A New Envoy to the United Nations of Islam

A New Envoy to the United Nations of Islam

Last weekend President Obama announced the appointment of Rashad Hussain as Special Envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Already embroiled in controversy over remarks Hussain was alleged to have made in 2004 concerning the prosecution of Sami al-Arian, this appointment warrants careful consideration because of the problematic mission and track record of the OIC, which has embraced an intolerant religious agenda antagonistic to international human rights standards.

Comprising 57 states, the Organization of the Islamic Conference is the second-largest intergovernmental institution in the world after the UN. It is a unique body. A political organization, it pursues a religious mission. The charter of the OIC makes clear that it exists, not only to promote the economic and humanitarian goals of member states, but also to “defend” and “disseminate” Islam itself. The OIC even has a “Department of Islamic Propagation (Dawa) Affairs” dedicated to establishing Islam. Earlier this month the OIC’s High Commissioner for Dawa, Salem Al Houni, presented a speech in Cairo in which he affirmed the OIC’s commitment to spread Islam through the world.

It would be inconceivable for nations with Christian majorities to band together to form an intergovernmental organization devoted to advancing Christianity and the global interests of the Christian Church. The existence of the OIC is testimony to the reality that mainstream Islam recognizes no distinction between politics and religion.

In fact the OIC lobbies aggressively in UN forums to shield Islamic states from criticism on human rights grounds. The key issue is the role of the OIC in advancing Islamic Sharia. In 1990 the OIC promulgated the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam, which subordinates human rights to the Sharia, declaring in Article 24 that “All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic Shari’ah,” and in Article 25 that “The Islamic Shari’ah is the only source of reference for the explanation or clarification to any of the articles of this Declaration.”

One of the subsidiaries of the OIC is the International Islamic Fiqh Academy, which claims to rule on doctrine and issue religious edicts in the name of the OIC for the whole Muslim world. In May 2009 it promulgated a series of fatwas, including rulings on Religious Freedom, Freedom of Expression and Domestic Violence. These affirm support for Islam’s traditional apostasy laws (which require that those who leave Islam should be killed); they call on the Muslim world to prevent freedom of speech from being used to criticize Islam; they declare that in Islam it is not “violence or discrimination” to criminalize homosexuality or apply Sharia laws for adultery (which include stoning adulterers); they endorse “non-violent beating” of wives; and they call upon Islamic nations to reject provisions of international covenants on the rights of women and children, if they “conflict with the provisions of Islamic law and its purposes”.

In announcing his new Special Envoy’s appointment, it is commendable that President Obama expressed hope that Rashad Hussain would be able to strengthen partnerships with the Muslim world in education, economic development, science and technology and global health.

But conspicuously absent from this list was human rights.

Without a doubt, Rashad Hussain has strong religious credentials for this appointment. The Texas-born and Yale Law School-educated Hussain was characterized by President Obama as a hafiz, someone who has memorized the whole of the Arabic text of the Koran. This skill reflects a pious Islamic upbringing. His position on individual rights and freedoms under Sharia conditions, however, is not so apparent. One clue can be found in a co-authored 2008 article he published through the Brookings Institute. In it, Hussain argues that the counterterrorism efforts “must reject labels that make mainstream Islam a part of the problem,” and the US should recognize “the benefit of strengthening the authoritative voices of mainstream Islam”. Does Hussain also believe that, when it comes to human rights in OIC member states, “mainstream Islam” is the solution, and not part of the problem?

At his most recent post as White House Deputy Associate Counsel, Hussain helped draft President Obama’s “New Beginning” address to the Muslim world in Cairo last June. That speech mentioned human rights, but it emphasized dialogue rather than defending individual liberties as the key to improving relationships with the Muslim world.

The OIC makes a strong claim for itself to be considered the global voice of mainstream Islam. However killing those who leave Islam, criminalizing homosexuality, banning any critical analysis of Islam, wife beating (non-violent or otherwise)—all these are antithetical to international human rights principles, and impediments to a true partnership between the OIC and the United States. Strengthening the authoritative voice of the OIC, while it actively works to defend such practices, would harm American interests. Lack of engagement on these central human rights issues would be understood as acquiescence or approval. This could be a high price to pay for a New Beginning with the Muslim world.
Originally publihed with On the Square, at First Things.

Also a shorter version was subsequently published by the Washington Examiner.

Mark Durie is the founding director of the Institute for Spiritual Awareness, a Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a Senior Research Fellow of the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at the Melbourne School of Theology.

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