Speech Given By
Frank F Islam
Aligarh Muslim University
Answering John F. Kennedy’s Call:
The Critical Need for Civic Engagement in the 21st Century
Mr. Vice Chancellor, esteemed members of the Faculty, Students and staff, Ladies and Gentlemen:
Thank you for that kind introduction. Thank you for your hospitality and warm welcome
I would like to express my deep gratitude to the Vice Chancellor for his leadership and for his sacrifice and his service. Let us give him a big round of applause.
I have said it before. But I must say it again. It is good to be back at AMU. I am proud to be standing here, and looking at you today I never felt so blessed. A lot of things bring us together as we are linked by common goals, common cause, and common commitment and bonded by shared history, shared heritage, and shared background. Let me take one step further, as I look around, I see me in you. I see the future of India. I see the future of the world. You are promise of India and the world.
This is the place where my journey began. AMU provided me with the basic building blocks to become a successful entrepreneur, to assume serious responsibilities, and most importantly, to become a passionate leader. AMU shaped my story and determined my destiny. I would not be the person I am if it were not for Aligarh education. What is best in me, I owe it to AMU.
It is my pleasure and privilege to be with all of you here today in Kennedy Hall – a hall named after John F. Kennedy – to deliver this speech which I have titled: Answering John F. Kennedy’s Call: The Critical Need for Civic Engagement in the 21st Century.
I can think of no more appropriate place or time – so close to India’s Republic Day and shortly after the United Sates has inaugurated a new President – to discuss this topic.
It struck me as I was preparing these remarks that John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, has been dead for more than one half a century. He was struck dead by an assassin’s bullet on November 22, 1963. This year we will celebrate his 100th birthday anniversary. All of us should draw inspiration from the enduring ideals often ascribed to him- Courage, Freedom, Justice, Service, and Gratitude.
My role model is President Kennedy. Not because he was a politician but because he was a man of peace who called upon us all to get involved and to make a positive difference in our country and around the world. He inspired all of us about public service. He established the platform and parameters for others to follow in his footsteps and to be pathfinders and difference-makers.
President Kennedy’s Call
Let me begin, however, with a quote from President Kennedy.
When he was inaugurated on January 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
Let me repeat that, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
President Kennedy was calling upon the American citizens to be stakeholders in making the United States and the world a better place. President Kennedy’s request was a clarion call in the 20th century for that nation and democracy. It is an even more essential request today in the 21st century for the United States and I believe for India as well.
That is true because the United States and India are the two largest democracies in the world. The United States was established as a democratic republic nearly two centuries and one-half ago. For the past 100 years or so, it has been the standard bearer for democracy globally.
By contrast, the Indian democratic republic is less than 70 years old. For many years, India has looked to the United States for its examples of exemplary democratic behavior.
Because of changing circumstances in the U.S. and around the world, I believe we are at a pivot point. India has the chance to become a leader and example setter and to become as President Obama labeled it an “indispensable” partner with the United States on the global stage to demonstrate the full potential of democracies and democratic values.
India’s most recent national election with its 70%+ participation – a higher rate than has ever been achieved in the United States, I might add– showed that India is poised to assume that leadership mantle. The next step required for India to achieve that status must come through the collective participation and contributions of concerned citizens such as those of you in this audience.
Civic Engagement Defined
In a phrase, civic engagement will provide the basis for making India a leader for democracy on the world stage. The best definition of civic engagement that I have seen comes from a collection of readings titled Civic Responsibility and Higher Education.
That definition states:
Civic engagement means working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference. It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and non-political processes.
In my opinion, civic engagement takes five primary forms: Individual Engagement, Organizational Engagement, Political Engagement, Community Engagement, and Social Engagement.
I will define each of those forms in a moment. Before doing so, let me explain why the need for civic engagement is so critical and the opportunity for India to be a leader in this area is so great.
The Need for Civic Engagement
The reason that the need for civic engagement is critical is that the support for and approval of democratic political systems among youth in democracies around the world is in dramatic decline.
That’s what a researcher from Harvard and a researcher from the University of Melbourne report in an article in the January edition of the Journal of Democracy. Those researchers found that the attitudes among millennials in “stable liberal democracies” such as the United States, Great Britain, Sweden, Australia and New Zealand were becoming increasingly negative.
The researcher’s specific findings regarding the United States include the following:
- More than a quarter of U.S. millennials dismiss the importance of free elections to a democracy.
- Only around a third of millennials see civil rights as “absolutely essential” in a democracy.
- 75% of the people born in the 1930’s felt it was “essential to live in a democracy.” By the 1990’s only slightly over 25% of those born in that time period felt the same way.
As Bob Dylan would put it, “the times they are a changing”. And, in terms of support for democracy in many places they are not changing for the better. These findings will lead to disengagement from the democratic process – or as the researchers termed it a deconsolidation of or disconnect from democracy.
The researchers did not look at India. But, I believe in my motherland, that the opposite could be true. Democracy is still in its infancy here.
While there have been bad patches and trouble spots over the years, I believe that solid progress has been made and that India is now positioned for making a stronger connection as a democratic system. That is why I firmly believe that if you as concerned citizens get more engaged in shaping the course and direction of this country that India can become a shining beacon to cast the light of its democracy world-wide.
The Forms of Civic Engagement
That brings me back to the five forms of civic engagement. As I mentioned, they are individual, organizational, political, community, and social.
Let me define each of those forms briefly
- Individual Engagement is being the best one can be and personally responsible for one’s actions
- Organizational Engagement is contributing to the success of the groups to which one belongs such as the place where one works, the place where one worships, and the places of affiliation.
- Political Engagement is participating in those processes that shape the structure and nature of government
- Community Engagement is collaborating to make the locale and the world in which we live a better place
- Social Engagement is advocating for justice and equality of treatment and opportunity for all
Frank Islam and Civic Engagement
Those definitions may be a little abstract. I will add some meat to the bones by sharing a little about my own civic engagement.
- My individual engagement began right here at AMU where I got the quality education that helped me become the best that I can be. I continued that education and got two degrees at the University of Colorado in the United States where I went to pursue the American dream. With that preparation, aiming high, hard work, and assistance from others I was able to achieve that dream
- My organizational engagement centered on starting my own information technology business. I did that after learning the profession at two other firms. With the help of key managers and employees, in the brief span of ten years, we built the Company to over 3,000 employees and with a revenue $300 million before selling it to Ross Perot in 2007. My story can only happen in America. I am beneficiary of America’s kindness and generosity. Let me point out: success in business is a team sport. Let me also add: It is America’s inclusiveness and openness that provided me the ladders of opportunity to succeed. These are the values and qualities of America that all of us can proudly and truly embrace. Let me also say that diverse and inclusive society are more creative and innovative. I firmly believe that inclusive and diverse society is a strength as it enriches a nation and it ensures all people have an equal chance to succeed.
- My political engagement began as soon as I was old enough to vote. For many years, my involvement in the political arena was simply voting in elections. As my business grew and after I sold it, I got much more involved politically contributing to campaigns at the local, state, and federal levels, serving on finance committees for candidates, and developing policy papers in my areas of expertise such as small business, education, and economic development.
- My community engagement was driven in response to another call from John F. Kennedy. President Kennedy said, “To whom much is given, much is required.” I am reminded and guided by these words of President Kennedy every day.
I understand this requirement and since selling my business have made a major commitment to community and social involvement. My community involvement is concentrated primarily on higher education. I have supported scholarships and initiatives in the United States and in India. I am here this week for the dedication of the new Management Complex that has been named in our honor here at AMU.
In addition to our support of education, my wife Debbie and I are passionate about culture and the arts. I serve on the board of the trustees at the Kennedy Center for performing arts in Washington, D.C. The Center is recognized world wide for its programming and community bridge-building.
As a part of my community engagement, I firmly believe in Interfaith
Dialogue as it brings people together and it increases religious or cultural
Unity. All of us from different backgrounds and different faiths need to work together. We need to strengthen the bonds that binds us as one family. Our bonds are stronger than the differences that too often drive us apart. I strongly believe that Interfaith Dialogue allows us to build bridges, to break down the barriers, and to promote dialogue of understanding with various faiths and to promote a shared sense of community. India has long succeeded because it is diverse, inclusive, and tolerant. Indians of all faiths and background need to come together to reject hate and bigotry in all forms. You need to step up, speak up, and speak out by rejecting the voices that seek to divide you or limit civil rights, human rights, women’s rights, and minority rights. You must continue to fight for a fairer, stronger, inclusive, and just India with inclusive economic growth. You are stronger together. And, together you can help shape a better future. I ask all of you to remember fundamental acceptance of equality of other religions by not looking to the heavens and to the Gods whom we worship but by looking at the earth and the people and family that we are.
- My social engagement takes a number of forms. I have written two books – Renewing the American Dream: A Citizen’s Guide for Restoring Our Competitive Advantage; and, Working the Pivot Points: To Make America Work Again. Both books are focused on reducing inequality and strengthening the social fabric of the United States.
When I began my education and started my business, I didn’t really think about them as a form of civic engagement. In looking back now, I understand that they definitely were and that we are all here on this earth for a higher purpose.
Sir Syed understood this completely. From the founding of Aligarh, Sir Syed saw Aligarh as a “mighty tree with branches”. He forecast that “this College may expand into a University, whose sons and daughters shall go forth throughout the length and breadth of the land to preach the gospel of free inquiry of large hearted toleration and pure morality.”
Civic Engagement within the Indian Context
As I look at you in this audience today, I reflect on all that I learned at AMU and how fortunate that I was and how fortunate that you are to be associated with this institution which develops not only the mind but also the spirit and the soul. They are the prerequisites for meaningful civic engagement
In retrospect, I also recognize the gift of being from and in India and the struggles that were endured to make this great country a democratic republic. As you all know, Mahatma Gandhi made our citizenship possible.
I don’t know if Gandhi ever used the term civic engagement. I do know that without him there would be no Republic Day for India and without his influence and impact on others the United States and the world would be a far different place.
As you know, Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings and his approach to civic engagement are centered around “peace”, “love” and “non-violence.” In 2017, radical extremists are countering Mahatma Gandhi and his teaching and his preachings with acts of “war,” hate”, and “violence.” If they are successful Republic Day in India and in places around the world that celebrate democracy will become a distant memory.
In the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi and his followers who came before us, I believe that you and I along with other who understand the values of a free society can prevent that apocalyptic vision.
This is our responsibility. It is my responsibility. It is your responsibility.
A Request: Become a 21st Century Citizen
With that in mind, as I near the conclusion of my speech I have one request to make of each and all of you. It is please get civically engaged and do so by becoming a 21st century citizen.
This is an important request because a nation is no better than its citizens.
In fact the citizens are the nation –whether it’s a farmer, a factory worker, an entrepreneur, a teacher, or a politician. We are all citizens and how we assemble ourselves and what we accomplish defines the fabric, psyche and soul of the country.
President Kennedy said, “In a democracy, every citizen regardless of his interest in politics, holds office; every one of us is in a position of responsibility; and in the final analysis, the kind of government we get depends on how we fulfill those responsibilities:”
I ask you to fulfill those responsibilities by being a 21st century citizen who plays in the “3-I” league:
- Be Informed – do your homework, get all the facts
- Be Independent – exercise your personal judgment
- Be Involved – get engaged pro-actively on the issues that matter most to you
Based upon your assessment, determine exactly where and how you want to be engaged. I have described where and how I have been engaged not as an example for you to follow but as a description of Frank Islam’s approach to civic engagement.
Frank Islam’s approach is Frank Islam’s approach. You must carve out your own path and methods for civic engagement. The important thing is that you get engaged. You need to play your part to the fullest to help people see across the divides and build a more civil and functional society.
The one piece of advice that I would give you is to not be timid in making your choices for civic engagement. Have the courage to be a difference maker. Be resilient. If anyone can do it, you can because AMU is filled with people who want to make a meaningful difference and who want to make the world a better place.
In closing, let me leave you with two thoughts: one from another Kennedy – Robert F. Kennedy, President Kennedy’s younger brother, and the other from me.
Robert F Kennedy said, “Some men see things as they are and ask why. I dream things that never were and ask why not.”
Frank Islam says, “Set no limits. If you can conceive it, and you can believe it, you can achieve it.”
In this 21st century, when democracies around the world are being so tempest torn, there is a critical need for constructive citizen engagement that changes the current trajectory. I believe because of who you are as Aligarians – regardless of your educational discipline – that you have the technical expertise and the moral fortitude to be leaders in changing that trajectory.
Therefore, I call upon you to be difference-makers for democracy. The need is critical. The stage is ours. The time is now. The future is in your hands.
Before I leave the stage, let me offer some advice to young people in the audience as you take the next step in your life
- Be a lifelong learner
- Be the best you can be
- Get a good education
- Exploit your fullest potentials
- Stay true to you
- Never give up
- Create your own legacy
- Make it your own journey
- Do well but do also Good.
- No hope should be high enough for you to achieve and no dream should be big enough for you to achieve. You have the capacity to make impossible as possible
- Be the change that you would like to see happen
- Do not forget your heritage and roots. Dedicate your selves to draw upon the values, ingenuity, decency, dignity, and spirit that has been the greatness of this institution.
- Be the leader for the next generations
- Never be frightened of the future but you need to build the future
- Invest in others by sharing and giving back
- When you are successful provide ladders of opportunity for others to succeed
- Do what you can to ensure AMU remains a beacon of hope, aspirations, and dream.
- Extend your hand, help, hope, and your heart to those who are voiceless, to those who are venerable, to those who are less fortunate, to those who are poor and to those who are socially and economically disadvantaged. Let us empower them with education and economic mobility. Let us help them through their darkest moments of lives. When they succeed. All of us succeed. India succeed.
Let me also add: all of us will do well to remember that no religion, no race, no culture and no nation has a monopoly on wisdom or on human dignity. Wisdom belongs to all. But you need to believe in yourself and you need to work hard, aim high, get the right education and then you can achieve your dream.
Let us commit ourselves to ensure Sir Syed’s cause will endure and his dream shall never die. Let us keep the hope alive. Let us keep his memory alive. Let us keep the light burning. Let us carry the torch handed over to us by Sir Syed Khan.
Thanks for your attention. Good luck and god speed in your civic engagement efforts. Rest assured that I will be your ally in this quest to make democracy stronger and India and the world a better place.
God bless you all