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How Rashad Hussain's past is troubling him today

March 10, 2010 10:24 IST

Right wing US conservatives led by the likes of nationally-syndicated columnist Cal Thomas have launched a vitriolic campaign against Indian American Rashad Hussain.

They pilloried President Barack Obama for appointing him as Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Conference and called for Hussain's ouster, calling him a 'voice of radical Islam.'

But the White House has said Obama has full confidence in Hussain and has accepted his statements about remarks he made as a Yale University law student in 2004 against what he alleged was the Bush administration's "politically-motivated persecutions" of a Muslim professor at Florida State University and others accused of raising funds for Islamic Jihad -- a group proscribed by the US State Department as a foreign terrorist organization -- as "ill-conceived and not so well-formulated".

Leading American Muslim scholars and the Association of Indian Muslims slammed the campaign against Hussain by the likes of Thomas and the conservative Washington, DC tabloid, The Examiner, saying the attacks against Hussain, were bigoted.

Obama last month appointed Hussain, his Deputy Associate Counsel at the White House, to serve as his Special Envoy to the Organisation of the Islamic Conference -- which comprises over 50 member States and is the second largest inter-governmental organisation in the world.

Obama, who made the announcement in a video conference to the US-Islamic World Forum in Doha, Qatar, which Hussain was attending as part of a delegation led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last month, described Hussain as "an accomplished lawyer and a close and trusted member of my White House staff."

He said, "Rashad has played a key role in developing the partnerships I called for in Cairo. And as a hafiz of the Quran, he is a respected member of the American Muslim community, and I thank him for carrying forward this important work."

A hafiz is someone who has memorised the holy Islamic text, and according to administration sources, Hussain was among White House staffers who had contributed significant input into Obama's Cairo speech, including several quotes from the Quran, which has gone over very well in the Islamic world from the Middle East to Africa and from Central Asia to South Asia.

The Hussain Controversy

The controversy over Hussain's 2004 remarks erupted when Politico.com reported that Hussain at a 2004 Muslim Student Association meeting in Chicago, had slammed the Bush administration for its "politically motivated persecutions" against Florida State University professor Sami Al-Arian and others who had been accused for fund-raising for terrorist groups arrayed against Israel.

After denying the charges for months with scores of faculty and students strong supporting him and saying the administration was on a witch-hunt in going after this popular professor, Al-Arian finally pleaded guilty for one count of "aiding a terrorist organisation" and was sentenced to 57 months in prison.

After Politico.com showed a video of Hussain criticising the Bush administration, Hussain put out a statement admitting that "I made statements on that panel that I now recognise were ill-conceived or not well formulated."

"As a law student six years ago," he said in his statement, "I spoke on the topic of civil liberties on a panel during which I responded to comments made about the Al-Arian case by Laila Al-Arian, who was visibly saddened by charges against her father."

Hussain said, "I made clear at the time that I was not commenting on the allegations themselves," and added that as "the judicial process has since concluded," he had "full faith in its outcome."

At the same conference, Hussain, had called certain provisions of the Patriot Act that was enacted by Congress on the urging of the Bush Administration in the wake of 9/11 as "horrible," although he had acknowledged that he could understand the need for wiretaps and hence supported their use.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, asked if the White House had been misled about Hussain's background and if it still maintained confidence in Hussain as a Special Envoy to the OIC, replied, "We continue to have confidence."

Gibbs pointed out that Hussain had made clear in his statement that "the judicial process has concluded and he has full faith in the outcome of the judicial process."

He added, "This is an individual that has written extensively on why you have -- why some have used religious devices like the Quran to justify this (acts of terrorism), and why that is absolutely wrong, and has garnered supported from both the left and right."

'How can Hussain be a forceful advocate to OIC?'

Thomas, in his column, had said that Obama's appointment of Hussain "should be of serious concern to Congress and the American public."

'Especially because Hussain, a devout Muslim, has a history of participating in events connected with the Muslim Brotherhood, according to the Chicago Tribune, 'the world's most influential Islamic fundamental group, whose goal is to create Muslim states throughout the world.'

Thomas noted that 'the president proudly announced that Hussain is a Hafiz, someone who has completely memorised the Quran, but he did not spell out what qualifies Hussain to meet with foreign leaders at a diplomatic level in a role that approximates that of an ambassador,' and added that according to Jihad Watch -- a blog directed by American author Robert Spencer that 'aims to bring to public attention the role of jihad theology and ideology in the modern world' -- Hussain ties to the Muslim Brotherhood 'date back to his days at Yale Law School'.

"Ask yourself," Thomas wrote. "If you or your group were interested in damaging or destroying the United States, wouldn't infiltration at every possible level of government and culture be an effective strategy? You would build your schools and mosques, some of which teach and preach Jihad; you would penetrate the government; you would demand special rights because of your religion -- such as no body scanners for Muslim travellers at airports and prayer rooms and foot washing facilities at shopping malls; you would seek to change the foreign policy of the United States because you hate Israel and all Jews (and those 'cross-worshipping' Christians) and you would dare the US government to monitor your speeches and associations because you want to keep America's guard lower than it would be for, say, a spy from communist China.'

The Examiner, taking the cue from Thomas' column, in an editorial titled, 'Obama Selects a Voice of Radical Islam,' said, "In announcing Hussain's selection as a US diplomat, Obama first cited the fact that the Texas-born Yale Law School graduate is a Hafiz, a person who has memorised the Arabic language version of the Quran."

It said, 'Put aside the uproar that would have ensued had (former President George W) Bush enthused that his hypothetical selected for the Court of St. James was mainly qualified because he had memorised the Anglican Church's Book of Common Prayer.'

Thus, the editorial argued, 'So the question for Obama is this: How can Hussain be a forceful advocate to OIC and other international forums on behalf of individual rights that are most brutally and routinely suppressed by Islamic regimes like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran? Or is this no longer a topic American diplomats are allowed to bring up on the world stage?'

'This will not go unchallenged'

Professor Sayyid Syeed, co-founder of the Islamic Society of North America, the largest American Muslim organization in the country and National Director of its Office for Interfaith and Community Alliances, responding to this campaign against Hussain, told rediff.com, "The election of Obama is a landmark victory of the evolution of a democratic society where colour, status and creed should not be a criterion in putting people in positions of power and authority."

"Obama's victory is already opening new possibilities for breaking the barriers of colour and racism," he said, but warned, "This will not go unchallenged. There are people with a racist mentality who will try their best to see the clock turn back."

Syeed, who hails from Srinagar, and a regular at White House interactions with the American Muslim community, said, "We have witnessed this at different stages in American history. Abolition of slavery was not an easy movement. Desegregation was not achieved without a lot of resistance. There are many individual leaders and scholars who give out their inner deep-seated hate in situations that tell us volumes of their resentment to reform."

"Similarly, the appointment of Rashad has broken another barrier -- the religious barrier, particularly bigotry against Islam," he said. "Cal Thomas could not control himself and came out with a column to attack Rashad's appointment."

Kaleem Kawaja, of the Association of Indian Muslims in America, told rediff.com, that the Thomas column and the Examiner editorial "is a grotesque distortion of facts about Rashad."

"Rashad Hussain has never had any association with the Islamic Brotherhood," Kawaja, an engineer with NASA said. "As to his belief in Shariat laws, it should be understood that the genuine Shariat laws are not rigid; indeed they are flexible and accommodating of the circumstances and ask Muslims to interpret these laws with changed circumstances."

He added, "Thus it allows today's Muslims to interpret them differently from those of 1,400 years ago when they were first formulated."

Kawaja said, "It is irresponsible to say that just because Rashad Hussain is an observant Muslim, he is a radical Muslim. In today's society where freedoms are being abused and exploited by some people to justify their ends, it is important to have religious guidance in your life. Because religion per se teaches you to think of the consequences of your actions and to understand that God abhors anyone taking law in your hands, creating mayhem or hurting anyone."

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC