Meet Rashad Hussain, the first Muslim to serve as America’s religious freedom ambassador
Think bipartisanship is impossible these days? You must not be paying attention to international religious freedom work
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Rashad Hussain, the U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom, was in Utah last week to speak at the International Law and Religion Symposium at BYU. He spoke about the government’s efforts to help persecuted people of faith around the world and the importance of interfaith and bipartisan cooperation.
While out West, Hussain was kind enough to meet with me and discuss how the world of religious freedom work has changed since I last spoke with his predecessor, Sam Brownback. He shared what keeps him up at night, what gives him hope and what has surprised him about the ambassador role.
Here’s a transcript of our conversation:
Kelsey Dallas: What led you to be interested in religious freedom work? Can you point to specific experiences in your life?
Rashad Hussain: I’ve always felt strongly about standing up for the rights of everyone, particularly those facing any form of discrimination. My parents emphasized the importance of fairness and justice and treating every single person with dignity and respect. Even when I was a young student in school, I remember trying to speak up and support kids who I thought were being mistreated.
During my professional career, I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to take on roles to protect the rights of people here in the United States and around the world, including religious minorities.
When I came into the Obama administration, I started as an attorney. And shortly after I began working in the White House counsel’s office, the president, as you may recall, gave a major address to the Muslim world in Cairo, Egypt. I was fortunate enough to be on the team that was working on the speech and some of the initiatives coming out of the speech.
Shortly after we returned, I began serving as Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. And as part of that work, we were focused on the protection of religious minorities, particularly in Muslim-majority countries.
Around 2010, in the United States, there was a controversy around the establishment of an Islamic center near Ground Zero. There was a pastor who had decided to conduct a burning of the Quran. Faith communities came together to support the Muslim community in the U.S. and, in speaking with the Christian community in particular, they said they were proud to stand with Muslims but they were also concerned with the situations of Christians living in Muslim-majority countries.
I took that concern very seriously and began working on a project with leaders across the Muslim world that eventually led to the Marrakesh Declaration in 2016 which was a landmark initiative on the protection of religious minorities living in Muslim-majority countries. Throughout that work, my interest and my passion for working on religious freedom issues internationally strengthened.
KD: How did you feel the day you found out President Joe Biden had picked you for the ambassador role?
RH: I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude to have the opportunity to help people all over the world. We’re in public service for the chance to make an impact, and taking on this role was a chance to make an impact. It’s really as simple as that.
It is an incredible honor to be able to wake up every day and do work that I’m so passionate about. It’s rare in life that you get a chance to have a job that is so closely tied to what you firmly believe in and a job that gives you an opportunity to help so many people.
For our office, our work comes down to helping people who are suffering all over the world. I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude and an overwhelming sense of responsibility.
KD: What does it mean to you to be the first Muslim to hold this role?
RH: I feel grateful to be the first Muslim to be in this position and I realize there are so many others from the Muslim community who are perhaps even more qualified to do this work. But, again, that gratitude also comes with a sense of responsibility.
The work that I’m doing is, of course, consistent with my values as an American and as a Muslim, and being the first Muslim in this position means that I need to do everything I can to use my background, relationships around the world, and my professional experiences to advance our foreign policy priorities.
KD: Do you think your work in other countries will help reduce the tensions that American Muslims have to navigate?
RH: One of the remarkable aspects of the Marrakesh Declaration, which was a product of cooperation of the Muslim community in the U.S. with leaders from a number of countries and faith communities around the world, is that it has strengthened relationships between Muslims and other faith communities both here and abroad.
When we are doing the work of protecting religious freedom, and we are doing our job of building coalitions and working together, we are positively impacting the relations between all faith communities.
This work is occurring at a time when Muslim communities in the U.S., Jewish communities in the U.S. and others are facing challenges. As we partner overseas and when I, as a Muslim American, do this work abroad, I hope we are building bridges at home, as well.
KD: What’s the most memorable experience you’ve had so far in this role?
RH: After I came into this position, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced at the Holocaust Museum his determination that the Burmese military committed genocide against the Rohingya. It was a very moving experience at the Holocaust Museum, where we learned about not just the horrors of genocide but the path to genocide.
Shortly after that determination, I traveled to Cox’s Bazaar to see the situation of the refugees there firsthand. It was a profound experience not just because we saw the horrors and devastation of genocide, but because we saw so much opportunity for people to do good and come to the assistance of people that are suffering.
Since that time, we’ve made it a priority to work with countries and civil society partners around the world and particularly in Muslim-majority countries to build support for Rohingya who fled from genocide.
KD: I’m struck by how you ended up finding hope in Cox’s Bazaar. What are some other bright spots around the world?
RH: I’ve been encouraged by the overwhelming bipartisan support in the United States for the work of protecting international religious freedom and the work of our office.
I think it sends a powerful signal that my two immediate predecessors were a prominent rabbi, David Saperstein, and Gov. Sam Brownback, a Christian, and that I serve in this position as a Muslim American. I think it sends a signal to the world about who we are as a country, and I still work very closely with my predecessors.
We work across party lines, and it’s been remarkable to see how much bipartisan cooperation there’s been in this work in partnering with civil society organizations and communities across the political spectrum. I’m in Utah today and tomorrow I’m headed to Nashville, Tennessee, to the board meeting of the National Association of Evangelicals.
We were grateful to have overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress, and I think that level of support has been so encouraging to me and to our office, as has the growing momentum and coalition around the world in support of international religious freedom.
So while we see a number of challenges, we’re also seeing a growing response of countries that are appointing special envoys to protect religious freedom, ambassadors and special rapporteurs. We are seeing the world come together to answer the challenges we’re seeing in so many different places.
KD: One of the things that came up when I interviewed Brownback was that the growing cooperation couldn’t always compete with set-in resistance. Do you think there’s enough momentum now that you’re breaking through?
RH: We are building that momentum, and I cannot remember a time in which international religious freedom concerns were more built into the policymaking process than they are now. We are routinely consulted by offices throughout the State Department and our government on foreign policy issues even beyond the work of protecting religious freedom, such as global health, the pandemic, addressing vaccine hesitancy, climate change, addressing poverty, increasing humanitarian assistance — areas where engaging religious leaders is critical.
We have seen a marked shift in the integration of concerns regarding religious freedom and human rights generally, particularly under our secretary of state who takes concerns regarding human rights very seriously as he conducts business as our country’s top diplomat.
KD: What are the situations that keep you up at night?
RH: There are a number of situations that literally keep us up at night.
When I get an email about individual cases of persons who have been wrongly detained, for example, I have this sense that every minute I take to respond to that message could cost somebody their life.
At a broader level, the genocides that have been most recently identified by our government are often top of mind for us — the genocide of the Uyghurs in China and Rohingya in Burma. We’re increasingly concerned about the situation in Ukraine and the situation in Afghanistan. There’s also the set of issues that got me most interested in doing the work we’re doing now: the protection of religious minorities in Muslim-majority countries.
That’s a long list but, as I said, we’re energized and we’re able to stay positive in our work due to the overwhelming support that we have now from our civil society partners. So many people are doing tremendous work around the world, often behind the scenes. And there’s an increasing number of governments and multilateral organizations that are elevating the work of protecting religious freedom.
KD: What has surprised you about taking on the ambassador role?
RH: I’ve been pleasantly surprised that we’ve been able to develop great relationships with partners we may not have expected. Some of the friendships I’ve developed with members of Congress and leaders of civil society on the other side of the aisle, for example, have been very rewarding and productive.
KD: On a lighter note, what book, movie or TV show would you recommend to readers who enjoy religion-related stories?
RH: I’ve recently reread some parts of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” particularly the transformative part near the end of his life when he went to the pilgrimage, the Hajj, and truly gained strength in his final belief and conviction that all people are equal.
That’s always a very powerful reminder for me and inspires the work that we’re doing. We truly are trying to protect the religious freedom of all people everywhere regardless of their background.
Fresh off the press
Term of the week: Marrakesh Declaration
The Marrakesh Declaration, as the ambassador noted, was a landmark statement of support for non-Muslims living in Muslim-majority countries from more than 200 Muslim leaders. It was unveiled in January 2016 and serves as a sort of “bill of rights” for religious minorities, as The Associated Press reported at the time.
The Marrakesh Declaration came in response to violence perpetrated by the Islamic State and other terrorist groups, as well as tension cause by political unrest, the article said.
What I’m reading ...
Just over six months after winning the right to hear prayers and feel his pastor’s touch as he was executed from the Supreme Court, John Henry Ramirez was put to death. As KXAN reported, faith leaders fought for a pardon for Ramirez, but their effort did not work.
In case you missed it — I know I did — an Episcopal priest recently won “Jeopardy!” four days in a row. My friend Emily McFarlan Miller wrote about the Rev. David Sibley, who leads St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Walla Walla, Washington, for Religion News Service.
Odds and ends
My friend Dawn Araujo-Hawkins is one of the winners of the 2022 American Academy of Religion journalism awards. You can check out work from her and the other honorees on the academy’s website.