In 1999, I was in the midst of launching Interfaith Youth Core, the organization I lead today. One day I received an email from a young man in Jordan named Anas. He wrote, "I found your website, and I want to start an interfaith youth project."
We quickly fell into a rhythm, where I would send him our latest curriculum on interfaith service projects and he would send me photos of the projects he ran, which we would post on our website. Anas and I finally met in person when I traveled to Jordan five years later. I was there on other business and decided to look him up in my spare time, fully expecting that he had gone onto other things.
He both surprised and inspired me. He brought the latest photos on interfaith projects he was leading across the Arab regions and around the Mediterranean, and a copy of the book he had written; he told me about his plans to run for parliament.
I asked him, "Tell me how you got here." And he replied very simply, "You emailed me back."
The biggest thing Anas taught me was not the power of the Internet to connect a globalized world (though this is true) or the bridges that are built through interfaith action (though this is also true). Anas taught me that the fate of the 21st century was going to be decided not just by government-to-government relations, but by civic leader-to-civic leader relations in a global context.
President Obama affirmed this in his May speech addressing the Middle East and North Africa, saying: "The greatest untapped resource in the Middle East and North Africa is the talent of its people."
This is a shift from what political analysts saw when they assessed the region as recently as last year. Opening a newspaper or a foreign policy journal, I would read about political dictatorships, sectarian civil societies, stagnant economies, the "youth bulge," and the recruiting talents of pervasive extremist groups. It seemed as though it was effectively a black hole of conflict.
But the tone has changed now. What people didn't count on then, and what Obama has pointed out, was that the youth bulge was not simply a passive recipient of economic and political forces, but instead a cadre of agents who realized they could transform the status quo. From here on out, we can and should look at the region through that lens.
I recently returned from a summit in Washington, D.C., of Partners for a New Beginning (PNB), a collection of public-private partnerships committed to broadening and deepening engagement between the U.S. and Muslim communities abroad. PNB's global actors gathered to share commitments, strategize on key issues, and form new partnerships. From Turkey to Morocco and Israel/Palestine to Egypt, civil society leaders and entrepreneurs are working together across lines of country and continent to build new economies, stronger civil societies, and better futures.
Of course, this moment has come at a price. Innocent lives have been lost; citizens and journalists tortured; families torn apart. It's impossible to tell what will happen in the days ahead. What we do know is that for communities to thrive, we will always need more jobs, better schools, fresh ideas, and robust cooperation. There are entrepreneurs across the region working to make this happen, and it's our responsibility to partner with them to support their work -- always remembering humbly that freedom isn't America's gift to the world, it's God's gift to humankind; and that entrepreneurship isn't an American invention, but it's something we can be a great partner on.
Eboo Patel is founder of the Interfaith Youth Core and author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation.