As ABC News was first to report, President Obama over the weekend announced that he was picking to serve as special envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) Rashad Hussain.
Hussain is currently in the White House counsel’s office and has been a Department of Justice trial attorney, a staffer for former House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo.
This week some media outlets – Politico, Fox News, the National Review – have focused on whether Hussein in 2004 said at a Muslim Students Association conference protested the prosecution of Sami Al-Arian.
In 2006, Al-Arian, a Florida professor, entered into a plea agreement in which he admitted conspiring to help people associated with Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a group designated terrorist by the US government in 1995. Al-Arian admitted that he hid his associations with Palestinian Islamic Jihad by lying to some people, and that had been associated with Palestinian Islamic Jihad during "the late 1980s and early to mid 1990s."
Two years before that, the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs reported that Hussain called Al-Arian’s case one from a series of "politically motivated persecutions” and that the case against Al-Arian was being "used politically to squash dissent."
Hussein denied being the one who made the comments, and the editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Delinda Hanley, later edited the quotes out of the story because, she says, Al-Arian's daughter, Laila Al-Arian, actually made the comments attributed to Hussain.
The then-intern at the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs who wrote the report said she stands by her original story.
Of arguably much more consequence and relevance to Hussain’s thinking is a paper that he co-authored for the Brookings Institution in August 2008, titled “Reformulating the Battle of Ideas: the Role of Islam in Counterterrorism Policy.”
Co-written with Al-Husein N. Madhany, Hussain argued in the study that the US embrace the “hearts and minds” part of the war on terrorism by embracing Islam.
“Rather than characterizing counterterrorism efforts as ‘freedom and democracy versus terrorist ideology,’” they write, “policymakers should instead frame the battle of ideas as a conflict between terrorist elements in the Muslim world and Islam.”
They argued that using the terms such as “Islamofascism,” “Islamic extremism,” and “jihadists” only serve to help terrorists in their attempt to usurp Islam. They argued “the use of these terms also threatens to alienate the Muslim world by implying that the use of violence against innocent populations is somehow an ‘extreme’ interpretation of something found in Islam.”
(A better term would be one used by President George W. Bush on September 20, 2001, a “radical network of terrorists.” Or, they suggest, “Al Qaeda terrorists,” “Hamas terrorists,” or even “Binladinists.”)
Hussain argued that is simply not the case, that the term jihad has been twisted by members of al Qaeda and others. Jihad, they say, “is often used to denote one’s self-struggle to do good and avoid evil (jihadal-nafs), but in certain circumstances and under certain conditions, it describes the religious obligation to defend, militarily if necessary, Islam and Islamic lands. Jihad should not be mistranslated as ‘holy war,’ a term which would be translated into Arabic as ‘al-harb al-muqaddasa.’ No such term or concept exists in the shari’ah.”
In fact, many Muslim scholars have issued edicts stating that Islamic law is contrary to acts of terrorism; Hussain says that the US and other Western governments need to do more to publicize these edicts so as to win the battle of ideas.
“It is precisely these types of religious rulings—which by design receive the broadest possible support from Muslim leadership representing nearly all Muslims —that will prove most effective in countering terrorists that mischaracterize Islam in advancing their agendas.”
They conclude, “If the United States and its allies, however, alienate Muslim communities by defining terrorism as a part of Islam, and if the global counterterrorism coalition does not seek to frame its counterterrorism message within the context of Islam, not only will the battle of ideas be increasingly difficult to win, but the long-term prospects for freedom and democracy, however they are defined, may also become impossible to achieve.”
Hussain’s scholarship here is forceful and without question there are those who will disagree with it. But it does not reflect the thinking of someone who excuses terrorist acts in any way. It is the voice of one who sees Islam and terrorism as antithetical, and is pushing to have the US government make that case more convincingly to the Muslim world.
Or, as he put it: “Any effort that aims to eliminate the spread of terrorism that improperly invokes Islam as its justification must reject labels that make mainstream Islam a part of the problem and instead implement strategies that involve mainstream Islam as a prominent element of the solution.”
*This post was updated after Hussain admitted being the one to have made the 2004 comments, once presented with a transcript of the event.