Protecting the Rights of Christians and Religious Minorities in the Muslim World

Rashad Hussain
Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation 
The Second National Baptist-Muslim Dialogue
Newton, MA
November 30, 2012

Thank you to President Nick Carter, Andover Newton Theological School, First Baptist Church, and to the organizers of the Second National Baptist-Muslim Dialogue. And thank you to all of our participants, leaders who are working to improve the lives of people of all faiths in the United States and around the world. I am honored to have the opportunity to participate in this historic event. I have been working with President Obama’s Administration since his election into office. While serving on his legal team in the White House Counsel’s Office, I was appointed as President Obama’s Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). My role is to work with the OIC and its member countries to deepen and expand partnerships with Muslim communities around the world in areas of mutual interest and to address areas of tension and disagreement.

While much work remains, we are making steady progress. We've ended the Iraq war and U.S., NATO, and non-NATO ISAF Forces are working with the Afghans to transition full security responsibility to the Afghan National Security Forces by the end of 2014. We are continuing to support democratic transitions in the Middle East and North Africa, including in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and in Libya, where we intervened with the international community to avert a massacre in 2011. We also continue to work with the international community to build pressure on the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria to halt its merciless attacks on the Syrian people and to make clear that he must step aside as part of the transition of power. While we continue to seek a diplomatic solution with Iran, we have also been clear through our words and actions that Iran must live up to its international obligations. And we will remain persistent in the difficult work that we began in the first days of the Administration to seek a two-state solution between the Israelis and Palestinians, promoting comprehensive peace in the Middle East.

As we address these areas of political conflict, we continue to build partnerships with Muslim communities around the world in areas of mutual interest and mutual respect. We do so because we believe that all people around the world have the same fundamental aspirations – to be able to live in dignity and peace, to support their families, to have access to education and health care. That's why we have implemented programs in areas such as education, entrepreneurship, health, science and technology, and in interfaith dialogue, which bring me here tonight.

I've been fortunate to be able to participate in a number of inter-faith events and dialogues, including Interfaith Harmony week in Geneva, Switzerland. In 2010, I also joined a historic visit of Imams and Rabbis to the sites of the Holocaust with Hannah Rosenthal, our former Special Envoy for Combating Anti-Semitism. And last year, I travelled to Jerusalem and the West Bank with Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders from the United States and Indonesia.

Tonight, I want to talk about three projects our office has been involved in to make sure that rights of people of all faiths - including Christian communities - are respected around the world.

First, we are working with the UN to advance religious tolerance and to protect free speech. When I began in this role, the UN had for a decade passed a resolution sponsored by the OIC to prohibit the so called "defamation of religions," which called for legal restrictions on speech to combat offensive depictions.

We disagree with this approach for a number of reasons.

First, we cannot accept any measures that undermine the protections found in the First Amendment of our constitution. The First Amendment guarantees the free exercise of religion - including for millions of Muslim Americans, and it also creates a climate of tolerance and respect by promoting the free exchange of ideas. And it has taught us that the best way to counter hateful speech is with better speech. Second, restrictions on speech tend to raise the profile of the speech being proscribed, often resulting in the opposite of effect of what is intended. Third, legal restrictions can be used to justify blasphemy laws, which are sometimes used to target political opponents and religious minorities, including Christian minorities living in the Muslim world.

Furthermore, in today's world, it is almost impossible to remove something entirely from the Internet. What is as simple to produce and broadcast online with a cell phone can be re-posted – even anonymously – after being taken down. We must ask ourselves: Does it make sense to continue to highlight the materials produced by obscure provocateurs and give them attention they don't deserve – or is better to focus our efforts on positive efforts to address intolerance and discrimination?

Last year, we worked with the OIC remove the "defamation" concept and restrictions on speech from their annual resolution and joined international consensus on a new resolution that seeks to address the underlying causes of intolerance in a manner consistent with our First Amendment protections in the United States. These constitutional protections of free speech and freedom of religion are non-negotiable, and we will continue to vigilantly guard against attempts to undermine them.

After the release of an anti-Islamic film earlier this year, some have called for governments around the world to implement legal restrictions on speech. We disagree with this approach. In the United States, when something offensive is published, rather than asking the government to ban it and then considering their job done, religious communities – including Muslim communities – have instead decided to peacefully raise awareness about misrepresentations of their faith and educate society about their beliefs and to address the underlying cause of intolerance. That is why Muslim Americans have hosted dozens of forums on Islam and the life of the Prophet Muhammad, and why they have come together with people of all faiths to condemn the anti-Islamic sentiment.

A second major project that I have been involved with is an initiative lead by ISNA and Islamic scholars in the Muslim world to issue a declaration articulating standards and protocols for protection of full citizenship rights of minorities in the Muslim world.

Last week in Tunis, I attended the second in a series of meetings of religious scholars and Ministers of Religious Affairs from Muslim-majority countries who are working on this project. The Islamic Society of North America is helping to spearhead the initiative, and I have been playing an advisory and convening role to build support among religious and government leaders from OIC countries.

A leader of the Tunisian parliament also attended the conference, addressed the group, and pledged to seek to legislatively adopt the protocols in Tunisia when they are finalized. The conference was quite substantive in nature and featured the presentation of a well-researched paper on the Islamic basis for protecting religious minorities by one of the most influential scholars in the Muslim world. He drew from classical religious texts and early Islamic history to highlight a number of protections, including citizenship rights, freedom of religion (including building places of worship), and even rights to proselytize and convert to other religious faiths. The participants resolved that the final declaration articulating these protections will be issued in Morocco next spring.

I spoke to the group and applauded their efforts at this critical time in the region and emphasized the importance of protecting the rights of all people, including minorities and women. I also provided historical anecdotes regarding the protection of religious minorities in Islamic history and cited a Quranic verse that calls on Muslims to recall that they were once very small in number and feared for the protection of their own rights.

The third and related project has been our office's efforts to address the concerns of Coptic Christians living in Egypt. This past August, I travelled with the President of ISNA and a member of the senior leadership of the Coptic Church in the United States, Father Moises Boghdady, to Cairo Egypt. We met with government and religious leaders, including the Interim Coptic Pope and the Shaykh of Al Azhar University. Our message was simple- Egypt must work to protect the rights of all Egyptians, including its Christian community. We described the project we are working on to protect the citizenship rights of all people in the Muslim world.

Both the Grand Shaykh and the Coptic Church promised to support this effort.

We also spoke about the need to break the cycle of mistrust that occurs when those seeking to end discrimination in the Muslim world are faced with questions about of anti-Islamic sentiment in the West, and those concerned about mistreatment of Muslims in the US, Europe, and other parts of the world are reminded of the terrible and unacceptable violence against Christians and others in places such as Iraq, Egypt, Pakistan, and Nigeria.

The United States and civil society groups have a critical role to play. As our trip to Egypt demonstrated, we have the ability to bring people together because that’s what we do here every day. We live with and defend the same protections of the First Amendment that are badly needed in many parts of the world. Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Sikh, and Hindu communities have stood together to defend Muslim Americans against anti-Islamic sentiment, particularly in 2010 during the controversy over the building of an Islamic center in Lower Manhattan and when the pastor of a small church in Florida threatened to burn the Quran. And drawing on inspiration from Muslim communities that shielded Christians and Jews from persecution, including during the Holocaust, Muslim communities are increasingly working to defend the right of Christians living in the Muslim world, including on the projects I described tonight. I am confident that this dialogue will further advance our cooperation so we can work together to address misunderstanding between people of our faiths in the United States and around the world. Thank you.