By Benjamin Orbach and M. Osman Siddique
WASHINGTON, DC: Much has been written about the achievements of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs since he passed away on October 5. A part of this story not yet covered, though, is how the idea of what Jobs represented for America will be missed across the Muslim World. From the alleys of Nablus to the streets of Lahore, the American people have long served as our country’s best representatives; the loss of Steve Jobs is the loss of one of America’s foremost Unofficial For years, people across the Muslim World have drawn a distinction between their disaffection for US policies and their affinity for the American people. For many ordinary people, certain policies offended sensibilities – such as torture at Abu Ghraib – or made lives more difficult –like supporting the Mubarak regime in Egypt for decades.
It is this strong rejection of the US policy that has led to widespread “disapproval” of America in polling across the Muslim World. According to the Pew Foundation, America’s favorability in Pakistan in 2003 (the start of the war with Iraq) was 13 percent; in Jordan it was just one percent.
Eight years later, it is 20 percent in Egypt and just 10 percent in Turkey. At the same time, the American people are regarded differently – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may twist the masses in knots, but Facebook makes people smile. Our political processes and entertainment sector have long been international standard bearers, from the “rags to riches” election of the son of an African immigrant to explosive Hollywood blockbusters.
Our businesses are known for innovation and our education systems for teaching critical thinking. A degree from an American university has long been coveted while an “unlocked” iPhone is the latest and greatest American export. Steve Jobs and the company he built were a Colossus of this kind of “soft power,” a symbol of the value of the “people-to-people” component of international relations.
If this past year’s events in the Middle East and North Africa have demonstrated anything, it is that America’s relations with countries such as Egypt and Pakistan will not be determined solely by the dialogue that occurs between the leaders of our respective governments. In this age of technological connectedness and the 24-hour news cycle, governments cannot survive indefinitely if they don’t enable their people to pursue their aspirations. At the community level, people form their opinions of their national leaders and of America, too, based not upon the promises of treaties but upon the merits of deeds and the style of conduct.
In this respect, Steve Jobs was an American force for inspiration, innovation, and empowerment. Millions of iPhones and iPads bought all over the world reflect American ingenuity but significantly, the product of that ingenuity carries the promise of new possibilities.
While few Americans will have the impact of a Steve Jobs on a global level, many of us can serve as unofficial ambassadors at the grassroots level across the Muslim World and be a part of representing that same promise of a better future.
For example, Matthew Stackowicz is an English teacher who volunteered for three weeks in Sana’a, Yemen, and taught refugees from Somalia to tell their stories through photography. Brittany Richardson is an outdoors trip leader who volunteered for seven months in villages surrounding Lunsar, Sierra Leone, training young girls to ride bicycles. And Jean Kurtenbach is a senior who helped build a home with a Tajik family in Khujand.
Matthew, Brittany, and Jean represented the best of America to local leaders and citizens and formed partnerships that created a positive impact from a human development perspective. They supported the freedom of speech, the empowerment of women, and access to a healthier environment. Their deeds spoke volumes, and they improved America’s international relations at the community level.
Importantly, the partnerships they formed were not one-way endeavors. They were ambassadors to communities in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, and they returned to their homes in Indiana, California, and Nebraska as representatives of the idea that our personal actions can take us beyond stereotypes. Sadly for us as Americans, a 2010 Pew Foundation poll showed that 38 percent of Americans hold an unfavorable view of Muslims.
America needs more unofficial ambassadors to the Muslim World, which is why we launched the America’s Unofficial Ambassadors initiative this past year at Creative Learning, a Washington D.C. not-for-profit. More than 61 million Americans volunteered last year, but less than 1 percent of that number volunteered overseas and only a fraction of that one percent volunteered in a Muslim-majority country. By the end of 2012, America’s Unofficial Ambassadors will encourage 1,000 Americans to commit to volunteer for a week to a year, and
we are building a community to offer them guidance and support.
Steve Jobs left an indelible mark as a great American, revered and respected worldwide for his contributions to our global community. His inventions catalyzed creativity, but one does not have to be a world-leading innovator to be a part of generating new possibilities – to build a house in Indonesia, to teach English in Jordan, and to help build peace as an unofficial. The people-to-people connections we form, the decency we can demonstrate in the process, and the impact of the partnerships we create are all invaluable, from a development perspective and from a mutual understanding perspective, too.
M. Osman Siddique was the first Muslim-American to serve as a US Ambassador and chairs the America’s Unofficial Ambassadors Diplomatic Council. Benjamin Orbach is the Director of the America’s Unofficial Ambassadors initiative at Creative Learning.