At Summit on Entrepreneurship, Obama's Approach to Muslim World on Display

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Entrepreneurs from more than 50 mostly Muslim-majority countries are gathering at the summit on entrepreneurship in Washington to learn more about how individual action can expand opportunity in the Muslim world and beyond.

Like George W. Bush, Barack Obama has a vision for transforming the Middle East and the wider Muslim world.

But whereas Mr. Bush emphasized change through democratization, Mr. Obama has tended to eschew the political in favor of individual endeavors in the economic and social arenas.

One result is the "summit on entrepreneurship" that Obama is hosting in Washington this week. Entrepreneurs from more than 50 mostly Muslim-majority countries are gathering Monday and Tuesday to share and learn more about how individual action can expand opportunity and improve living conditions in their nations.

Speaking to the gathering Monday, Obama said the summit was motivated by "a quest for new partnerships, not simply between government, but between people." And he gave two reasons for the focus on entrepreneurship: first, "because you told us this was an area where we could learn from each other"; and second, "because throughout history, the market has been the most powerful force... for opportunity."

Placing particular emphasis on "social entrepreneurship," Obama said he learned as a community organizer in Chicago that "real change comes from the bottom up." In that vein, he paid special tribute to summit participants ranging from a West Bank university student planning recreation centers for Palestinian youths to an Afghan woman risking personal danger to promote universal education for Afghan girls.

Unlike the president's recent nuclear-security summit, this conference involves no country leaders or officials, but instead features private-business and social-organization representatives. It's the result of a pledge Obama made last June in a speech in Cairo to enhance US involvement with young and rising entrepreneurs in Muslim-majority countries.

"We made a very conscious choice to have this be focused on individuals, on people-to-people exchanges, if you will, rather than simply just having governments represented at the summit," says Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. At the same time, he adds, "We wanted to have a combination of important business leaders, but also smaller and medium-sized entrepreneurs, younger people just getting started."

After years of a relationship with Muslim countries driven by terrorism and focused on political change, the Obama approach makes sense, some regional experts say.

"The attempt here is to have more of a dialogue with the Muslim world that focuses on something other than terrorism and that does more on the people-to-people level, the market side and the economic side of the equation," says Isobel Coleman, director of the Council on Foreign Relations' women and foreign policy-program in New York. …