Each year, the Global Ties Network recognizes an individual who furthers the cause of international understanding and global engagement with the Citizen Diplomat Award at the National Meeting. This year, the award went to Mohamed Amin Ahmed, founder of Average Mohamed, a nonprofit that uses popular culture and cartoons to counter violent extremism. We chatted with Mohamed on his reaction to receiving the award and why he believes in the power of citizen diplomacy as a tool for counterterrorism.
Where are you from and how did you get involved with exchanges and citizen diplomacy?
I came to the U.S. 23 years ago and have lived in beautiful Minnesota for 20 years. Global Minnesota (a Global Ties U.S. Community-Based Member) heard about Average Mohamed and invited us to speak to their IVLP participants. We felt that this was a great opportunity to share our ideas.
Where did the idea for Average Mohamed come from?
There was no counter narrative against extremism within our community in Minnesota. Some of the kids joined Al Shabaab, an Al-Qaeda group. That was an eye opener. Then came ISIS and they, too, recruited from Minnesota.
We decided to talk to kids ages 8-16 and teach them American values [as a way] to stop recruitment efforts. We wanted to engage in an ideological battle against extremism.
What were some of the challenges you faced in launching the project?
The first challenge was deciding which platform to use. We came upon cartoons. Kids grow up with many cartoon shows, so they are not only popular, but effective because they are easy to relate to.
Scaling up has been our biggest challenge. This depends entirely on resources and access to institutions and governments. We have a hard time raising the resources to create more messages and use new platforms to reach more young people not only on social media, but through physical outreach at schools, mosques, and Islamic schools.
What was your reaction when you found out that you were receiving the Citizen Diplomat Award?
Humbled and elated. Knowing that previous recipients include Maya Angelou, Senator William J. Fulbright, and John Richardson (former Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs)—people I hail as change makers—is a bit too much to take in. The first question I asked was, “Do you have the right Mohamed?”
In your view, what makes citizen diplomacy so important in today’s world?
Every citizen has a responsibility to this country. Being a citizen diplomat is an affirmation of our American ideals and values to the world. I am grateful to Global Ties U.S., Global Minnesota, and the U.S. Department of State for giving citizens the opportunity to do our country’s work, and more importantly, to make sure the next generation inherits the power of people.
Interview with Erica McNamara, Program Manager, Communications & Development, Global Ties U.S.
Photos by A.E. Landes Photography