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A Postcard from the Middle East: A Suggestion for Obama’s New Beginning

By / 5.23.2011

America has no wasta. Lacking substantive relationships is especially damning in the Arab world, because it is the informal connections, or wasta, which spells the difference between influence and irrelevance. Problem is that while Arabs might eat Cincinnati-style chili at the Dead Sea, teeny-bop to Justin Beiber, and yearn for democracy, there is very little person-to-person connection between America’s consumers of these products and the Arab world’s.

In his 2009 Cairo speech, for example, the president rightly called for a “new beginning” in U.S.-Arab relations. He doubled down late last week, with a speech designed to cement America on the side of the little guy across the region. But without wasta, no matter how well-intended or thought out, President Obama’s vision for the region will flounder.

Capitalizing on the socially networked revolutions and protests, the Millenial generation is the best place to start building wasta. Famously community-oriented, cussedly apolitical, yet relentlessly idealistic, the Millenials understand the importance of inter-connectedness. Eschewing romantic crusades for the nitty-gritty of service, this generation builds a better world one project at a time. To help transform the region, the president should summon his inner Kennedy. Mobilizing the Millenials, Obama could create a new Peace Corps to meet the Arab world’s challenges: The Sharaka (together). The Sharaka would not only deliver developmental aid across the Middle East, it would help mend America’s tattered image, assist in the region’s democratization, and earn Obama some wasta.

I have come to appreciate the need for a Sharaka-like organization from direct experience. Over the past two summers, I have led Millenials on service-learning trips to Madaba, Jordan. Located 20 miles south of Amman, Madaba is famous for its archeological ruins and mosaics. Settled by Christian Bedouins, Madaba now boasts a Muslim majority, largely comprised of Palestinians. Situated in the heart of the city is our home base, the Latin Patriarchate School for Girls. Utilizing the connections our State Department lacks, my school, Gannon University, gained entrée to the region through that most time-worn wasta of the Levant: the Catholic Church.

A Catholic school in a religiously mixed city is hardly representative of the Arab world. Madaba and the Latin Patriarchate School for Girls, however, are the exceptions that prove the rule. Even here, in a relatively affluent and tolerant city, the Arab Spring’s echoes are felt. In a scene reminiscent of Tahir Square, last week scores of Madabans marched peacefully to call for the mayor’s resignation. Moreover, Christian and Muslim, alike, Madabans call for democracy, freedom, and meaningful reform.

After teaching English in the Catholic schools, my students and I spend the afternoon at the Sharaka Center for Democracy. Intended as a community hub to inculcate democratic practices, Sharaka connects us to Madaba’s Muslim community. Eager to learn English, children and professionals flock to Sharaka to learn a world language and engage with Americans.

In serving thousands of hours over the past two summers, my students not only have earned the wasta our State Department lacks, they have been changed. Unlike their peers, who harbor deep anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiments, these Millenials are friends with hundreds of Muslim and Christian Arabs. They understand Arabs needs a partner, not a hegemon. Presidential speeches matter and American leadership remain crucial, but the path to influence, in the Arab world, begins with befriending our Arab brothers and sisters.