U.S. Official Speeches and Interviews
Mr. Rashad Hussain U.S. Special Envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference
February 1, 2011 | Government Media and Information Center | Kabul, Afghanistan
Special Envoy Hussain: I’m very happy to be here with you today at the center, and I thank our gracious hosts for welcoming us here and giving us some time today.
I’ll speak a little bit about how I became involved in working on these issues. I was born in the United States. My parents came to the United States from India. I grew up in Texas in a city near Dallas. I was raised as a Muslim, my parents are Muslims, as I said from India, the country with the second largest Muslim population in the world. And from a young age, in addition to my studies at school, we had through our local Imam, a number of Islamic-related activities, including the study of the Quran and other Islamic subjects and Islamic sciences.
We have, as you may know in the United States, over 1,000 Islamic schools, and we are able to practice our religion freely. The women wear the hijab freely. Men are able to go for prayers from their work, are able to, for example, wear a beard and practice as they see appropriate.
In my experience growing up as an American Muslim, we had largely positive interaction with people of other faiths. Some of you may have visited in the United States and experienced that yourself.
Of course, it’s not a country or a society without problems, but being a country where we have people from so many different parts of the world and have so many different religious beliefs, we’ve been able to work through those problems in an effective way.
I, by background, am an attorney. After finishing my legal education, I began working as a lawyer for the President’s transition team and then as an attorney for the President at the White House Counsel’s Office. As was mentioned, during that time I was involved in helping out with parts of the President’s address in Ankara and in Cairo. Through that work I became more involved in issues involving the Muslim world and affecting the Muslim world, and more formally pursued those interests and that work as the Special Envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference.
I’ll speak a little bit now about the President’s vision for engagement and partnership with the Muslim world, and then talk a little bit about specifically what I’m doing here in Afghanistan, and then we can have some questions and answers.
The President, when he came into office, saw that there was a need to repair relations with Muslim communities around the world which are approximately one-fourth of the world’s population. The approach that he has taken is one in which we view Muslim communities and engage with Muslim communities in a comprehensive way. So we’re not just dealing with political conflicts such as the war in Afghanistan or the Middle East. We’re not just dealing with terrorism. But we want to make sure that we’re engaging Muslims and dealing with Muslims based on the areas in which Muslims have been so productive and played such a pioneering role over time in Islamic history, such as in education and in health, in math and science and technology. So we want to make sure that our partnership is broad and recognizes those contributions and partners in all of those areas as well, in addition to addressing many of the issues that have caused tension between the United States and Muslim communities around the world.
At the same time, the President recognized that much of the tension between the United States and Muslims around the world is rooted in disagreements or tension over government policies. And among those are the conflict in the Middle East, the war in Afghanistan, and the war in Iraq. So while we pursue partnerships in a number of areas we’re also very mindful of the fact that it is essential for the security of the world, it’s essential for the security of the Middle East, that we find a two-state solution. We work towards a two-state solution in the Middle East between Israel and Palestine.
We’ve also been continuing to work towards responsibly ending the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. As you may know, in Iraq we have ended our combat mission, and in Afghanistan we continue to work towards breaking the momentum of the insurgency and partnering with the government of Afghanistan to work to help build the capacity of the military and the security forces, as well as partner with the people of Afghanistan in a number of areas.
In addition to these political issues as I alluded to in the beginning, the United States has created a number of partnerships with Muslims all around the world, including in the areas of education and health. We have a number of health initiatives, even with Afghanistan through programs such as USAID, our program which we have with the OIC on the eradication of polio, which is-- Afghanistan is one of the key countries in that effort. We have a number of partnerships in science and technology as well as interfaith dialogue among a number of areas.
But as we’ve continued to try to pursue solutions to these political conflicts and create partnerships in a number of areas, the President has been very clear that we have to engage Muslim communities on a broad range of issues. And he’s been very clear that Muslim people, just like all the people in the world, seek the same things. They seek peace, they seek stability for their families, they seek employment opportunities, education and health. So we want to make sure that when we talk about Muslims that we’re not just talking about terrorism or conflict, that we’re talking about all those issues. And that we’re not making the problem worse by failing to recognize that after all, Islam is a faith that rejects terrorism entirely, and that it’s only a small portion of Muslims, a very small minority of Muslims that have engaged in these types of activities. And that Muslims, more than anyone else, have been the victims of terrorism and violence.
So as we work to end that, we want to make sure that we have engagement and partnership on a broad range of issues.
I’ll talk a little bit about specifically being here in Afghanistan. This is my second trip here. My first trip was in August, and I visited Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif. My last time here I met with a number of the ministers including the Foreign Minister the Health Minister, the Minister of Haj and Religious Affairs, as well as President Karzai. We had a number of civil society engagements including with the Ulema Council and with religious leaders. And the last time we also had an opportunity to meet with members of the press as well. We think it’s really important not just to meet with government, but to deal directly with the people of Afghanistan so I can hear directly from the people how they view the problems, what they think the solutions are, what their grievances are, what they think we’re doing right, what they think we can do better. Then I can take that message directly back to the United States.
I’ve had a similar agenda on this trip. We visited Kandahar actually two days ago, the day after the assassination of the Deputy Governor. I met the Governor while we were there and participated in a shura with elders and religious leaders. I’ve also had meetings with the ministers here that I [met with] last time as well. So I believe it’s been a productive visit.
We are happy about the news that the Organization of the Islamic Conference has opened up an office here in Kabul and has appointed an envoy from the OIC to Kabul. We welcome that. We welcome their role as coordinator of assistance for Muslim countries. There are a number of Muslim countries that are becoming more and more involved in Afghanistan, including Turkey, Jordan, the UAE, Malaysia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and others. I’ll be meeting after this engagement today with the new envoy from the OIC to Afghanistan as well as ambassadors from a number of Muslim countries.
The United States, as I mentioned, will continue to partner with the people of Afghanistan, with the government of Afghanistan, and I want to make clear that even after the United States transitions to control over the military operations to Afghanistan, that we will maintain our enduring partnership with the people of Afghanistan. I know there is reason for skepticism given the history here, but that’s a history that we’ve studied, and we pledge to be enduring partners with the people of Afghanistan going forward.
I would like to again thank the Center for welcoming us here today and hosting this event. I’d be happy to take your questions and hear your comments.
Question: I’ll start with a comment. My name is Dawood Azami. I’m the BBC World Service Bureau Chief in Kabul, Afghanistan.
There was a non-violent leader who lived in Peshawar in the 20th Century. His name was [Rafarhan]. People usually called him [Bachahan]. He was living in that part of, in the northwest region of then India. There was fighting, as you know, against the British colonialists and one day he went to India, had a meeting with some British officials. So they were introducing each other and one of the British officials told him that well, you are a Patan, you fight against us, and you hate us. You hate us British. [Rafarhan] told him that no, sir, you are wrong. We don’t hate you. We hate what you do.
What they were doing in those days were fighting and destruction and bombing. So the same story can be said in some parts of Afghanistan. People welcome, the majority of Afghans welcomed the arrival of the international community after the fall of Taliban, and they thought they were coming as friends. But many mistakes were made, and people now have some other ideas. There are some people who are saying that they have other objectives in the region.
The point is that there might be a misunderstanding or miscommunication on both sides. There are so many conspiracies. I just wanted to hear your comments, why this misunderstanding or miscommunication is.
The second point is that Afghanistan also needs a cultural renaissance. As you know, Afghanistan was the center of Islamic civilization in the past. Many Afghan cities today were some of the biggest centers of learning in the past. Bahl, Razni, Herat, all these cities were the biggest centers of Afghanistan, produced some of the greatest Sufis. But less attention has been paid to this part of Afghanistan, to the reconstruction or revival of this part of Afghan history. I just wanted to know is there any plan. I know this is something that Afghan officials should have raised or should have made a plan, but they have some other things to do too.
Special Envoy Hussain: Thank you for the comment and question. I’ll address the second point first.
I’m well aware of the proud tradition and history here in Afghanistan, and the history and the culture-- something that I’ve studied as a Muslim myself. There is an effort underway to commemorate that history and to restore and preserve some of the cultural sites and the cultural heritage that’s here.
One of the organs of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, UNESCO, has named Ghazni, international cultural city from within the Muslim world for 2013, I believe. There are efforts, I’ve been discussing with OIC member states, efforts to work towards 2013 in a way that appropriately reflects the tradition that exists there. So it’s very much something that I’m aware of and something I believe we should continue to work towards.
It’s something that the United States is also aware of as well, and is a part of our efforts as we first build capacity in the main areas that affect people on a day-to-day basis, whether that’s building schools, partnering in agriculture, partnering in other areas that create jobs. This is an area that we continue to look at as well, the restoration of cultural sites, et cetera, has been a part of what we’re doing.
As far as your first comment, I do understand the skepticism that exists amongst some portion of the population. As you said, the majority of people have welcomed the international community. But make no mistake about the fact that the international community and the United States and a number of countries from the Islamic world, are here in part to address a threat that we all face. Not just a threat that the United States, the impact of which we witnessed on 9/11, but a threat that has taken the lives of a lot of people, including of course just this week we’ve seen recent events in Kabul and in Kandahar.
That is our mission: to face that threat, to partner with the Afghan people. We believe that is necessary for peace and security here and all around the world including the United States. And as I said, we understand that it’s not a military conflict alone. It’s not a conflict that will be solved by military means alone. That is why we pledge to continue to be enduring partners with the people of Afghanistan in a number of areas that I mentioned.
Question: May I make actually two comments with a bit of a question at the end of it, and then one something beyond Afghanistan.
Specifically about Afghanistan, and I went to school in the U.S. for a while. There, the narrative about our country again is one of a radical island, somewhere that people have to avoid or that is the center of problem and everything. Whereas we, I went to school in Peshawar and Kabul and we read books where we were told that you’ve got an AK-47, it’s got 37 bullets and you can shoot a Russian in 30 minutes, if you have whatever magazines, how many of them do you shoot? That was our [inaudible].
At the back of that book there was a stamp. It was a certain university in the U.S. had stamped it and then there was a gift of U.S. aid and everything.
So what I’m trying to point out-- the United States doesn’t owe us anything-- but you do share a level of responsibility in some of the radicalization that has happened in this country. We were never a radical country. We were a very traditional one. So is there a plan for undoing that? Because what I do notice right now, recently you’ve got some of your regional rivals, specifically our neighbor to the west, investing very very sophisticatedly in higher education in this country, in universities and many institutions that are generating the kind of human capital that’s going to define agendas down the line. Be it legal, be it political and everything. They’re producing about 2,000 to 3,000 graduates every year.
What the U.S. has done is that the American university, it’s largely inaccessible to the general public, partially because, again, in small part because the fees are way too high.
Is there a plan? Is there a plan to at least if not compete, offer some level of an alternative as well as mitigate that radicalization that happened here in the ‘70s and the ‘80s? That’s one.
Another, you mentioned some of the tensions with the Islamic world is of political nature. Specifically, if you could give some comments about what’s going on in Egypt right now. How do you see that unfolding? What is it that the U.S. favors if it does favor anything there, and what if it continues to sort of in a way have a snowball effect in that part of the region?
My name is Steven Mayan and I’m a partner in a public relations consulting firm in town.
Special Envoy Hussain: On the first question of what the United States is doing to address radicalization, obviously in addition to the military efforts and the partnerships with the Afghan military and the police forces to address that through military and security means. I think what you’re getting at is what is kind of the long-term program to address the causes of that?
First of all, there are a number of educational programs that are being done from the United States including through USAID-- the construction of schools, literacy programs. Literacy is one of the key antidotes to radicalization. Part of the problem that’s occurring is that students are unable to access, when you’re talking about religious education, for example, they’re unable to access the basic theological texts which are being distorted. So if someone in a position of authority says that the Quran says the following regarding non-Muslims, or the Quran says the following about violence, then without literacy a person is unable to critically analyze whether that is correct. So the establishment of education programs, including schools in which girls can participate and have a future, is an important part of what we’re doing.
We also have exchange programs with religious scholars. Many Imams have come to the United States. I’ve met with some of them here, but they come to the United States and see the practice of Islam there. And I think that those types of programs can have an impact when you’re able to see the diversity of viewpoints that exist, how people with different viewpoints regarding interpretation of Islamic subjects are able to still get along and to work and cooperate with one another.
Another important area, of course, is partnerships in fields where we are working to advance economic interests including in agriculture, in the energy sector and other areas, because part of the problem that occurs is people may turn to radicalization out of a sense that there is nothing in their lives that appears to give them a sense of hope or future productivity. So the creation of jobs may be one of the things that can be done to try to address that.
Of course, that is not done with the intention of addressing radicalization per se, but one of the net benefits or the implications of those types of programs can be I think to have an effect on radicalization.
I’ve been working with the OIC, and as I mentioned earlier, there are a number of programs that OIC countries have been engaged in that we welcome in which they’ve had, for example, exchange programs with Muslim scholars, including the Turkish government. There are also programs which have brought religious scholars to Egypt and have brought religious scholars to the Haj, for example, in Saudi Arabia.
So there are a number of programs that are underway to address these issues. It is a long-term project that I understand will not occur overnight. When you speak about something like education, of course, it’s something that needs to be done from a young age beginning with literacy, so that people have access to information that I think is the strongest tool in countering radicalization. I am of the opinion that one of the strongest tools that you can use to counter radicalization and violent extremism is Islam itself because Islam rejects violent extremism, as you know. It’s very clear from the consensus of the scholars and from the textual tradition. But without access to that tradition, people may be misled, and the religion may be distorted. So we see that as one of the key elements of a strategy to address this type of violence.
Coming to your question about Egypt, our message regarding Egypt over the last week has consisted of four basic elements. First is that the Egyptian Security Forces must not use violence to address peaceful protesters. At the same time, of course, those who are protesting have a responsibility to be peaceful in airing some of the grievances that have built up over time.
Second, we support the universal human rights of the Egyptian people, including the right to free speech, including the right to assembly, including the freedom of association, as well as freedom of the press, access to information, to communicate including using the internet and social media. These are human rights that the United States stands up for not just in Egypt, but everywhere.
Third, as you may have heard Secretary Clinton say yesterday, we support an orderly transition to a government that is responsive to the concerns and the aspirations of the Egyptian people. As you know, Egypt has been an important partner of the United States on a number of issues and we believe that the Egyptian government needs to engage in a productive dialogue with the Egyptian people to address many of the grievances that they are raising and needs to take swift measures and concrete steps to implement needed economic, political and social reforms.
As President Obama has said, the protests that are occurring right now in Egypt underscore that there are deep grievances within Egyptian society and we believe that the Egyptian government needs to understand that suppression of these ideas will not make those grievances go away.
Question: My name is [inaudible].
Special Envoy Hussain: Can you explain a little bit further?
Special Envoy Hussain: Certainly the United States, we support the free practice of religion everywhere, including in the United States where we have seven million Muslims. And the United States, as the President made very clear in Ankara and Cairo, is not at war, never will be at war with Islam and Muslims. We are open to engaging, and do engage, groups that do not advocate violence and peacefully participate in the political process. That’s something that drives not only our philosophy of engagement, but also is the basis, is also rooted in the fundamental belief that people should be able to practice their religion-- whether that religion is Judaism or Christianity or Islam or people that don’t subscribe to any particular religious belief. So we’d have to look at a more case by case example of which countries you’re talking about. But I think Afghanistan is an example where we’ve made clear that the peaceful practice of Islam and the authentic practice of Islam is actually something that is actually a powerful tool against extremism.
We’ve said repeatedly that when it comes to the problem of violent extremism, Islam is not the problem, but it’s a part of the way to pursue peace by showing that it is a religion like other religious faiths that reject terrorism. So we think that has particular significance here in Afghanistan. During my time here I’ve engaged with audiences, including religious leaders who have said that one of the key messages that we need to get to the people is that there is no faith that supports the killing of innocent people and some of the things that are happening here. That is something that we definitely support and we think will not only continue to be an important message, but essential to the future of this country and many other places around the world.
Special Envoy Hussain: Thank you for the recommendation that you make in your second point. I think it’s an excellent recommendation and something that we will communicate back home.
There have been certain types of exchange programs where people from here have been able to come to the United States and see for themselves the experience of American Muslims and to relay that story back to Afghanistan. I think that if we are able to involve more journalists in that effort, I agree with you, that can have a positive impact. So thank you for that recommendation.
With regard to the statements that you relayed from the person that you met with in the village, that you spoke with, I would say to you that we share his beliefs. We share his belief that when force is used it should only be used as a means to address threats and it should not be used against innocent people, should not be used against civilian people. I assure you that the United States and the international community will do its best to make sure that when force is used that it’s used in a way that targets only those that are threats to all people and does not target innocent people.
You mentioned there are individuals that are targeted perhaps because they may appear to be having Islamic beliefs, but those practices are practices that the United States supports the rights of individuals to engage in. The United States has no problem and supports, as I said again, the religious freedom of individuals. Whether that means that a woman chooses to wear the hijab or not to wear the hijab, whether a person chooses to have a long beard and dress the way they want to dress. I think some of your own comments reflect that fact that in the United States we have people that practice their religion in this way. We do not look at somebody and try to assess whether or not they’re a member of a certain group simply based on the way that they dress. Rather, we address threats based on assessment of whether individuals are trying to use violence or advocate violence against the United States and its allies and are part of those forces. It’s definitely not targeted towards anyone because of their religious practice or religious beliefs.
Special Envoy Hussain: I’ll address the second question first. As I mentioned earlier, regarding the recent events, the United States has been very clear that we support the universal human rights of the people of Egypt, as I mentioned, including the right to assemble, the right to free expression, the right to free association, access to the press, freedom to communicate. The President and the Secretary have made very clear our support for those universal human rights in Egypt and in all parts of the world.
We’ve also been clear that we support an orderly transition to a government that is more responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people. What we’re seeing now is a result of the deep grievances that exist within Egyptian society. Again, we made clear that the Egyptian government needs to understand that suppression will make these grievances worse, and that the Egyptian government needs to take steps to implement the needed political, social and economic reforms to address many of the legitimate grievances of the people of Egypt. I think you’ll continue to see the United States standing up for those rights, and standing up for those rights not only in Egypt, but for people around the world.
Regarding the question about civilian casualties, that is something that the United States and the international community takes very very seriously and does our best, of course, to avoid. We’ve seen in the last few months, in the last year, a tremendous decline in those numbers of casualties. We don’t think that even one civilian casualty is acceptable, and we honor every single life. So we will do our best to protect those as we fight against a people that, as you know, has actually targeted innocent civilians, has engaged in activities and attacks in which they know that the result of which will be the loss of innocent life. When you have bombings at places of worship or places where young people are, schools and other places, it’s inevitable that innocent people will die, and some of those places have been intentionally targeted. So while we continue to fight against people that would engage in those types of activities, I again pledge that we will do everything we can to minimize and eliminate the loss of civilian life. I understand why that loss of life would cause concern and would cause anger and would cause grief, and we share all those sentiments with you when any innocent loss of life occurs, whether it’s inadvertent or intentional.
Voice: A small gift [inaudible].
Special Envoy Hussain: Thank you.
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