Saturday, July 24, 2010

President Obama's Vision to Engage Muslims Moves Forward

U.S. OIC representative discusses progress with global Muslim communities

By M. Scott Bortot - Staff Writer

Washington - Rashad Hussain, U.S. special envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), told a meeting at the State Department on July 20 that President Obama's vision for engagement with Muslim communities is showing positive results.

"Just a few years ago if you were to ask the state of relations between the United States and Muslim communities around the world people might have told you that this is going to take a while to get back on track," Hussain said. "But I think that the president, just in the first year, his ability to craft a message, to craft a framework ... has really been an accomplishment in and of itself."

At the meeting, which was attended by officials from OIC countries, Hussain discussed President Obama's continuing outreach and partnership with Muslim communities around the world. Hussain said President Obama, in his "A New Beginning" speech in June 2009 in Cairo, created a new framework for working with Muslim communities.

"One that recognizes that we cannot engage one-fourth of the world's population based on the beliefs of just a fringe few and that our engagement can't be limited to an issue like violent extremism, but that it must be much broader than that," Hussain said.

The framework in the Cairo speech set the ground for a new era of partnerships based on mutual interest shared not only by governments, but also by people. Hussain said that Americans and Muslims around the world share concerns about jobs, health and education. It turns out that President Obama's efforts at engagement focus on these areas, and more.

"We have to have a long-term strategic vision to create programs and to seed programs that will be important in the long term to make sure that we are keeping the relationship moving forward in a manner that engages on issues that people care about in their daily lives," Hussain said.

A key component to President Obama's vision is building partnerships between America and Muslim communities. Hussain said a health partnership between America and the OIC has helped Nigeria to nearly wipe out polio.

"In just the first quarter of the year, the number of cases of polio was down to three, and that is a significant improvement over previous years where we have seen cases in the hundreds," Hussain said. "This is an agenda that we continue in the polio-endemic countries, three of which are Muslim-majority countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria; the fourth, India, being a state where the populations that are affected are Muslim-majority populations."

But cooperation on health issues doesn't stop there. In 2009, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services worked closely with the Saudi Arabian government to make sure that the H1N1 virus did not become a larger problem during the annual Hajj pilgrimage.

Partnerships between America and Muslim communities are also fostering business growth. The Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship, for example, held in April in Washington, highlighted how innovation can lead to opportunities for growth. At the event, hundreds of business leaders from Muslim communities exchanged ideas and information that will lead to job creation.

Education projects are another key component to outreach. Hussain said that over the past year the U.S. government has increased funding for education exchange programs in Muslim-majority countries by 30 percent.

In the fields of science and technology, America recently sent three science envoys - Elias Zerhouni, Ahmed Zewail and Bruce Alberts - to Muslim communities around the world. Hussain said the scientists have submitted proposals to President Obama to further expand cooperation with Muslims in science and technology development.

President Obama's vision of engagement with Muslim communities extends also to Muslim Americans.

"Muslim communities here in the United States have been consulted on a whole range of issues," Hussain said. "I think we are past the time when Muslim communities were only engaged after certain events, or only engaged on the issues of extremism, or national security or civil liberties, but really we've seen Muslim communities being parts of the groups that have been consulted on issues such as immigration, health care and the president's fatherhood initiative."

On political issues sensitive to Muslims such as the Middle East peace process and Guantanamo Bay, Hussain said President Obama's policies are making progress.

"Those are the political issues that the president talked about in Cairo that have often been a source of tension between the United States and Muslim communities around the world, the first of course of those being the ongoing conflict in the Middle East," Hussain said. "This is an area where, despite tensions, I think the president has demonstrated a significant commitment to moving forward."
Hussain said that on President Obama's first day in office he signed an executive order banning torture and on his second day, he appointed former Senator George Mitchell as U.S. special envoy for Middle East peace.

Renewed effort to engage the Muslim world through President Obama's vision is still in its early stages.

"I think you have seen that in one year this very much has been a priority of the administration, something that is very much a work in progress," Hussain said. "But something that we will continue to be committed to, something that we'll continue to be persistent on, so that when we have an opportunity to reflect on the Obama administration engaging Muslim communities around the world we will see that we had a comprehensive framework that was able to address not only political issues but issues of mutual concern."

(by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State)