Criticism of Obama’s OIC Envoy Raises Questions About the Need for Such a Post

By Patrick Goodenough | February 24, 2010 | 5:57 AM EST

On Saturday, Feb. 13, 2010, President Obama named 31-year-old Rashad Hussain as his envoy to the OIC, the 57-member bloc of Islamic states. (Photo from the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans)

( – President Obama’s decision to appoint an envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) has focused renewed attention on the Saudi-based body, and what role a U.S. envoy should play.
Partly overshadowed by the controversy surrounding statements Rashad Hussain made six years ago about a man indicted for supporting terrorists, is the question of whether the U.S. should have an envoy to the Islamic bloc in the first place.
With a secretariat based in Jeddah, the OIC was established as a direct response to an attempt by an Australian, later declared insane, to set fire to the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City in 1969.
Islam’s claim to Jerusalem remains its “central cause,” according to OIC documents, although over the past decade it has become at least as well known for its campaigns against “Islamophobia” and for promoting resolutions at the U.N. against the “defamation” of religion.
The OIC describes itself as “the second largest intergovernmental organization in membership after the United Nations, with 57 member and five observer countries, and … the voice of 1.5 billion Muslims in the world affairs.” Its 56 member states are scattered across the Middle East, Africa and Asia, along with one in Europe (Albania) and two in South America (Guyana and Suriname). The 57th is “Palestine,” which is not a sovereign country.
Although in existence for 40 years, it is only recently that the OIC has begun to shed its reputation as a toothless talking shop and see significant successes.
Observers credit two developments in 2005 for the progress:  the appointment in 2005 of a motivated and hands-on Turkish academic, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, as OIC secretary-general; and the adoption of an OIC “ten-year program of action,” which includes calls for member states to coordinate positions and support each other’s candidatures for positions at the U.N. and other international institutions.
Ihsanoglu in a statement this month said the OIC was “enjoying a golden age,” attributing this in part to the ten-year program of action.
Critics of the OIC regard it as a troubling organization, citing its performance at the U.N. Human Rights Council – where OIC members control almost one-third of the seats and have been instrumental in driving a strong anti-Israel agenda – and its successful religious “defamation” drive. Opponents say Islamic governments are using the issue in a bid to shield Islam from scrutiny in the West, as some do by enforcing blasphemy laws at home, often at the expense of non-Muslim minorities.
Engage governments bilaterally
The position of U.S. envoy to the OIC was created by President George W. Bush in his last year in office.
Heritage Foundation scholar Brett Schaefer said Monday that the appointment of that envoy brought “little discernable improvement in OIC behavior,” pointing to its conduct at the U.N. and Human Rights Council.
He questioned the wisdom of having an envoy at all.
“A public effort by a U.S. envoy to modify OIC policy is more likely to strengthen the voice of the more extreme members of the OIC, like Iran or Saudi Arabia, than it is to strengthen more moderate voices like Jordan or Indonesia,” he argued.
“A far more fruitful strategy would be to approach OIC members bilaterally and seek to encourage them to moderate the tone of the organization in off-line negotiations. An envoy to the OIC is largely superfluous to these efforts.”
“Appointing an American envoy to the OIC gives that organization a legitimacy it does not deserve,” Paul Marshall, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, writes in the March 1 edition of The Weekly Standard.
Marshall said an official relationship with the OIC “means that our government relates to Muslims on the basis of religion, not citizenship; that it treats varied, multi-ethnic, and multireligious countries as if they were simply and monolithically Muslim; and that it legitimates the notion that these states exist to propagate Islam.”
How will Hussain see his role?
Bush in 2008 appointed as envoy Sada Cumber, a Pakistan-born Texas businessman in his late 50s, who served in the post for 10 months and traveled to 32 Muslim countries during that time.
Cumber spelled out his view of his function in a web chat arranged by the State Department in March 2008, when he said, “my role as envoy to the OIC is to ensure that the American vision of tolerance, freedom, and democratic values is understood by the Muslim world.”
“I want to share with the Muslim world the experience I have had in the United States, that more than five million Muslims are having in the United States, an experience rooted in tolerance, acceptance, and respect.”
Cumber also said the role was “to explain to Muslims around the world that the U.S. has a deep respect for Islam, a firm commitment to religious freedom, and is determined to work with Muslim leaders to advance peace and prosperity.”
Hussain, a 31-year old Indian-American lawyer, has yet to outline his views on the role. He did say in a brief entry on the White House blog on Jan. 13 that he was “committed to deepening the partnerships” outlined by Obama in his address in Cairo last summer.
A White House statement announcing Hussain’s appointment that day also said little about exactly what the job would entail, other than to “deepen and expand the partnerships that the United States has pursued with Muslims around the world since President Obama’s speech in Cairo last June.”
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs at a Feb. 22 press briefing described Hussain as “an individual that [sic] has written extensively on … why some have used religious devices like the Koran to justify this [terrorism], and why that is absolutely wrong.”
Most of Hussain’s writings found via Internet searches deal with national security issues – specifically post-9/11 U.S. policies which he examined from legal and constitutional perspectives as well as from the point of view of their value to national security.
One article that does deal specifically with Islam in relation to counterterrorism policy was published by the Brookings Institution in 2008.
In it, Hussain and co-author Al-Husein N. Madhany, a Council on Foreign Relations member, argued that Islam is the “strongest ally” of the global effort to end terrorism.
“There is nothing more persuasive to Muslims than Islam. If the global coalition to stop al-Qaeda and other terrorists groups is to succeed, it must convince potential terrorists that Islam requires them to reject terrorism,” they wrote.
Hussain and Madhany said invoking Islamic precepts would be more effective in winning the “battle of ideas” over terrorism than appealing to notions of freedom and democracy, and observed that “many Muslims associate American freedom and democracy with immorality and impermissible secularism.”
For its part, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in a statement welcoming the appointment said Hussain “will be able to provide the president with direct access to the views and concerns of Muslims worldwide.”
Writing on Islam Online, Palestinian journalist Khalid Amayreh offered the new envoy some unsolicited advice.
He said past U.S. envoys to the Muslim world had acted as “Public Relations emissaries, whose central concern was that Muslims misunderstood America.”
“From our vantage point, the real problem besetting America’s relations with Muslims goes far beyond the image problem,” Amayreh said. “We truly feel that the U.S. government is ‘tormenting’ Muslims in many parts of the world, such as Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq , Pakistan, Lebanon to mention some examples.”
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow