Listen to the interview (mp3)
Sally Steenland talks with Zeenat Rahman, special adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for Global Youth Issues at the U.S. Department of State, about young Muslim leaders standing against intolerance, the secretary’s work with youth throughout the Middle East, and why building engaging partnerships in this young region is not only strategic but necessary for strengthening our own social fabric and the message of empowerment worldwide.
Sally Steenland: Let’s get right to it. There has been a lot of news coverage about the uprisings and unrest in the Middle East in response to a hate-filled, anti-Muslim video that was produced in California. What’s important for us to know that’s either not being covered in the news or should receive more attention?
Zeenat Rahman: One of the most salient images that stuck in my mind from the last couple of weeks was the counterprotest that many Libyan citizens held right after Ambassador Stevens was murdered. They were saying, “This is not in our name.” What I’ve heard over and over from young people across the Middle East is, “This doesn’t represent us.”
We saw it last weekend with the protests by Libyan people standing up for what they believe in. I did a web chat with colleagues from the State Department and our alumni in the region last week, and we got notes from those who tuned in saying, “Just so you know, I’m doing my small part and participating in these counterprotests. I hope they help.”
So I think the story is that what we saw on our TV screens the last couple weeks doesn’t represent the majority of people. We have a responsibility as policymakers, media people, and just regular people to know what the rest of the story is.
SS: Who sent you the emails and notes of condolence? Can you give us a sense of who some of the folks were who were getting in touch with you?
ZR: A lot of dynamic young people. What we’ve done through my office and through our post is set up youth councils all over the world. The youth councils are regular convening spaces where the ambassador will bring together young people to talk about issues of concern and youth programs, including how they can be better. We’ve heard from young people who’ve been in our exchange programs or come to the United States for anywhere from four months to a year. Some have participated in their own social programs. We aim to get a variety of young people at our youth councils. We’re hearing directly from them saying “This is not us,” and “We’re sorry.”
SS: We know that in a lot of these countries the median age is younger than it is in Western Europe or the United States, so it’s important to focus on youth. Some critics are saying we should pull out of these countries and decrease our engagement. But it sounds like your office is working with young people in very positive and constructive ways. Can you talk about the youth councils and other things you’re doing and why they’re important?
ZR: I’ll start by paraphrasing Secretary Clinton from a speech she gave in Tunisia in February, where she said that the wants and needs of young people have been marginalized for too long, and if we don’t address those needs, we will all pay the price of that neglect.
It’s not a reactive measure. She believes in the ideas, talents, energy, and innovation that come from young people. As she travels the world, she often does events with just young people—it’s a regular part of her schedule. When I asked her why she cares about this, she said that she sees that young people around the world want their voices to be heard; they want meaningful opportunities to make change.
The task of my office is to coordinate all of the great programs throughout the State Department and our embassies and make sure that we’re addressing the needs and concerns of young people. Some of that includes engagement through the youth councils. Some of it is making youth a priority in our bilateral and multilateral engagement and discussion.
For example, I had a meeting with our counterparts in Indonesia last week, and youth was one of the key subject matters—both what we can do together and how we are elevating youth as a priority across all of our subject areas. An important piece of this is that you can’t have a conversation about youth engagement without talking about advancing economic opportunity. I’ve spent a lot of time in these first few months getting the lay of the land vis-à-vis the private sector, NGOs, and multinationals who care about increasing opportunities for young people around the world.
Next week we’re launching the Youth Livelihoods Alliance. It’s a public-private partnership with the International Youth Foundation, as well as partners like Microsoft and Hilton and many others who are putting their money where their mouth is. We’ll talk about best practices and about the commitments we’re going to make to improve young people’s lives around the world.
SS: You say that Secretary Clinton sees this as an investment and so does the State Department and the administration. You’ve worked with youth in a variety of settings and in various jobs. In your job now, do you see similarities among youth? Maybe they dress differently or speak different languages. There are economic differences, of course. But in terms of what’s important to them, are there similarities?
ZR: When I think about what young people need beyond immediate issues of health, security, and food, they want their voices to be heard and to know they can make a difference. So this idea that giving young people agency—having them believe in their own talent is something I’ve seen uniformly, whether it’s in the civic space or in the interfaith space.
And now that my mandate is broader and I talk to young people around the world, I know it’s not as easy as simply saying “you can do it.” It’s showing them that they can because it comes from them. We’re not engaging young people because we don’t want them to be a risk. We’re engaging them because we believe in them. The secretary really believes this, which is why she’s worked tirelessly to elevate young people just as she’s worked with women and girls.
SS: In a global economy it makes sense to have private-sector partners. It’s in everyone’s self-interest, because business doesn’t stop at national borders. We’re all connected in many ways.
ZR: Absolutely, and if there’s one key theme we’re going to remember from Secretary Clinton’s first term as secretary of state, it’s partnership on all different levels. It’s partnership with other countries, with the private sector, with civil society. We want to hear from everybody in the countries we have relationships with because that’s what 21st century diplomacy looks like.
SS: I want to ask about interfaith efforts in response to the video and the unrest it spurred. What’s happening in America and globally that we should know about?
ZR: In the last couple of weeks I’ve seen a variety of interfaith responses. There was a press conference by Muslim community leaders and Coptic Christian leaders to denounce hate and the film that was vile, but also the violence that happened. It was a powerful visual symbol.
The other story we should be aware of are the young Muslim religious leaders who’ve stood up against the violence that occurred because of the film. YouTube was banned in Egypt and Libya in the last couple of weeks, so they started a website called HalalTube, where “halal” is the Arabic word for “permissible.” If you look on that website you’ll see statements from young religious leaders who have huge followings in the United States but also in places like Pakistan and Egypt.
They’ve put up video statements denouncing the violence and giving religious justification from the Islamic religious tradition as to why violence is never the answer. Even though the Prophet is beloved and even though an insult to the Prophet is a grave insult, the recourse is not violence. Those statements have been translated in English and Farsi, Urdu and Arabic. It adds another layer to the story that I think is a really critical one.
SS: More people will know that because of what you said here, so thanks very much for bringing that up. I have one last question. These have been challenging weeks, and your portfolio is literally global. When you get up in the morning and look at all the events happening around the world and all the meetings you have, what keeps you going?
ZR: It’s hearing inspirational stories. I think stories stay with us in a way that other things don’t. This morning in New York I had an early breakfast meeting about youth mentorships and economic opportunity. There was a young person on a panel who had grown up in Mombasa and was supported by one of these programs. She’d gone to go to high school and college, both unthinkable for her and her family in her circumstances.
Her closing words were that she hoped in several years she would be sitting in the audience and be part of the group of people working to improve and change young people’s lives around the world because she was helped by those programs. When you hear stories like that, you think, okay, I know why I have to do this. I feel lucky that I get the opportunity to do it and to work for this great secretary of state who is such a champion for young people all over the world.
SS: So coffee gives you a little adrenaline and inspiring words get you through your day.
SS: Thank you for your good work and for talking with us.
ZR: Sally, thank you so much, I appreciate it.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.