Just four days before President Barack Obama's inauguration in Washington, D.C., on January 20th, an international group of young Muslim activists gathered in Doha, Qatar, to launch what they described as a global Muslim movement for peace, justice and the common good.
Participants ended their two-day meeting with a document they called "An Open Letter to the World Leaders of Today from the Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow." A series of policy recommendations, the document was addressed to both Muslim and non-Muslim leaders around the world.
Americans were among more than 300 young Muslim activists from 76 countries who attended the 2009 Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow Conference. Organizers of the Doha meeting, a nonprofit consortium of Muslim and interfaith groups, promoted it as a catalyst for social change in the Islamic world and as a signal that Muslims - like non-Muslims - support political pluralism, freedom, social justice and combating extremism.
Young Muslim-Americans hope for change
Zeba Khan is a young Muslim-American who went to Doha. During the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, Khan helped set up a group called Muslim-Americans for Obama. She says that from Obama's election victory and from the Doha conference, she has gained new hope that relations between the United States and the world's Muslims will improve.
"I saw change in the United States with his overwhelming win, and people in America, regardless of their faith, reject the notion of fear-mongering. Then to go to Doha and see Muslims of all backgrounds and from all countries, whether they are Muslim countries or non-Muslim countries, and to have a common identity and a belief that: Yes, we can change the situation. The dynamic does not have to be negative.
"We can build a positive relationship among ourselves and with people of other backgrounds and faiths. And that, to me, is the kind of change that I have not seen before, and it was inspiring just as much as the change that was happening in the U.S."
Countering violent extremism
Discussions at the conference focused on ways to counter violent extremism. Seventy-five percent of the young Muslims at Doha agreed in a conference survey that Muslims and non-Muslims must share responsibility for combating extremism, noting that both extremist interpretations of Islam and the foreign policies of western governments have contributed to the radicalization of Muslim youth.
Eighty-six percent of participants agreed that while hundreds of Islamic religious leaders condemned the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States, they were not heard clearly because Islam has no central religious authority like the Vatican.
The conference also discussed policy recommendations to provide Muslim youth with educational and employment opportunities that would help deter violent extremism.
Haroon Moghul is a doctoral candidate at Columbia University in New York, where he is studying the intellectual history of Islam in colonial Asia. He says the Doha conference convinced him young Muslims can lead the change in their respective societies and help bridge the gap between the U.S. and the Muslim world.
"There was a feeling that the relationship between the Muslim world and the U.S. is perhaps the most important relationship, in terms of political and cultural relations, and that there is now a new president and hopefully there is a possibility for a change and we should capitalize on that," he says. "I think more broadly, it is about saying that many of the problems we face do connect to how countries deal with each other."
Moghul says the young Muslims gathered in Doha expressed hope for a more democratic Muslim world. And they are counting on President Obama to abandon what they called the gunboat diplomacy of the previous U.S. administration and find a new way forward with the Muslim world based on mutual interest and respect.
Human rights, diplomacy top young Muslims' agenda
In their open letter, published online at Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow's Web site and in several major international newspapers, the young Muslims at the Doha conference urged world leaders to promote development and human rights rather than war. The letter urges Obama and other world leaders to prioritize youth and minority development, to respect mutually held values and to pursue honest dialogue and diplomacy to resolve conflicts.
Sayyeda Mirza-Jafri, another young Muslim-American at the Doha meeting, is already working to build new bridges between Islam and the west. She has managed a collaborative philanthropic project that aims to enhance understanding of Islam and Muslims in the United States using multimedia communications and grass-roots educational events. She says she welcomes President Obama's message pledging to find a better way forward with the Muslim world.
"I think it is a welcome, wonderful, embracing message, and I think Muslims from around the world - despite their socioeconomic differences and geographic variation - welcome this. They see it as a positive sign. They are waiting to see how the words match the action. And there is good will, there is openness, there is engagement and a very positive, warm feeling [in response] to his wonderful speech."
The Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow program was established in the United States shortly after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The nonprofit group held its first major international conference in New York City in 2004, when some 125 young Muslim leaders convened to discuss ways of improving the image of Islam in the U.S.
The group expanded its work to Western Europe, and in 2006 it held its second conference in Denmark on the challenges of Muslim integration into Western society.