KIM LAWTON, anchor: This week marks the one-year anniversary of President Obama’s landmark speech in Cairo, where he promised better relations between the US and the Islamic world:
President Barack Obama (speaking in Cairo June 4, 2009): “So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, those who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity. And this cycle of suspicion and discord must end.”
LAWTON: In that speech, the president acknowledged the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been a major source of tension in those relations. He pledged a broader engagement with Muslims on that and several other issues. As one follow-up, the president appointed a special envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference or OIC, the umbrella group of 57 countries with significant Muslim populations. That envoy is Rashad Hussain, who joins me now. Mr. Hussain, thank you for being here. What has changed in the year since that Cairo speech?
RASHAD HUSSAIN (US Special Envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference): Well, the Cairo speech really set out the framework for—it’s a part of the dialogue that the president started as early as Inauguration Day, when he reached out to Muslim communities. On his second day in office, he appointed Senator [George] Mitchell to ensure that we’re doing everything we can to bring a resolution to the conflict in the Middle East, and it’s something that we have been persistent on, it’s something we’ll continue to be persistent on despite recent events. That event, I think you’ll see, will just redouble our efforts, our attempts to secure a peaceful resolution to the Middle East conflict. Of course, the president early on—one of the first interviews he did was with al-Arabiya. Then he traveled shortly after that to Ankara, where he made clear that the United States is not at war with Islam, and then in Cairo, where he really set forth the broad framework of dealing with Muslim communities in a comprehensive way and in a manner which addresses not just the political conflicts, one of which you mentioned, but also creates partnerships in a number of areas of mutual interest. And that’s really stemmed from the president’s belief that people all around the world, whether Muslim or non-Muslim or whether they live in a Muslim country or non-Muslim country, all share the same fundamental aspirations, and that is that they want to have access to education, they want to have the ability to pursue economic opportunity, to have health care, to raise their family in a secure way. And so part of the president’s message in Cairo was that we need to establish partnerships in a number of areas, including education, entrepreneurship, health, science, and technology, to have dialogue at the interfaith level, and we’ve continued to do that in a number of ways, and also while reaching out to the domestic Muslim community. The president sent one of his top advisers, Valerie Jarrett, to speak at the Islamic Society of North America, which is the largest gathering of American Muslims. [White House national security and counterterrorism advisor] John Brennan spoke at the Islamic Center at NYU and recently spoke to outreach to Muslim communities as a part of our national security strategy. We had recently an entrepreneurship summit. So this is really an ongoing dialogue, not an ad hoc approach, where we have a concerted effort to engage Muslim communities at all levels.
LAWTON: But what are the, you know, sort of real-world impact of that talk, and people said, well, the rhetoric is great, and talking is great but, you know, what is the real-world change that happens?
HUSSAIN: Right. Well, to go through the parts of the Cairo speech, of course, in Iraq we’re continuing and I think we’re doing exactly what the president said we would do in terms of transferring power over to Iraq and following the timetable we set out. I think we’re doing the same thing in Afghanistan. In the area of education, we’ve increased educational exchanges tremendously. In the area of entrepreneurship, the president hosted an entrepreneurship summit, and Turkey’s offered to host a follow-up summit next year, and we’ll see regional entrepreneurship conferences. In the area of health, we have an excellent cooperation with the OIC on eradicating polio. I was just in Nigeria, where the number of new cases in the first quarter of the year was down to three, which, I think, has been a tremendous success and it was recognized by the people on the ground there. Also in the area of health we’re expanding into maternal and child health as a part of the Global Health Initiative. We also had great cooperation on H1N1 before hajj, when there was a threat that it would spread amongst the people that were performing hajj and then taking it back to their home countries. In the area of science and technology, we’ve had our science envoys traveling throughout the region, and we’ve also had a Global Technology Innovation Fund, which potentially will invest two billion dollars for those projects, and it’s been one of OPIC’s [Overseas Private Investment Corporation] most popular offerings. We’ve had a major international interfaith conference in Jakarta, and so we’re really moving forward in all these areas as we address the tough political issues, and our view is that when we look back, we will hopefully see an administration that successfully dealt with those tough political issues, hopefully had a breakthrough in the area of the Middle East as we continue to be persistent on that, but also sowed the seeds for cooperation in a number of areas.
LAWTON: Well, just speaking of that—is there a danger that all of these things that you’ve been mentioning, all of that work will, you know, be jettisoned because of the difficulty of this Middle East issue?
HUSSAIN: No, because I think there is a track by which we recognize the importance of dealing with the political issues, and we’ll continue to deal with those, and at the same time we’re also establishing programs that really go towards the daily concerns that people have in the areas of education and health and entrepreneurship and the other areas that I mentioned. Those political issues are tough issues, but as the president has said, and I think that we’ve reiterated this message recently as well, although there are difficulties with that issue and it is a major issue of concern for Muslims all around the world, that’s something that we recognize, but we’ll continue to be persistent on that and hopefully come to a place where we can reach a breakthrough on that as well.
LAWTON: What is the role of the religious community here in achieving that?
HUSSAIN: Well, there—the religious communities, whether they be Muslims or people of other faith, you know, have definitely a role to play in—with regards to interfaith dialogue, and that’s something that’s occurred even before this administration. They have a role to play in informing the policies that the administration has, and the United States has a long history of that, and that is that while we have a separation of church and state, I think that the values that people—fundamental values that people have as a part of their religious beliefs can inform some of the goals that we’re trying to reach policy-wise, and that is, you know, people believe generally that you should have access to health care, that you should have access to education, that people should be treated fairly, and those are the same types of values, whether someone’s a Muslim or a Jew or a Hindu or a Christian, that will continue to influence the way they look at these issues.
LAWTON: All right, we’ll leave it there. Thank you very much.
HUSSAIN: Thank you so much.