We work at the grassroots level throughout the Muslim World to counter violent extremism before it takes hold, to promote tolerance and understanding, and to foster better relations with the United States.
Check out our story on RYOT this week.
By Benjamin Orbach, America’s Unofficial Ambassadors
Today is International Volunteer Day, a day recognized for the last 28 years by the United Nations to celebrate the contributions of volunteers all over the world. More than 64 million Americans volunteered last year! Some served Thanksgiving meals at soup kitchens, while others taught English to children in Moroccan villages. Obviously, fewer Americans taught the past tense over a tangine full of couscous than served Thanksgiving turkey – but many more could, and should.
We live in an era of new-found respect for “soft power,” initiatives — so why do so few of the one million Americans who volunteer overseas decide to serve in the Muslim World? There aren’t definitive statistics on the subject, but looking at a comparable field, the Institute for International Education reports that only 2.6 percent of the 283,332 American students who studied abroad in 2012 did so in Muslim-majority countries (more than 25 percent of them in Turkey). Out of 7,209 current Peace Corps Volunteers and trainees, there are just 1244 placements in Muslim-majority countries.
From concerns involving US national security to questions related to civil liberties, America’s relationship with the Muslim World is at the forefront of our news and discourse, mostly in a negative light. Yet, relatively few Americans take that next step in investing themselves in being part of an improved relationship with the Muslim World and gaining a better understanding for the challenges we face together.
As described on the International Volunteer Day website, today we “pay special tribute to the contribution of youth volunteers in global peace and sustainable human development.” So, in the spirit of seeing more Americans contribute to global peace and human development, I offer these five reasons why Americans should consider volunteering in the Muslim World:
Nothing against volunteering in Costa Rica or Italy, but serving in the Muslim World is citizen diplomacy where it counts the most. According to Pew Surveys, 14 percent of the people in Jordan have a favorable impression of America; that number is 21 percent in Turkey. Volunteering in a place like Turkey or Jordan offers the chance to play an active role in dispelling the stereotypes formed by our entertainment industry and disagreements over our foreign policies. You might be the first American who people meet or get to know, and your deeds will be remembered long after you go home.
Twenty-four out of the 47 countries that Freedom House’s classifies as “not free” in 2013 are Muslim-majority countries; only three of the 90 “free” countries are MMCs (Indonesia, Senegal, and Sierra Leone). Only 44 percent of women over the age of 15 can read and write in Morocco; 24 percent in Sierra Leone; and 53 percent in Bangladesh. There are no accurate numbers for the staggering unemployment issues in many of these countries, but the population in the Middle East and North Africa will have grown from 311 million in 2000 to 445 million by 2020. This handful of indicators speaks to the human development challenges that communities across the Muslim World face and that generate economic downturns, instability, and other negative contagions that boil over into shared despair. The more efforts brought to bear to address these problems, the better.