Jeddah, Asharq Al-Awsat- In his first interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Rashad Hussain, the US Special Envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference [OIC] discussed a number of topics including US policy towards the Islamic world and the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.
Hussain is a US citizen of Indian origin. He holds a Masters degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies from Harvard University, and a doctorate from Yale Law School where he was editor of the renowned Yale Law Journal. He worked as a trial attorney at the US Department of Justice before being appointed Deputy Associate Counsel to US President Barack Obama. Hussain was appointed US Special Envoy to the OIC on 12 February, 2010.
The text of the interview is as follows:
Q) What is your strategy to heal the rift in relations between the people of the Islamic world and the United States of America?
A) We continue to work on a global level in this important region and in light of the political complexities brought about by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. We look forward to the culmination of the efforts exerted by the US administration to bring about peace in this part of the world by intensifying cooperation with Muslim people in all fields including health, education, science and technology. US President Barack Obama’s speech from Cairo was clear in drawing up the policy that will be followed by the US administration towards the Islamic world, and putting an end to the ongoing conflict over the issue of Palestine that has caused wide hostility among the Islamic people.
Q) How do you intend to impose your strategy to develop relations with the Islamic world?
A) By implementing the recommendations made in the speech by US President Obama in Cairo, which represents a clear strategy to promote relations with the Islamic world, as this speech covered all political, social, and economic aspects. We have already begun work to implement what was said in the speech, whether through political action to solve the Palestinian-Israel conflict through the efforts exerted by the Obama administration’s Peace Envoy George Mitchell, and we will also promote health services such as combating polio in the Islamic world, and promoting educational programs and cultural exchange between the two sides.
Q) Do you think it will be easy to overcome the hostility in the Islamic world towards certain US policies, especially in light of the actions taken under the previous US administration?
A) We are concerned about this but we are determined to move forward, without looking to the past and the negative effects of this, in order to erase the hostile feelings caused by the administration of former President George W. Bush. There is now a suitable opportunity to overcome the past, and open a new page in relations between the US and the people in the Islamic region.
Q) Many Muslims are critical of bias US policies towards Israel. How can we reconcile what Obama said in his Cairo speech and the US political approach in the Middle East?
A) The United States does not operate solely according to its own interests, and it seeks to safeguard the interests of both the Palestinians and the Israelis, which has made it a top priority for us to engage in genuine peace negotiations between both sides. As you know, the US is committed to its role as an effective mediator in the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. We have not waited until the last minute to become involved in this; rather we did everything we could to urge the concerned parties to enter negotiations. President Obama [also] appointed George Mitchell Middle East Peace Envoy, and he appointed me as an envoy to promote US relations with the Islamic world, and we are all working to implement Obama’s strategy in the Islamic world to achieve stability in this part of the world.
Q) Do you think the Israeli settlement building in Jerusalem complicates your mission to improve US relations with the Islamic world?
A) Of course, there are fears that any action or provocation will negatively affect feelings, and as a Muslim I know full well that the Al Aqsa Mosque was the first Qibla [direction in which Muslims pray] and is the third holiest site for Muslims and it is revered by Muslims. President Obama is committed to calming the situation in the city of Jerusalem, and finding solutions that are both acceptable to the Palestinians and the Israelis. There is also a clear position by the president to reject any settlement building in east Jerusalem, and there is a statement to this effect from the US administration, which has many ways to settle the conflict in the region that has lasted for 60 years. However, it is not easy for this to be settled overnight so we must bridge the differences between the conflicting parties. Over the last few days we have heard good news to the effect that indirect negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis have begun, so I think we are making progress in this regard, and we must not take a step backwards.
Q) What kind of ideas is the US relying upon to regain the confidence and trust of the Muslim people? Do you believe that promoting cooperation between the US and the Islamic world will be enough to breathe new life into relations between the two sides?
A) Firstly, we are seeking to create a framework for cooperation with the Islamic world, and this cooperation will not be limited to one or two fields, but will include all fields. However it is up to the US to understand that Muslims reject issues like terrorism and extremism, and this is something that must be addressed politically and socially, although this may require more time due to the complexity of the political process. The US is working hard in Iraq and Afghanistan to create a stable reality, and we are also preparing a program of educational exchange with countries in the Middle East.
Q) You studied law at Yale University, during which you criticized the prosecution of Sami Al-Arian, describing it as “politically motivated.” Do you think the American legal system unfairly links Islam and terrorism?
A) To be clear, I have no connection to such terror trials, and these cases are subject to the deliberations of the US courts. The US legal system is one of the best in the world and enjoys great confidence.
Q) At this stage, are there any initiatives that you believe can confirm America’s good intentions towards the Islamic world?
A) Yes, but we must remember that this issue is not in order to prove America’s good intentions [towards the Islamic world], as this has always been the US policy. We are employing the best policies and initiatives that we believe are appropriate to achieve the desired goal.
Q) In your initial view, what are the joint areas between the US and the Islamic world that require development? What difficulties do you expect?
A) We seek to focus on healthcare, and yesterday [10 May, 2010] we announced a program to combat polio in the Islamic world. We also intend to initiate an educational exchange program with countries in the region, as well as develop ties in these fields in accordance to the recommendations made in Obama’s Cairo speech. We do not believe that we will face serious difficulties, especially as the US is initiating a broad strategy to achieve peace in the Middle East.