planted, need tending if they are to thrive. We must go beyond giving speeches and work to foster a culture of action.
In his speech, Obama voiced a plan to launch a fund to support scientific advancements in Muslim countries. He promised centres of excellence in Middle East and North African and South East Asia. Execution of this strategy, which was planned six years ago, won't happen overnight. In my opinion, it should not be a sprint, but an ultra-relay-marathon that involves generations of Americans and Middle Easterners.
The stakes are too high to be complacent or risk stagnation. Engagement through education using science and medicine is largely untapped potential, particularly with respect to the disenfranchised youth, but this is precisely part of the reason why it can be a robust tool to overtake misguided fundamentalism among all parties involved.
If we think of music as a universal language, then science is a universal process. Inherent in science is a methodology: question, hypothesis, prediction, test and analysis. This very methodology can benefit collaborations by providing an infrastructure for engagement. It is also a method that, if instilled early enough in life, helps offset the pull of extremism, which discourages questioning or testing.
In the end, dialogue will not only assist in further strengthening scientific infrastructure in the region but will help the United States, as a nation, to understand and become closer to the Middle East and North Africa. As Americans, we will have a chance to show one of our best attributes—our scientific accomplishments and advances—thereby improving our image in one of the most critical geopolitical regions of the world today.
I am admittedly both an idealist and optimist, but I am a pragmatist as well. I firmly believe that science and medicine have the capacity to nullify decades of mistrust between our nations.
Six years ago, the President said: “The people of the world can live together in peace. We know that is God’s vision. Now, that must be our work here on Earth.” So let us discontinue the old and tired tactics of implementing sanctions, isolation, and threatened or real military action. As the president said, we must embrace a new era of engagement based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and our work must begin now.
Madani is a Senior Scientist in the Department of Cancer Immunology and Virology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School.