Remarks at the 37th Session of the OIC Council of Foreign Ministers
Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation
Assalamu alaykum. Secretary General Ihsanoglu, Honorable Ministers, and Distinguished Delegates of the 37th session of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, I extend my deepest gratitude for you invitation to participate in this historic event. This year the OIC will make great strides toward achieving the goals set forward in its 10-year plan. You will inaugurate a new Secretariat for Human Rights and center for Women's Development, fully demonstrating the keen interest the Islamic world has in the promotion of human and women's rights. The U.S. congratulates you on these achievements.
I was recently appointed by President Obama as his Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and I am deeply honored and humbled to serve in this role. I am the product of the American Muslim community - a community of nearly 7 million people and one that has prospered in all fields. It is also a community that practices its faith freely in the United States. Since the President’s election, I have served on the President’s legal team, observing first hand and contributing to his commitment to renewing relations with Muslim communities around the world.
He began this process in his inaugural speech and continued it by giving one of his first television interviews to al-Arabiya. The President also immediately began addressing a key source of tension between the U.S. and Muslim communities by appointing Senator Mitchell as his Special Envoy to the Middle East on his second day in office. In the first months of the Administration, he travelled to Ankara, Turkey and then to Cairo, Egypt, where he laid out a comprehensive framework for engaging Muslim communities.
The President emphasized that America and Islam are not exclusive, but share common principles of justice and progress, tolerance and the dignity of all human beings. He described in detail Islam’s tradition of tolerance, and the importance of freedom of religion. He asked us to recognize our common humanity and seek common ground. He emphasized that our commitment to these principles will be judged by our actions, not our words.
This vision has informed our foreign policy in a number of ways. This Administration recognizes the urgency and importance of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and is absolutely committed to the overall goal of a comprehensive peace in the Middle East, with two states living side by side in peace and security. Although there may continue to be ups and downs, the President and the United States will continue to be persistent on this issue. We will not waver in seeking peace and we will not walk away from this challenge.
The President has also articulated a clear strategy for Afghanistan that combines a military strategy to break the Taliban's momentum and increase Afghanistan's capacity, as well as a civilian strategy, because we recognize that "military power alone is not going to solve the problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan." We have focused on increasing our engagement and our foreign assistance commitments to help build opportunity and brighter futures for the Afghan and Pakistani people.
We are also committed to end the war in Iraq responsibly and to transform our relationship with Iraq, from one focused on security to a civilian-led partnership based on shared interests.
The President's commitment to engagement extends to those with whom are relations are strained. The Obama Administration embarked on a full effort to engage the Iranian government in direct diplomacy to address the issues that divide us, including the first high-level meeting between U.S. and Iranian officials in over 30 years. And, if his nominee is confirmed by the Senate, President Obama will be sending the first ambassador to Syria since 2005, not to signal acceptance of Syrian policies, but to open a channel of communication to address our concerns directly. It is incumbent upon all countries to behave in a responsible manner to promote peace and stability, and to live up to their international obligations. We expect this of ourselves and ask it of others.
In Cairo, the President has also repeatedly emphasized that violent extremism has no place in Islam and is rejected by its holy texts. In doing so, he quoted a famous verse of the Quran, which equates the murder of any innocent person with the killing of all humanity. He did so after the massacre at Fort Hood in Texas, where he noted that no faith accepts such acts, and that the killer will face justice in this life and the next. After the attempted attack on the 25th of December, he also reiterated this message, noting that the vast majority of victims of terrorism are Muslims. Despite these attacks, and the recent attempt in Times Square, the President has reaffirmed our commitment to engaging Muslim communities all over the world, and we will not let a group of extremists take us off this course.
We must continue to work together to end violent extremism, and in doing so, we must recognize that U.S. policies cannot be blamed for this violence. The overwhelming majority of victims of terrorism are Muslims. How can anyone blame U.S. policy for the decision to attack fellow Muslims on Friday prayer? How can anyone justify going on a plane and killing other innocent individuals – both non-Muslim and Muslim - without any doubt in his heart that this is a sinful act that will result in their spiritual, as well as their physical, destruction? It is our duty to eradicate this ideology completely and blaming the foreign policy of any country is not the answer. No policy grievance justifies the slaughter of innocent people.
The President’s vision, of course, is a comprehensive one that is not based exclusively on political conflict or violent extremism, but is a framework built on the premise that people all around the world share the same fundamental concerns- their ability to pursue opportunities, take care of their families, and have access to fundamental resources such as education and health care. That is why the President has a long term strategic vision that recognizes that once we have solutions to major political conflicts, it will be important to have created partnerships in these other important areas that will allow us to maximize prosperity.
In the areas of education, we are committed to expanding opportunities for students from Muslim communities to visit and study in the U.S. We are also encouraging American students to study abroad in Muslim-majority countries.
Partnering with Muslim communities to foster economic growth is also vital to the President’s vision for a new beginning - promoting entrepreneurship is the cornerstone of this effort. The President’s Entrepreneurship Summit was held last month, bringing together close to 300 successful entrepreneurs from more than fifty countries. It highlighted the importance of entrepreneurship, job creation and community development and identified ways to advance economic and social entrepreneurship. It also worked to build networks among stakeholders in entrepreneurship and provided an opportunity to establish partnerships that advance entrepreneurship.
We thank the Government of Turkey for its commitment to host next year’s entrepreneurship summit in Istanbul. We also encourage the Turkish Government to partner with the OIC and other stakeholders to initiate a dual-track to the summit, which will specifically address the role governments play in shaping the conditions for entrepreneurship to flourish.
On science and technology, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation has issued a call for proposals for funds to support private sector investments that promote access to and growth of technology. These funds will invest hundreds of millions of dollars in companies that address areas such as technology, education, telecom, media, business services and financial technology, and clean-tech. The U.S. has also established a new Science Envoys program, which sends prominent U.S. scientists overseas. And the envoys have already traveled to many of countries.
Global Health is an area in which the U.S. has been working directly with the OIC Secretariat and its member states. In Cairo, the President announced a new initiative to work with the OIC to eradicate polio. We have had tremendous successes in three OIC countries (Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan) where polio is endemic, and in India, where it disproportionately affects Muslim communities where my family comes from, Bihar and U.P. Polio knows no boundaries, and countries that were once rid of the disease have faced new cases, including in Senegal, Mauritania, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, and right here in Tajikistan, where recently 500 new cases have been reported. This is an emergency that we must come together immediately to address. We must continue vaccination campaigns to protect our communities and to bring an end to polio once and for all.
I came here from the World health Assembly in Geneva, where we convened an unprecedented meeting with the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Health Ministers from all OIC countries. We reaffirmed our commitment to polio eradication and are developing ways to move forward on initiatives to enhance maternal and child health. We also welcomed the decision of Pakistan to convene a meeting of the four polio endemic countries, including India.
In Cairo, the President also spoke about the importance of promoting Interfaith engagement. He said that tolerance is essential for religion to thrive and that freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together. We are carrying out his vision, including through the recently convened U.S.-Indonesia Interfaith Conference in Jakarta, which brought together faith leaders from eight countries and leaders from the private sector and civil society to work together on common projects that will have an impact on their communities, including in the areas of poverty eradication, environment, education, and governance.
We are also working on the issues of religious intolerance and discrimination at the UN. The United States would like to reach agreement with the OIC on an alternative to the defamation of religion resolution at the UN that addresses the problems of intolerance and discrimination. There is much that we agree on. The United States encourages respect for all religions and as a general matter discourages speech that is offensive. Moreover, we have seen first-hand the discrimination and violence that can be exacerbated by intolerance towards and fear of persons with different religious faiths. Measures taken by governments to unduly control religious dress or symbols like the hijab and minarets are offensive and wrong.
In the United States, women wear the hijab freely and we gather for prayers and religious discussion without any restrictions. On a personal side note, as a frequent traveler, I often like to make my mandatory prayers in the back of the airplane. I have never encountered difficulties in doing so on an American airline. Unfortunately, while traveling in Muslim countries, I have sometimes been told by Muslim staff that praying in the plane would be too difficult – I’ve once even been told that doing so would be haram due to the presence of alcoholic beverages on the plane. I’ve never experienced such resistance in America.
On the issues of targeting religions, while we are also deeply concerned by hate speech that denigrates venerable figures such as the Prophet Muhammad, one area of negotiation that remains on the resolution is whether governments should place legal restrictions on speech. It has been my observation that doing so is counter-productive. The examples of the Satanic Verses and the Danish cartoons demonstrate that attempts to prohibit speech merely raise the profile of these depictions and make them more widespread. The cartoon ban led to the creation of a “Draw Muhammad” Facebook page. In the age of the Internet, governments cannot stop these pages from popping up. Attempting to shut down these pages will likely lead their authors to move their messages to other places such as MySpace or YouTube. Will governments shut down all these sites? And when they are unable or unwilling to do so, won’t they look weak for not being able enforce the speech restrictions they have put in place. This is why I believe that the resolution as it stands is actually bad for Muslims and Muslim-majority countries. An alternative approach which supports free speech and freedom of religion, while condemning negative racial and religious stereotyping and actions by individuals, provides a better way forward.
We surely serve the interests of Muslim and other religious minorities better by developing a resolution which has wide-spread support and ensures that this respect is afforded to members of all religions and religious ideologies. I ask each of you to work with the United States to find common ground on this issue, as we have a common view on the importance of combating discrimination and promoting tolerance.
As I move forward in my position, I will be focusing on engaging the OIC and its member-states as a partner in all the areas I have outlined. I will continue to reach out to Muslim communities around the world. Our relationship with the OIC is vital to this effort, as it serves as a foundation for sharing common interests and setting common goals.
We understand that change will not happen overnight, and that success in this arena will be measured in terms of the quality, impact, and longevity of our partnerships, and the effectiveness of our policies. That said, the United States is deeply committed to realizing the President’s vision of a new beginning. We are implementing a government-wide approach, engaging not only the Department of State, but also the Department of Labor, the Department of Education, USAID, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Energy, the Small Business Administration and others to works towards developing true partnerships based on mutual respect, mutual interest, and mutual responsibility.
It has been nearly a year since the President’s speech in Cairo and we are taking concrete actions to address the political conflicts I have mentioned, and have also created partnerships in a number of areas of mutual interest. I am confident that when we look back on the this Administration’s tenure, we will see it as a time that that United States achieved breakthroughs to political conflicts, some of them decades old. We will also look back on a time, God willing, that we worked together to create meaningful, successful partnerships in areas we have shared interests – a time we seeded a number of programs that produced real change for many years. And we will see it as a time that the United States and Muslim communities came together to achieve peace and prosperity for ourselves and future generations. Thank you. Assalamu alaykum.