Telephonic Press Briefing with Shaarik Zafar, Special Representative to Muslim Communities, U.S. Department of State

May 17, 2016


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Moderator: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for standing by. Welcome to the Press Briefing with Shaarik Zafar, Special Representative to Muslim Communities, US Department of State.

I would now like to turn the conference over to Cindy Gire. Please go ahead.

Cindy: Thank you, and greetings to everyone from the US Department of State’s Office of International Media Engagement. I would like to welcome our journalists who have dialed in from throughout the Asia-Pacific.

Today, we are joined by US Special Representative to Muslim Communities, Shaarik Zafar, who will brief us on his current trip to Asia. This is a very important discussion, and I appreciate all of you taking your time out of today to participate in the briefing. Special Representative Zafar will be speaking to us today from Singapore. He will begin with opening remarks; we will then open it up to your questions.

With that, I will turn it over to the Special Representative.

Shaarik: Thank you and good morning, everyone. Let me first say how grateful I am that you all have signed on to have this conversation. I’m familiar with your press outlets, and you come from countries that are very, very important to our relationship and some of our close partners in the region. First, let me begin by thanking you all for joining us today.

As mentioned, my name is Shaarik Zafar. I’m the Special Representative to Muslim Communities for Secretary Kerry. I’m an appointee of the Obama administration, and my job is to drive Secretary Kerry and the Department of State’s engagement with Muslim communities around the world on issues of mutual interest and support of shared goals.

Now, there are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world and, by and large, they care about the same issues as everybody else—jobs and the economy, a clean environment, and peace and security. So, my job is to make sure that as we engage Muslim communities in Europe, South Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and incredibly important is this region, is the Asia-Pacific, as we engage Muslim communities, we have a broad level engagement and we make sure that we talk about the range of issues that are relevant to them—issues like climate change which are incredibly relevant to Muslim communities and the countries of Southeast Asia.

When you think about rising sea levels and their potential impact on coastal communities, and you think about ocean acidification and the impact of ocean acidification on sea food stocks, this is something that’s incredibly relevant not only from an environmental perspective, but also from an economic and jobs perspective.

When it comes to entrepreneurship, in many Muslim majority countries including those countries in Asia-Pacific and Southeast Asia, a large number of the population are under 30 years old, and these young people will need jobs. By and large, there are not going to be government jobs or even large corporate jobs. That’s why it’s incredibly important that we promote entrepreneurship. So, part of my job is to talk about the importance of entrepreneurship, but I’ve also funded some entrepreneurship programs in the region.

Finally, about peace and security, this region is no stranger to the challenge of violent extremism and terrorism as we saw recently in the absolutely horrific attacks in Jakarta. Of course, my country, the United States, we’ve witnessed terrorism as well. This is a shared challenge, so part of my job is to engage on the challenge of violent extremism, the ways that we can do to push back against radical narratives by offering alternative narratives.

Now, what’s exciting to me about this particular visit is that the Asia-Pacific region, especially Southeast Asia, is a region that with respect to our involvement, isn’t marked just by challenges, because of course there are challenges, but increasingly by opportunities. First of all, they have incredibly large Muslim populations. You have the world’s largest Muslim majority country in Indonesia, but you also have very important Muslim minority groups. For example, in Singapore, where I spent the last several days, you have a very diverse citizenry, a very diverse population which includes a very important Muslim minority group.

Now, in the United States we have every race, religion, ethnicity as part of our population. That is a national asset. That makes us a stronger country. Diversity is a strength. Well, the same is true for countries in the region. For example, in Singapore, Singapore has an incredibly diverse community, but the fact is they embrace diversity. They, like the United States, view it as a strength.

If you look at Silicon Valley, for example, in the United States, something like 40% to 50% of our startups are from individuals that have come from an immigrant background. So, diversity is a strength, diversity leads to greater innovation, diversity leads to, frankly, a more successful country. That’s true not just in the United States, that’s also true in Southeast Asia.

Now, as part of my job I have the opportunity to engage senior government officials. So, as part of this trip I had the opportunity to meet with a few administers of the government of Singapore, which underscored how important our relationship is. I also had the opportunity to meet with very senior religious leaders, and I make it a point not only to engage with Muslim religious leaders and Imams, but also to meet with religious leaders of other faiths.

The reality is the world is a very religious place, and as we try to solve global challenges from climate change, to health, to development, we have to make sure that we engage religious leaders who have a role to play in addressing these issues even outside of the theological arena. Religion matters. Religion matters in foreign policy, in health, and in development, and we want to make sure that we’re engaging the broad range of actors, including men and women of faith and religious leaders.

In addition to meeting religions leaders and senior civil officials, what I really, really enjoy and what I think is, frankly, one of the most important parts of my job is to engage young people. That’s why I’m so excited that during this trip I’ll have the opportunity to meet students in colleges and religious schools, boys and girls.

Just recently in Singapore I had the opportunity to speak at a very elite institution, RSIS, and I also spoke at Singapore Management University. During my visit to Malaysia, I’ll have the opportunity to meet with young people which I think is incredibly important.

Now, there’s no question that this region is important with respect to my specific efforts to engage Muslim communities, given, as I mentioned, large Muslim majority countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, Brunei, but also important Muslim minority groups in Burma, in Singapore, elsewhere.

So, there’s no question that this region is important to my specific efforts. But, of course, this region as is signaled by our rebalance to Asia, is incredibly important for the future of American security and American economic well-being. The simple fact is the United States’ rebalance to Asia is good for the United States, but I’d also mention it’s very good for the region.

Now, from the United States’ perspective, involvement in Asia means greater opportunities to sell our goods and create American jobs. By the same token, increased American involvement in the region is good for our partners in Southeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific more broadly.

The United States is, by far, the largest investor. Our investment has grown in order of magnitude since the start of this administration. President Obama, who of course if you know his personal story, his story began in the Pacific, he made it clear at the very start of his administration that American security and economic well-being is tied to the Asia-Pacific. That’s why he made it a point very early in his administration to rebalance our emphasis in Southeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific largely.

By the same token, Secretary Kerry, my boss, has said that the United States is a Pacific nation, and we take our involvement in the Pacific very seriously. And we’re going to continue to remain a Pacific nation. So, what I’d say is that I’ve had the opportunity to spend time in Southeast Asia not only to emphasize the importance of engaging Muslim communities but also to emphasize our commitment to the region.

Now, there are human rights reasons, there are economic reasons, there are security reasons, but I’d really like to emphasize the important aspect of economic engagement, which of course, I think the best example of that is the Trans-Pacific Partnership which really I think is going to cement, when we get it done, God willing when we get it done, a whole number of opportunities both for American companies and companies in the region. That’s why as the Prime Minister of Singapore said, it’s incredibly important that the TPP gets finalized.

So, that was another message I was able to underscore during my engagement about how important the TPP is and how essential it is that we get it done, because for the first time, we’re going to have a trade agreement that involves 40% of the world’s GDP that has incredibly high standards with respect to human rights, with respect to labor rights, and specifically the right to organize labor unions with protections of intellectual property, but also, the first time that I’m aware of, I believe the first time you have such a large trade agreement that has a specific line of effort devoted to development. This is incredibly an important opportunity, and the United States is absolutely committed.

So, once again, before I turn it over to questions, I just want to say what an honor and a privilege it is for me to spend time in a part of the world that I absolutely adore, that I’ve really fallen in love with—the diversity here, the commitment to diversity, the range of viewpoints, Muslim majority countries, Muslim minority countries, robust civil society actors, governments that we view as partners.

This has really been a terrific trip. It’s just the very beginning. I’m looking forward. I’ve enjoyed my time in Singapore and I’m very much looking forward to continuing to engage government administers, civil society religious leaders, and most importantly, young people of Malaysia.

With that, I’ll turn it over to you, and I’d be happy to answer any questions.

Cindy: Thank you. We will now begin the question-and-answer portion of today’s event. For those asking questions, please state your name and affiliation, and limit yourself to one question related to today’s topic. (Operator instructions.) With that, we will start with our first question from China Review News Agency in Hong Kong. If we can please open his mic.

M: Hello? Hello? Hello?

Shaarik: Yes. China Review, please go ahead.

M Thank you for the appointment. Good morning Mr. Zafar. I’m a reporter from China Review News Agency based in Hong Kong, and my question is relating to the East Asia region. Since China is a country with a large group of Muslim population, could you introduce us to US government’s engagement policy toward China and the issue of Muslim community, and what kind of corporations and big programs are waging between the two countries doing this year and what are United States’ foremost concerns in China? Thanks.

Shaarik: Thank you for that question. As I said earlier, the United States is an incredibly diverse country. We have every race, religion, ethnicity as part of our citizenry. Of course, that includes Muslims, Jews, Christians, and people of no religion. But this diversity is a strength. China, also, is an incredibly diverse country with a range of different communities. And, of course, that includes the Hui community, the Uyghur community, and the Muslim communities. Our view is that this diversity of religions, of faith, of ethnicity, is a strength of China. That’s something that our two great powers share, and frankly, this is something that I think needs to be celebrated as a strength.

My opinion and the opinion of the Department of State is that it’s important to engage all aspects of China’s civil society and its communities and, of course, that would include the Christian community, and of course the Muslim community. If I’m given the opportunity, I would very much like to work with our counterparts in the Chinese government to have a robust exchange of ideas between members of our various faith communities. Thanks so much for that question.

M: Thank you, Mr. Zafar.

Cindy: Thank you. Our second question comes from the Democratic Voice of Myanmar, Feliz Solomon.

Filez: Hi. I’m calling from Yangon today. I would just like to know what the United States would like to see happen in Burma with regard to its stateless Rohingya Muslims.

Shaarik: This is an issue that we’ve raised consistently and regularly, both bilaterally and multi-laterally. Our policy is pretty simple; we want to make sure that we want to see peace, stability, development, and harmony for all the people of the Rakhine State, all the people of Myanmar, and of course that includes the Rohingya community.

We want freedom of movement, access to education, healthcare, and economic opportunity for everyone in Rakhine State and the people of Burma, which includes the Rohingya community. Now look, it will be up to the people and the elected leaders to ensure specific steps in how to move forward and address the root causes of the various problems that we’ve seen in the Rakhine State.

That is a Burmese conversation and for the people of Burma and the people of Rakhine State to decide. But, as a friend of Myanmar, as a country that’s absolutely committed to the success of Myanmar, the United States looks to support of the government’s efforts to achieve national reconciliation, not just in Rakhine state, but throughout the country.

So many people in communities throughout Myanmar can work to throw off the legacies and conflicts of the past that we’ve seen, and will work to build a strong, tolerant, multi-ethnic state that affords equal rights and a better future for all.

Earlier today—and I want to emphasize, this idea of diversity, it’s a strength. These aren’t just words. The United States is a better country, a stronger country because of its diversity. The same can be true for Burma, Malaysia, other countries in the region.

It’s not just an issue of discrimination. There are economic reasons why diversity needs to be embraced. In a global economy where you’re trying to sell goods throughout the world, the more people that you can bring in and develop into your society, the better you’ll be both economically and, of course, for important human rights concerns, but also for stability.

Thank you for that question. That’s an issue that we’ve thought about a lot. I really do appreciate the opportunity to talk about our vision for a successful Burma. Thank you so much.

Feliz: Thank you.

Cindy: Thank you. (Operator instructions.) We’ll wait just a minute or so to see if anybody else would like to join the question queue and ask a question.

Shaarik: Can I make a point, just one more point of emphasis?

Cindy: Sure.

Shaarik: I’m part of an office, the new office of the Department of State called the Office of Religion and Global Affairs. The reason this office was stood up is because, as I mentioned earlier, there was a recognition that religion matters, that religion oftentimes is blamed for problems where we believe that in many respects religion, religious actors, men and women, are part of the solution for addressing challenges.

Now, oftentimes we talk about the Abrahamic faiths—Islam, Judaism, Christianity, but, of course, in this part of the world there a number of other very important faiths ranging from Hindus, to Buddhist, to Taoists, and other spiritual movements and things like that.

So, I just want to emphasize that even though my specific focus is engaging Muslim communities, we have an office of Religion and Global Affairs at the Department of State that emphasizes we’re engaging the range of actors including Buddhist, Confucius, Taoists, and others.

I also make it a point that when I travel to Muslim majority countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia, I make it a point to engage Muslim minorities. By the same token, when I travel to countries in Europe, I make it a point—I’m sorry, to not look for minorities. But, when I travel to minority communities, I of course engage the Muslim minorities in Europe and elsewhere. So, I just wanted to make sure to emphasize that we’re interested in engaging the broad range of religious actors.

Cindy: Thank you. Well, while we’re waiting for our final question, I will turn it back over to you and see if you would like to just remind us about Secretary Kerry’s speech that he recently gave in your hometown of Texas.

Shaarik: Yes. There are two recent events that I think underscore the importance of religion. The first was a few weeks ago where I had the honor to attend a speech by President Obama at a mosque in Baltimore where he underscored the importance of the Muslim-American community in the United States.

The President talked about how Islam has been part of the United States since its founding, that Muslims are part of the fabric of America, and specifically he reached out to young people. As a father, I really appreciated this, and he said to the young people in the room, to Muslims in America who are wondering if you fit in, let me make it clear, you fit in right here. You’re not Muslim or American, you’re Muslim and American, and you’re right where you belong. That was an incredibly important message from our president.

A few weeks later, Secretary Kerry went to my hometown of Houston Texas and also talked about the important role that religious leaders play, and that how if he was a student he would have studied comparative religion because he realizes what an important role religion is. He talked about the importance of—the important role religious leaders can play with respect to solving environmental challenges, with respect to promoting human rights, and protecting human rights, and supporting development, but also in promoting peace, security, and stability.

As I said, religion matters, religious leaders matter, religious actors matter, and the United States is committed—one of our first freedoms is the freedom of religion and the freedom to practice religion. So, that’s something that we’re very aggressive in promoting, but we also recognize that religious leaders play an incredibly important role outside of the theological arena.

Cindy: Thank you. I know we don’t have much time left, so I’d like to thank you again for taking the time to speak with us today, and ask if you have any final words, and wish you the best of luck on your next stop which is Malaysia.

Shaarik: Listen, thank you, everybody. I really do appreciate this. In addition to my specific travels, we also have some incredibly important events coming up. Secretary Kerry and the President will be traveling to Vietnam, which signals a very, very important advance in our relationship.

They’ll have the opportunity there to not only meet government officials, to meet civil society and human rights leaders, and also members of the YSEALI, the Young Southeast Asian Leadership Initiative. That’s an incredibly important signal of our commitment not just to the region, but specifically to young people in Southeast Asia, and the President and the Secretary will be meeting with them as well.

Again, this is just one of a number of important engagements with Asia-Pacific and Southeast Asia that symbolize the fact that our rebalance to Asia isn’t just a matter of rhetoric, but it’s a matter of action and it’s a matter of our commitment to our shared peace, prosperity, security, and stability goals.

Thank you so much. This has been an honor. I really do appreciate our conversation today and look forward to continuing the conversation in the months ahead. Thank you so much.

Cindy: Thank you, and thanks to all of our callers for participating in today’s call. If you have any questions about the call, please contact us at asiapacmedia@state.gov. That concludes today’s call. I’ll turn it back over to the operator.

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