The US should pursue science diplomacy with Muslim-majority
countries, which would complement efforts to promote human rights.
In today's world, America's soft power is commonly thought to
reside in the global popularity of Hollywood movies, Coca-Cola,
McDonald's, and Starbucks. But the facts tell a different story.
In a recent poll involving 43 countries, 79 percent of those
surveyed said that what they most admire about the United States is
its leadership in science and technology. The artifacts of the
American entertainment industry came in a distant second. What I, as
a young foreign student in the 1970s, found most dynamic, exciting,
and impressive about the US is what much of the world continues to
value most about America today: its open intellectual culture, its
great universities, its capacity for discovery and innovation.
By harnessing the soft power of science in the service of
diplomacy, America can demonstrate its desire to bring the best of
its culture and heritage to bear on building better and broader
relations with the Muslim world and beyond.
I felt the full force of this soft power when I came to the US in
1969 to begin graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania. I
discovered how science is truly a universal language, one that
forges new connections among individuals and opens the mind to ideas
that go far beyond the classroom. My education in America instilled
in me greater appreciation for the value of scholarly discourse and
the use of the scientific method in dealing with complex issues. It
sowed, then nurtured, new seeds of political and cultural tolerance.
But perhaps most significant was that I came to appreciate the
extent to which science embodies the core values of what the
American Founders called "the rights of man" as set forth in the US
Constitution: freedom of thought and speech, which are essential to
creative advancement in the sciences; and the commitment to equality
of opportunity, because scientific achievement is blind to
ethnicity, race, or cultural background.
In January, appointed by President Obama as America's first
science envoy to the Middle East, I embarked on a diplomatic tour
that took me to Egypt, Turkey, and Qatar. I met with officials from
all levels of government and the educational system in these
countries, as well as with economists, industrialists, writers,
publishers, and media representatives. What I learned during these
visits was cause for some alarm, but also for considerable optimism.
The alarming aspect comes from the fact that education in many
Muslim-majority countries now seriously lags behind international
standards. Deficiencies in education, together with widespread
economic hardship and the lack of job opportunities for young
people, are sources of frustration and despair in many Muslim
societies. They are rooted largely in poor governance and growing
corruption, compounded by overpopulation and by movement away from
the enlightened education I was fortunate enough to enjoy in Egypt
in the 1960s.
Yet there are many positive signs as well. Muslim-majority
countries such as Malaysia, Turkey, and Qatar are making significant
strides in education and in technical and economic development.
Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Morocco, and Indonesia are examples of
countries still rich with youthful talents. Nor is this transfer of
wealth and learning flowing exclusively from the West to the East.
Today there are many Muslims in the West who have excelled in all
fields of endeavor, from science, technology, and business to arts
and the media. …