Jihad or Jobs?
An American entrepreneur bets that economic opportunity can help heal the Middle East.
(FORTUNE Small Business) -- We're upstairs at a dingy community center in Jabal Natheef, a hilltop slum in the Jordanian capital, Amman. The steep, winding streets house a mixed population of Palestinian refugees and Jordanians. Violent crime and drug addiction are commonplace. Many children are fatherless. Jabal Natheef resembles your typical American inner city, except that the bored, unemployed youngsters who hang out on street corners and in videogame parlors here make prime recruiting fodder for al Qaeda.
Which explains why a Jewish-American entrepreneur named Ronald Bruder is in Jabal Natheef, putting a veiled Jordanian woman through a mock job interview. Alaa Al Hagesa is 21 years old. She studies religion at a local university, and her only previous work experience was teaching small children to read the Quran.
"Why should we hire you?" Bruder asks. Al Hagesa sits straight up in her chair. "I am the perfect!" she replies in broken English, speaking through the thick black fabric that shrouds her face. "I have good grades in university. I can deliver!"
Bruder nods and scribbles a note. In a rare concession to the broiling summer heat, he has doffed his crisply tailored suit jacket and is conducting the interview in a monogrammed, blue Oxford-cloth shirt with contrasting white collar, polished silver cufflinks, and a tightly knotted yellow silk tie that ends precisely at his belt buckle. He stares down at his sheet of questions.
"What sort of compensation are you looking for?" Bruder asks in a high, slightly nasal voice whose vowels evoke his Brooklyn childhood.
Al Hagesa shrugs her shoulders. "How about two Jordanian dinars a month?" (That comes to about $2.83.) Al Hagesa shakes her head.
"How about one million dinars a month?" Bruder presses. The veiled girl giggles.
Finally, she allows that she'd like to be paid 250 to 300 dinars a month, about average for an entry-level office job in Jordan. Bruder nods in satisfaction. Then he asks Al Hagesa for feedback on the three-month course that she just completed. Sponsored by Bruder's Education for Employment Foundation (EFE), the course teaches young Jordanians the basic skills of getting and keeping a professional job: writing a CV, handling job interviews, presenting to an audience, and so forth.
Al Hagesa bubbles over. The course was great; she learned how to work with a team and how to carry herself with confidence. "I couldn't even answer questions before," she exclaims. "Now I can!"
"Anything we could have done better?" Bruder asks. Yes, she replies, adjusting her all-enveloping black robe. The lecture on proper professional dress was not relevant, she feels, to her personal situation.
It's all in a day's work for Bruder, a former real estate developer from New York City. Bruder, 60, made a tidy fortune reclaiming polluted industrial sites, or brownfields, all over the U.S. But for the past six years (ever since Sept. 11, 2001, to be precise) Bruder has devoted most of his time to a very different kind of reclamation: creating economic opportunities for educated young people in Muslim-majority countries.
There are plenty of philanthropic Jewish entrepreneurs in New York City, but only Bruder has created a foundation to help Arabs find work. He shrugs when I ask whether his charitable endeavors have raised any eyebrows in his family or in the American Jewish community.
"I have an elderly aunt who cherishes me but can't understand why I'm playing for the wrong team," he says drily.
Bruder's logic is simple: He believes that the rage driving some Muslims to become terrorists stems mostly from economic frustration. Each year universities across the Islamic world produce thousands of graduates who have little or no hope of landing a rewarding job. Every day, 24/7, this wired generation is bombarded with media images suggesting that Westerners live lives of unimaginable luxury.