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Two Indian Americans prominent in Obama's outreach to Muslim world

By Aziz Haniffa
February 22, 2010 10:02 IST
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United States President Barack Obama last week appointed his Deputy Associate Counsel at the White House, Rashad Hussain, 30, to serve as his Special Envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference -- which comprise over 50 member states and is the second largest inter governmental organisation in the world.

Along with the appointment last June of Srinagar-born Farah Pandith as the first-ever US Special Representative to Muslim Communities around the world, Hussain and Pandith, now have the singular honour of being two Indian Americans who are now the key point persons in the Obama administration's outreach to the Muslim world and Muslim communities worldwide.

As Special Envoy to the OIC, Hussain will, according to the White House, 'deepen and expand the partnerships that the United States has pursued with Muslims around the world since President Obama's speech in Cairo last June.'

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 US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, 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 US 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.

Professor Sayyid Syeed, co-founder of the Islamic Society of North America, the largest American Muslim organisation in the US and National Director of its Office for Interfaith and Community Alliances, told India Abroad, "Rashad is a wonderful example of our second generation Muslims in America, whose intellectual and professional achievements have been enhanced by their commitment to Islamic values and upbringing."

Syeed, who hails from Srinagar, and a regular at White House interactions with the American Muslim community, said, "We are proud of these young men and women who understand the unique opportunity of public service available to them through the democratic pluralism of America."

He predicted that Hussain's 'appointment should send a powerful message of hope and confidence to Muslim youth around the world and also to Muslim youth in India in particular. His appointment is as much of a landmark as the election of an African American president in Obama.'

Syeed who knows Hussain over the years and has interacted with him and invited him on several occasions to address ISNA gatherings, said, "We are looking forward to see full solidarity and support for Rashad in America and around the world."

Before he was named by Obama as his Deputy Associate Counsel, where he focused on national security, new media and science and technology, Hussain served as a trial attorney at the US Department of Justice.

Before his stint with the DOJ, Hussain was as a Law Clerk to Damon K Keith on the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Detroit, Michigan.

Hussain is an alumnus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, from where he received his bachelors degrees with the highest distinction in both philosophy and political science, which he completed in two years; Yale University from where he received his JD and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University from where he earned a Masters in Public Administration.

He also holds a MA from Harvard in Near Eastern languages and civilizations, with a heavy concentration in Arabic and Islamic Studies.

Hussain, who was a Spring 2003 Soros Fellow, says in his biography that he 'finds his heritage central to his identity as a Muslim American and his career goals, especially in light of events in recent history,' namely 9/11.

According to him, he 'sees his varied academic interests converging and feels that his study of international affairs, law, and security can form a salient combination for addressing many contemporary legal and public policy issues.'

In 2004, he also wrote a major article in The Yale Law Journal arguing that 'much of the debate regarding post-September 11 counterterrorism initiatives has centered on the potentially damaging effects of these policies on constitutionally protected rights.'

He wrote 'many observers have weighed the balance that the government has struck between national security and civil liberties by determining the extent to which new law enforcement initiatives preserve or encroach upon these rights.'

Hussain said that 'while scholars debate the legality of the government's new tools, it is often more difficult to assess whether such initiatives enhance or undermine security.'

According to him since 'the war on terrorism relies largely on sensitive intelligence and covert operations,' the Bush administration's so-called 'victories' often 'remain undisclosed, yet such assessments will be crucial in defining the future direction of US policy.'

Hussain's, was born in Wyoming, but raised in Plano, Texas, where his parents still reside. His father, Mohammad Hussain, hails from Bihar and is a retired mining engineer, and his mother Ruqaya, is a physician. He has two siblings, and older sister, Lubna, a physician and a younger brother, Saad, a medical student.

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Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC