"The quest for human dignity is the most powerful underlying force in the world today."
This article was first published in the Daily Bruin by Jackie Barber, Bruin Contributor.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghanistan-born U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, spoke on campus Tuesday at “The Challenges of the Broader Middle East,” sponsored by the Burkle Center for International Relations.
Chancellor emeritus Norman Abrams introduced Khalilzad, calling him “a person of great distinction who has been working ... at the eye of the storm.”
Khalilzad discussed the region’s precarious future as moderate and extreme Muslims struggle with one another for power and influence. He indicated the importance of supporting moderate Muslims in order to fight against violent extremists.
“(Extremist Muslims) believe their claim to power will be accelerated by provoking a clash between Muslim society and the rest of the world,” Khalilzad said.
Improving the quality of life in the region can take away the appeal of extremism, he said.
He suggested this could be achieved through basic government services like health care and education, which could prevent people from feeling hopeless and turning to extremist religious factions. Such measures are mostly the responsibility of local leaders, but developed countries must help as well, he said.
Though the region wants to preserve its own culture, it also wants to develop in the contemporary world, he said.
“The people of the Middle East ... want their societies to be successful. They do not want to be like the West, but they want to enjoy the benefits ... of modernity,” Khalilzad said.
Previously U.S. ambassador to Iraq and before that to Afghanistan, both under President George W. Bush, Khalilzad said he has seen progress during his work in the Middle East, though much work remains to be done. He recalled Afghanistan’s first election.
“One of the most memorable days for me was October 9, 2004 – the date of the first election of an Afghan head of state in the country’s history,” he said. “Many Afghans told me that they were not the same after that event. Each was elevated by the experience of choosing their leader.”
Connecting with local leaders in Afghanistan has also helped Khalilzad in his effort to rebuild the stability the country enjoyed before the punishing nine-year Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that lasted until 1989, he said.
“I reached out to Sunni Arab political leaders,” he said. “Though many suffered from a kind of counterproductive political nostalgia ... many came to see through these discussions that the United States was not an occupier but a provider.”
Dave Lin, a UCLA alumnus, said he attended the speech because of Khalilzad’s degree of influence on affairs in an area as controversial as the Middle East.
Lin said he was particularly interested by the fact that Khalilzad was born in Afghanistan.
“I was always surprised that they would find someone (to be an ambassador) who’s sort of embroiled in that background,” Lin said. “I think that makes his perspective more interesting.”
Khalilzad partially attributed his present position to his experience as an exchange student in the U.S. during high school. Since then, he helped found the American University of Afghanistan and the American University of Iraq, he said. Establishing more university-to-university partnerships between the Middle East and developed countries is necessary to promote education and dialogue, he said.
He specifically addressed the students in the audience and said that, no matter what career students go into, they can and should use their skills and resources to help continue improving the situation in the Middle East.
“There is no limit to how you can make a difference in the security of our country as well as the lives of Afghans (and) Iraqis,” Khalilzad said.
Parsa Sobhani, a third-year economics student, said he thought the talk helped him gain a fresh perspective on Middle Eastern issues.
“He gave a lot of great insight about the Middle East and dispelled a lot of misconceptions about the whole religion: ... how oil plays into it, how religion plays into it,” Sobhani said.
Khalilzad touched on oil, calling it a difficult issue for Iraq. He said deciding how to share the trillions of dollars in resources is a problem for Iraqis, but ultimately what is important is using it to help the Iraqi people enjoy better lives.
“The quest for human dignity is the most powerful underlying force in the world today,” he said.
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