As President Barack Obama prepares to address the Muslim World from Cairo on Thursday this week, he would do well not to dwell on the past but to look to the future. His speech should be the first salvo in a battle to meet the expectations of a world dominated by youth. He should not revive memories of past conflicts. He needs to keep certain facts in mind, many of them intuitively clear to him no doubt from his own exposure to parts of the Muslim World and to his early personal friendships with young Muslims.
First, Muslims, who comprise between one-fifth and one-quarter of the world's population, are a diverse lot. Speaking politically or socially of the "Muslim World" as a bloc would be a mistake, as much as speaking of left-handed persons in the world as a bloc. Second, their population is rising rapidly, close to 2 per cent a year worldwide. In the last century the world's Muslim population rose from 150 million to over 1.2 billion.
Most important, President Obama will be addressing a population with a huge "youth bulge": In the Middle East, for example, 60 per cent of the population is below 25 years. Research indicates that some 60 of the 67 countries with a youth bulge are embroiled in internal conflicts today. In 62 countries of the world, two-thirds of the population is below 30. Countries like Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan are included in this group. Over half of the population of Iran is below 30 years.
Muslim youth were excited by Obama's election and it is this group that he should address when he speaks from Cairo on June 4, for they, not the aging autocrats or obscurantist clerics, will control the future of the Muslim World. And they are increasingly connected with the world at large through the internet, radio, and television.
What is the message they wish to hear?
• The US will match its deeds to its words. It will no longer talk of democracy while supporting and propping up autocrats in the Muslim World;
• It will help open up societies, using moral suasion, new technologies, and by aligning itself with the forces of moderation and progress;
• It will help create jobs by investing in the infrastructure of the Muslim World, while laying the foundation for the future with aid for education rather than military hardware; and
• It understands the angst and the anger of the youth of the Muslim World and supports them in their quest to stay true to their Muslim roots while reaching for the fruits of democracy and progress that youth around the globe seek.
If President Obama connects with Muslim youth this week he will be investing in the future by drawing them away from the blandishments of the radical Mullahs. If he bends his message to maintaining ties with the antiquated feudal and dynastic leaders of the Muslim World, the opportunity will be lost to build a better world for all of us.
Shuja Nawaz, from Pakistan, is Director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council of the United States in Washington DC. He is the author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within (Oxford 2008) and FATA: A Most Dangerous Place (CSIS 2009). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org