India’s Invisible Minority

This article is based on a lecture given at the Press Club in Kolkata (Calcutta), India on September 24, 2009. The lecture was sponsored by the American Center in Calcutta, India.

First Published by AltMuslim. October 23, 2009

This year due to a coincidence of the lunar calendar, Eid-ul-Fitr and Durga Puja, two major religious festivals of India, were celebrated within a week of each other in late September. After twenty-two years, I was able to witness both in my birth city of Kolkata (Calcutta, India). One common thread between the Pujas and Eids is the propensity amongst the faithful to shop for new clothes and gifts with the same fervor and joy as Christmas shoppers in my adopted homeland of United States. The area colloquially called New Market is the nexus of this buying spree in Kolkata. I had a few things to shop for my family and quite naturally gravitated towards where all Kolkata roads seemed to meet.

Fighting the heat and humidity of a late September afternoon and amidst the crushing crowds, I could not help but notice that the overwhelming majority of the signs strewn across the myriad of shops were Puja greetings, well-wishing those celebrating Durgautsov. Conspicuous in their absence were well wishes to the Muslim community on the occasion of their Eid. Muslims who make up over twenty percent of the population in Kolkata, have become its invisible minority, increasingly squeezed out of the public square in Kolkata and beyond.

In 1947, after India’s bloody and tragic partition, many Muslims, particularly the elites, migrated to Pakistan leaving behind a political and social vacuum. Those who chose to remain Indian outnumbered those who opted for Pakistan. Yet Indian Muslims have been stigmatized as India’s fifth column. The subsequent rise of the Hindu political identity marked by the Hinduvta movement, the lack of creative ideas in the Muslim community towards self-empowerment, the post-independence educational curriculum depicting Muslims as outsiders, Islamophobia, and violence in the name of Islam; all have contributed to marginalize India’s Muslims.

Writing a book review in The Hindu, A.G. Noorani commented, “It (the Muslim problem) must be treated urgently and seriously as one of the national problems. Discrimination against Muslims has been a blot on India's record as a democracy. That blot must be erased with determination and speed by all Indians who cherish the Great Indian Ideal.” Thus, the idea behind empowering Muslims in India should not be viewed as either appeasement to a voting block or solely an altruistic program to uplift one of India’s most downtrodden socio-religious communities.

Persistent religious discrimination and recurring communal violence have marred India’s ideals and values. It has diminished India’s narrative of a secular state where multi-ethnic and multi-religious communities can safely and freely reside. The erosion of the constitutionally protected fundamental rights has been especially disillusioning for India’s Muslim youth. The repeated failure of governments, both local and national, to take appropriate measures to protect the rights of minority citizens has prompted the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to put India on its 2009 Watch List.

Despite the obvious need to correct the problem, religious fanatics and fundamentalists have espoused the notion that Muslim empowerment is a zero-sum game. In particular the Hinduvta movement has cultivated a mistaken notion that any gain to the Muslim community is a loss for the Hindus. But in today’s globalized society, power resides not so much in unilateralism (shown to be glaringly ineffective by George W. Bush) but rather in effective mutuality and sharing between all who have a stake in a nation’s future. Thus, the issue of Muslim empowerment should be as much a Hindu concern as it is a Muslim aspiration.

Empowering Muslims in India requires a three pronged effort with all of the parts working together in a holistic manner to convert today’s challenge into tomorrow’s opportunities. The first prong undoubtedly lies on the shoulders of India’s Muslim community. Instead of succumbing to the political rhetoric being espoused by self-appointed leaders, Muslims must leave aside their cynicism and engage in the Indian political, social and cultural life with vigor and positivity. The Civil Rights movement in America can serve as an inspirational model. Integration will be more effective if Indian Muslims harmonize their Islamic identity with their Indian one.

Such integrative steps can happen only if India’s state, local and central governments come forward with bold new proposals to correct the glaring deficiencies pointed out by the Sachar Committee Report. Although much of the grievances in the report were well known to Muslims, the Sachar Report is an eye opener to those who assumed away the Muslim problem or blamed it on some foreign conspiracy. The Sachar Report is poignant in its pathos that the disempowerment of India’s Muslims is an Indian problem created by decades of neglect and abuse, which hangs as an albatross on India’s otherwise vibrant democracy. Quite ironically, states like West Bengal and Kerala that boasted the most liberal governments were just as culpable in their lack of attention to Muslim empowerment as regions that hosted more religiocentric governments, like Gujarat. I was shocked to learn that in my birth state of West Bengal, Muslim representation in state public sector undertakings is exactly zero percent!

Other statistics are equally grim - less than 4 percent Muslims graduate from school; 1 in 25 undergraduate students and 1 in 50 post graduate students in premier university and colleges are Muslims; although Muslims are nearly 14 percent of India’s population their share in government employment is 4.9 percent; in India’s security agencies, Muslim representation is 3.2 percent; only 2.1 percent of Muslim farmers own tractors; just 1 percent own hand pumps for irrigation; if Muslims do outnumber majority Hindus in anywhere, it is predictably as a proportion of the prison population (much like Blacks in America).

It will be a mistake to leave the task of Muslim empowerment to the goodwill of governments alone. As India transforms itself into a market economy, it is the private sector that will play a bigger role in both the economic and social transformation of India. India’s big-business community can, if they choose to, play a positive role in empowering India’s Muslim minority. One mechanism for creating an Indian corporate workforce that is reflective of India’s socio-religious communities is through the voluntary adoption of the UN Global Compact. Launched in the year 2000 the Global Compact is an effort by the United Nations to usher-in a more sustainable, just and inclusive global economy.

To achieve this goal, the Global Compact outlined ten principles broadly classified in the areas of human rights, labor, the environment and anti-corruption. If the business community takes the necessary steps to apply these principles, it will inevitably lead to not only preserving the profit margins for the businesses but to a general well being of the society. By ending all overt and covert discriminations in labor practices, businesses can assist in empowering India’s minorities. By adhering to higher environmental standards businesses can also help the poor (including but not limited to Muslims) who are usually the disproportionate victims of environmental degradation.

The issue of Muslim empowerment is not so much about the Muslim community as it is about India’s future. A more educated Muslim community will constitute a more enlightened Indian work force leading to better business opportunity and a more sustainable growth for India’s economy. The next step in India’s economic evolution will likely not come on the backs of call centers and outsourcing. Rather it will come as result of higher paying service oriented jobs that require a large educated work force. An empowered Muslim community will also mean fewer security headaches and lesser social tension.

The Sachar commission recommends that 15 percent of all government funds be allocated to Muslim welfare and development. While this may work in the short run, in the long run Muslims need equal opportunities not quotas or handouts. This can come about via the establishment of “Equal Opportunities Commission” much like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the United States. Such a commission, armed with judicial powers, can greatly aid in empowering India’s Muslim much like the EEOC continues to do for America’s minority communities. These suggestions, among the many made by the Sachar report, are not difficult to implement provided governments and citizens alike make a commitment to change their mindset that for too long has regarded the issue of Muslim empowerment as a zero-sum game relegating them to become India’s invisible minority.

Bangladesh's future rests on development of ethical financial markets

The Financial Express, October 7, 2009

A recent Bangladesh Bank (BB) policy paper asserts that moving into the future, Bangladesh will have to rely heavily on capital markets to raise the necessary money to fund capital expansion projects. Capital expansion projects need a lot of money and relying solely on banks to raise that money is inefficient. In Bangladesh, financing via debt market is generally small and stock markets are in their infancy, albeit growing rapidly. Stock market capitalisation has grown at an average annual rate of 77 per cent from 2003 to 2008.

Despite such positive signs, Bangladesh has an Achilles' heel as it has been consistently cited by Transparency International (TI) as one of the countries with the highest levels of corruption. Transparency International, a civil society organisation, cites the economic cost of corruption as, "Corruption leads to the depletion of national wealth. It is often responsible for the funneling of scarce public resources to uneconomic high-profile projects, such as dams, power plants, pipelines and refineries, at the expense of less spectacular but fundamental infrastructure projects such as schools, hospitals and roads, or the supply of power and water to rural areas. Furthermore, it hinders the development of fair market structures and distorts competition, thereby deterring investment." The benefits from the development of the financial markets can easily be undone by the general pervasiveness and permissiveness of corruption.

The centrality of ethics in economic development is easily discerned from the fact that the three largest economies of the world US, Japan and Germany all rank among the top 20 (least corrupt) in the Corruption Perception Index. In developed countries like the US, business school curriculums and professional organisations are accelerating the integration of ethics. The hope is that effectively integrating ethics and social responsibility into pedagogy will allow the grooming of professionals who will avoid the ethical pitfalls that have become the hallmark of the many financial scandals in the recent past. Bangladesh should not wait to address the issue of ethics after some scandal rocks its markets. Rather a proactive strategy can avoid major scandals allowing Bangladesh to sustain its economic development.

The solution lies in a pursuing a two-pronged strategy. First, ethics has to be integrated in the business curriculum so that tomorrow's business leaders graduate armed with the motivation and knowledge about why ethics matter. The second strategy requires major businesses to voluntarily adopt the principles of the UN Global Compact.

Popular text books in finance and business state that the goal of the financial manger is, "to maximise the current value per share of the existing stock," fostering a notion that shareholder wealth maximisation is devoid of any moral concern. Such ambiguity leaves students unsure about the role of ethics in business. At worst, practitioners may treat ethics and shareholder wealth maximisation as a zero-sum game, more of one leading to less of the other. Effective integration of ethics will come about if students are convinced that shareholder wealth maximisation is indeed consistent with the pursuit of ethics and social responsibility.

Ethics need not be exclusively policed using paternalistic mechanisms. Rather, the marketplace can moderate the urge to be self-centered. This is possible so long as media and civic society accept their responsibility of naming and shaming ethical violators. Take for example the well publicised controversy regarding American talk show host Don Imus. On the April 4, 2007, he said referred to the players in the women's basketball team at Rutgers University as "nappy-headed hoes," a description deemed offensive to the teams' Black players. This was not the first time Imus had used derogatory language to insult minorities. A few days later, facing a surge of protests, Imus' show was cancelled and later he was fired from his position by CBS, although Imus had not violated any law.

Was CBS' action consistent with shareholder wealth maximisation? NGOs made appeals to advertisers withdraw their support of Imus' show. Customers threatened advertisers with economic sanctions. By firing Imus, CBS acted as a conduit for the ethical beliefs of the stakeholders. CBS did not need to become expert on the US. Constitution nor did it need to conduct a shareholder referendum to determine their moral beliefs. CBS made an ethical decision but within the framework of what is called the marketplace of morality.

In Bangladesh, purveyors of Islamic finance are assuming prominence. Islamic universities are competing side-by-side with established secular institutions. Scholars dating back to Adam Smith and Max Weber have argued that religion plays a fundamental role in shaping economics. The development of a stronger ethical foundation for Bangladesh's financial markets can be aided by understanding the consistency between normative Islam and modern theories of virtue ethics.

The comparable word for ethics in Islam is 'akhlaq' or 'khuluq'. The issue of "internal good" is best captured in the two Islamic concepts of 'taqwa' (piety) and 'ihsan' (excellence). Having 'taqwa' allows a person to be aware of God's omnipresence and attributes, serving to remind believers of their responsibility towards God. 'Ihsan' pertains to obtaining perfection or excellence in worship, morals, manners, attitudes and social interactions.

The idea of "moral judgment" is best exemplified by two Islamic concepts of justice (adl) and trusteeship (khilafa). In pursuing wealth maximisation, people should not lie or cheat; they must uphold promises and fulfill contracts. Usurious dealings are prohibited. Excessive speculation is shunned. In the Islamic hermeneutics, the rich are not the real owners of their wealth; they are only the trustees. Thus, justice requires that the rich spend their wealth in accordance with the terms of the trust, one of the most important of which is fulfilling the needs of the poor. Islam views human beings as God's vicegerent or trustee (khalifa) on earth, implying that there is no conflict between the morality and the pursuit of economic success. Given the right motivation and means, all economic activity can assume the character of worship.

The second leg in the effective integration of ethics in finance rests with businesses voluntarily adopting the UN Global Compact. On July 26, 2000 the United Nations launched an innovative public-private partnership (PPP), calling it the UN Global Compact. The idea was to foster "social responsibility," amongst corporations. It was a call to the business community that their goal in managing businesses should not be exclusively focused on profit margins but in addition take steps to realise a more sustainable, just and inclusive global economy.

To achieve this goal, the Global Compact outlined ten principles broadly classified in the areas of human rights, labour, environment and anti-corruption. The Global Compact requires participating businesses to annually report their progress on the ten principles. If the business community takes the necessary steps to apply these principles, it will inevitably lead to not only preserving their profit margins but to a general well-being of the society. In particular, principle 10 of the Global Compact asks businesses to strive against corruption in all its forms, including extortion and bribery. Only 25 Bangladeshi companies have signed on to the UN Global Compact. Unfortunately, over half of them are classified as "non-communicating", having failed to comply with the reporting requirements. Eight Bangladeshi small and medium enterprises (SME) have signed on the UN Global Compact but only three have complied with all the reporting requirements. More businesses need to voluntarily adopt the UN Global Compact and this will come about only if civic society uses the marketplace of morality to demand business practices adhere to standards, which can ensure a more sustainable globalization.

Adam Smith defines "internal good" as "the man who acts according to the rules of perfect prudence, of strict justice, and of proper benevolence." Attaining "internal good" is necessary not just for altruistic reasons but also for profit making purposes. Providing profit by harming society perverts the purpose of business. An effective marketplace of morality, Dobson asserts will make financial markets truly ethical. He goes on to say, "Dishonesty and deceit would be anathema, because honesty and integrity are themselves internal goods. A truly ethical individual, pursuing internal goods, would never sacrifice honesty for material gain, but only too readily sacrifice material gain for honesty."

Fulbright scholar promotes equality


UNF teacher will study Bangladesh culture for "common problems."
By Josh Salman

Parvez Ahmed understands the importance of culture.

The assistant (associate) finance professor at University of North Florida has worked hard to bridge the gap between the general population and Muslim community in Northeast Florida. He practices equality and preaches the same to his students.

So when Ahmed was awarded the coveted Fulbright Grant, he fulfilled a lifelong dream. He could take the same principles he strives to teach at UNF and apply them to students in South Asia.

Ahmed will be leaving in August to spend the fall semester teaching finance and doing research at the Independent University of Bangladesh in Dhaka, the nation's capital.

"[Teaching] is our way of affecting the hearts and minds of people we are visiting," Ahmed said. "I'm hoping to apply what I learn there to the classroom here and create exchanges."

While in Bangladesh, Ahmed will study the region's economy and financial sector. He will explore the nation's villages and the study the people.

He will venture into the bordering country of India, and see the effects an economic powerhouse can have on a smaller nation.

And he will break down market development in the third-largest Muslim country in the world.

"Most people associate Bangladesh with natural disasters," Ahmed said. "But there's a lot more to it than that."

Ahmed grew up in an Indian town near the university he will be visiting. He hopes this advantage will allow him to develop a deeper social relationship with the native residents.

"This allows us to better understand what's going on in these countries," Ahmed said. "The common problems requiring common solutions."

Ahmed is one of 1,100 faculty nationally awarded the Fulbright grant. He has been at UNF since 2002 and has received the Outstanding Researcher Award three times from Coggin College as well as the Outstanding Teacher Award.

Ahmed has also served on the OneJax board of directors for more than three years, where he's worked to suppress the public's post-Sept. 11 anxiety toward Muslims.

"Being selfish, I can't believe he's going to be gone," said Bobbie O'Connor, executive director of OneJax. "But he's really deserving of the award and has such a strong commitment to the community."

Ahmed plans to use his experience as a motivational tool and generate interest from his students in foreign culture and economics.

He is also planning a study-abroad trip to Egypt for finance students this March. And whether in America or across seas, Ahmed's students said there's no professor they would rather learn balance sheets and market indexes from.

"His lectures are so thought-provoking," UNF graduate student James Fugard said after one of Ahmed's classes. "His courses are definitely a challenge, but you come out learning a lot."

Amanda Mullins said she takes Ahmed's courses every opportunity she has. "He makes sure you know your stuff and can apply it in the real world," Mullins said. "His style definitely make concepts easy to understand."

Professor Receives Fulbright Award to Lecture in Bangladesh

Media Relations & Events
Press Release For: May 06, 2009

Dr. Parvez Ahmed, associate professor of finance in the Coggin College of Business at the University of North Florida, has been awarded a Fulbright Scholar grant to lecture and conduct research at the Independent University of Bangladesh in Dhaka during the fall 2009 academic year.

Ahmed, who speaks and writes fluent Bangla, is one of approximately 1,100 U.S. faculty and professionals who will travel abroad through the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program, which is America’s flagship international educational exchange program. Recipients of Fulbright awards are selected on the basis of academic or professional achievement as well as demonstrated leadership potential in their fields.

The Arlington resident will teach and conduct research in finance, with his research being focused in the areas of financial asset pricing and market efficiency in Bangladesh. Additionally, Ahmed wants to perform empirical studies on the stock market in Bangladesh as well as study the state of private investing. He may also study the private-public partnership in economic development that is being conducted by Non-Governmental Organizations.

“The Coggin College is thrilled that Dr. Ahmed has earned the Fulbright Award,” said Dr. John McAllister, dean of the Coggin College of Business at UNF. “His achievement is an explicit acknowledgement of his insights and academic record and an implicit endorsement of the excellence of the Coggin College and UNF.”

Ahmed has been at UNF since 2002 and has received the Outstanding Researcher award three times from Coggin College as well as the Outstanding Teacher award. He is the author of “Mutual Funds—Fifty Years of Research Findings” and has had his research on market efficiency and asset pricing published in numerous top finance journals.

Prior to coming to the University, he was the assistant professor of finance at Pennsylvania State University and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He also served as a visiting professor of finance in the Executive MBA Program at Instituto Superior de Economia y Administracion de Empresas in El Salvador.

Ahmed has developed study abroad programs both for UNF and Pennsylvania State and is in the process of developing a study abroad program to Egypt. He earned his doctorate in finance from the University of Texas and his master’s degree in business administration from Temple University. He received his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Aligarh Muslim University in India.

Since its establishment in 1946 under legislation introduced by the late Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, the Fulbright Program has provided approximately 286,000 people with the opportunity to observe each other’s political, economic, educational and cultural institutions, to exchange ideas and to embark on joint ventures of importance to the general welfare of the world’s inhabitants.

With more than 3,800 students, the Coggin College’s mission is to educate and develop business professionals through rigorous, relevant accredited degree programs offered by faculty devoted to student learning and engaged in scholarly activities.

Since 1976, the Coggin College of Business has been accredited by AACSB—only one in five business schools are awarded the accreditation, which honors the best business schools in the world. The AACSB is the world leader in accreditation for business education.

Contact: Joanna Norris, Assistant Director
Department of Media Relations and Events
(904) 620-2102


Passover Tells a Story Familiar to Both Muslims and Jews

Huffington Post, April 9, 2009

A week before Passover, a local interfaith group called the Table of Abraham organized a Seder event at Congregation Ahavath Chesed, a Reform Jewish congregation in Jacksonville. The goal was to enact all of the rituals that are part of Seder as a way of informing and teaching people who are unfamiliar with this tradition.

Turning the pages of the Haggadah, I was specially struck by the similarity in both Judaism and Islam about this seminal Jewish event of Passover. At a time when so much of the contemporary narrative about Jews and Muslims is written in the context of differences and conflicts, it is useful to mark the solemn occasion of Passover as a mutual reminder about the commonalities between the faiths.

No other story in the Quran is recounted as frequently as the bondage of the Children of Israel in Egypt and their subsequent deliverance from the tyranny of the Pharaoh. God says in the Quran:

O children of Israel! Remember those blessings of Mine with which I graced you, and how I favored you above all other people; .... And [remember the time] when We saved you from Pharaoh's people, who afflicted you with cruel suffering, slaughtering your sons and sparing [only] your women - which was an awesome trial from your Sustainer; and when We cleft the sea before you, and thus saved you and caused Pharaoh's people to drown before your very eyes. (2:47-50)

The genesis of Muslim-Jewish relationship goes back to the founding of a political state in Madinah by Islam's Prophet Muhammad in 622 of the Common Era. Madinah of that time was a city inhabited by primarily polytheist Arab tribes, a few Jewish tribes and some Christians (although not as organized tribes). The Jewish tribes joined the rest of the city in welcoming Prophet Muhammad and upon entering the city the Prophet signed a treaty with all of the surrounding tribes.

This treaty is called the Charter of Madinah. It is perhaps the earliest known constitution in the world, predating the Magna Carta by 600 years. It is also the first known legal document that confers rights and responsibilities upon distinct religious minorities. It particularly recognizes Jews as a distinct nation (or ummah) entitling them to the same rights and responsibilities as any other signatories to the document. The treaty required each to assist the other another against any violation of the covenant. When placed in the context of the socio-economic-political conditions of the seventh century this document was indeed revolutionary.

Azizah al-Hibri, a legal scholar wrote:
The Charter .... declared all Muslim and Jewish tribes of Madinah to be one community. At the same time, each tribe retained its identity, customs and internal relations. The "federal" system of Madinah was responsible, however, for such matters as common defense and peacemaking, purposes similar to those in the Preamble to the American Constitution.... The Charter also contained its own partial bill of rights, ... among the rights that it protected were the right to freedom of religion, and the right not to be found guilty because of the deeds of an ally, a form of guilt by association which was widely practiced at the time.....The Charter of Madinah repeatedly emphasized the principles of fairness and equity for Jews and Muslims....It is readily apparent that there are significant parallels between the concepts expressed in the Charter of Madinah, executed in the seventh century, and those of the American Constitution, drafted in the eighteenth century.

Despite such early documentary evidence of reciprocal respect, relationship between the two communities was clouded by mutual mistrust leading to several bloody conflicts.

And yet there are also many inspiring examples of coexistence and cooperation. It was during the Muslim rule in Spain that Jewish art, philosophy and literature reached one of its golden ages. A recent documentary on PBS characterized that era as, "The fascinating story of a central bureaucracy staffed by elites from all three faiths, with Jews in all but the highest post and Christian scholars outperforming "native" Arabic speakers in their own language and culture, is a fascinating and powerful antidote to our modern stereotypes concerning Christians, Jews, and Muslims."

Which part of our shared history do we want to use as our guide to the future? The part that steers us to presume the worst stereotypes about each other or the part that shows how much we can benefit humanity through our mutual cooperation. How we reminisce the past will dictate how effective we are in building a new future.

By the end of my Seder meal at the synagogue, it was quite apparent that beneath the headlines that scream conflict are Jewish, Muslim and Christian hearts yearning to build a more hopeful future based on mutual understanding. The eternal message of hope was my take-home lesson from the Seder.

Waiting to exhale: Obama visits Turkey

Published in Today's Zaman, April 5, 2009
(Turkey's largest circulating English daily)

Long before Barack Hussein Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States of America, people in Turkey had expressed a sentiment of hope about his presidency. Reporting for The New York Observer in January 2008, Suzy Hansen quoted Omer Taspınar, director of the Turkey program at the Brookings Institution, as saying: "Turks know that Obama represents something quite different -- they've seen 'Roots.' They know the history. So an African-American with an African name and a name like Hussein -- the fact that people are willing to give him a chance, despite that he attended a madrasa, and had a Muslim father, would represent a huge change in the US, compared to the Bush-Clinton dynasties." As Turkey prepares to welcome Obama this week, what can they expect from him? And what can Obama expect in return?

A recent poll by the BBC World Service shows a majority of Turkish people believing that Obama will improve America's relations with the rest of the world. However, the number of people in Turkey who believe this (51 percent) is far below the average (68 percent) in the 17-nation BBC survey. Thus, amidst the general optimism there lies a nagging concern: Can Obama deliver on his promise?

Despite being saddled by a once-in-a generation economic crisis, the young American president has shown an uncanny ability to, in his own words, "walk and chew gum at the same time." Giving his first interview as president to the Arab TV station Al Arabiya, sending video greetings to the Islamic Republic of Iran on the Persian new year, quoting a saying (hadith) of the Prophet in one of his speeches, ordering the closing down of the abomination that is Guantanamo, retiring the use of ill-defined terms such as the "war on terror" and refraining from even rhetorically linking Islam to terrorism are all trends that evoke hope. Although these moves are mostly symbolic, they are nonetheless important, as part of leadership is setting the right tone.

How President Obama translates this emergent goodwill into tangible actions will ultimately determine his success. A recent survey by Gallup shows that nearly nine in 10 Muslims, spread across many Muslim-majority nations, support freedom of speech, defined as allowing all citizens to express their opinions freely on all major issues of the day. Overwhelming majorities support women having the same legal rights as men. Similar numbers hold beliefs that their faith ought to inform and guide them in their politics. Yet most do not want sacred religious texts to be the exclusive source of law in their societies. The most common aspiration, all across the Muslim world, is to see America help in reducing unemployment, improving economic infrastructure, respecting political rights and promoting freedom.

To get the Muslim world right, President Obama will first have to get Turkey right. During the Bush years, Turkish sentiments saw some of the most dramatic swings from overwhelmingly pro-American to stridently anti-American. Turkey sits at the nexus of several hot spots, such as Iraq, Syria and Iran. Turkey is eager to play a role in mediating an amicable solution. Turkey is not just a Muslim-majority nation; it is also a secular democracy. Turkey is also trying to grapple with its own version of separation of church (mosque) and state. The ban on students donning symbols of their faith while attending university classes strikes many in the West and across the Muslim world as excessive. But the fact that the Turkish people are continuing to debate this issue is a sign of religious, intellectual and social vitality. President Obama could use his enormous appeal across the Muslim world to prod other Muslim societies to borrow a page from Turkey and enhance their own internal dialogues about the appropriate role of religion and faith in state governance.

Back at home, a poll conducted by the non-partisan group Public Agenda shows that a clear majority of American's express support for using diplomatic and economic means to resolve conflicts, even with Iran. Most Americans want America's top foreign policy priority to be humanitarian, such as helping poor countries move out of poverty, providing more access to education and controlling the spread of deadly diseases.

All around the world there is an emerging consensus of aspiration. People are less interested in ideologies and care more about how governments can better their lives. This creates new opportunities for cooperation through sustained intellectual and diplomatic engagement. Instead of looking at Turkey as just an important geostrategic military ally, President Obama needs to prod European allies to welcome Turkey into the European Union, giving Turkey a more effective platform to act as a bridge between America, Europe and the Muslim world.

Obama tells Turkey: U.S. ‘not at war with Islam’ (AP April 6, 2009)

ANKARA, Turkey - Barack Obama, making his first visit to a Muslim nation as president, declared Monday the United States "is not and will never be at war with Islam."

Urging a greater partnership with the Islamic world in an address to the Turkish parliament, Obama called the country an important U.S. ally in many areas, including the fight against terrorism. He devoted much of his speech to urging a greater bond between Americans and Muslims, portraying terrorist groups such as al Qaida as extremists who do not represent the vast majority of Muslims.

"Let me say this as clearly as I can," Obama said. "The United States is not and never will be at war with Islam. In fact, our partnership with the Muslim world is critical ... in rolling back a fringe ideology that people of all faiths reject."