Islamic Relief Partnership Gala

Arsalan Suleman
Acting U.S. Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation 
Washington, DC
October 13, 2016

Assalamualaikum. Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen, what a beautiful evening.

Congratulations to Islamic Relief USA (or IRUSA) for hosting this first ever Partnership Gala. And congratulations to Mark Brinkmoeller for receiving tonight’s honor. Mark is a valued partner for us at the State Department, and he and his team at USAID do such great work, so the award is very well deserved.

I would like to thank the entire IRUSA team for hosting us this evening. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and working with many people from Islamic Relief over the years. Thank you, Anwar Khan, CEO of Islamic Relief USA, for your leadership in making IRUSA such a valued partner for the Department of State. Among his many activities, Anwar serves on the State Department’s Religion and Foreign Policy Working Group, where he advises on humanitarian issues, and areas where the work of religious actors is critical to ending extreme poverty.

And thanks as well to Jihad Saleh, IRUSA’s Government Affairs Manager, for being such a valued and trusted colleague over the years.

It is no secret that religiously-affiliated organizations have been at the forefront of many of the major advances in humanitarian work for decades. Although these organizations work in many different spaces, one highly visible area is their efforts to help achieve the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. This bold and ambitious set of 17 global goals is focused on driving social, economic, and environmental development outcomes through 2030.

Religious organizations and leaders have played and continue to play key roles as opinion-shapers, activists, service providers, and program implementers across the full range of the SDGs. From poverty reduction, education, health, eliminating hunger, and other areas, religious actors are engaged in initiatives and activities where you may not intuitively expect them to be working.

For example, Islamic Relief USA is one of the myriad organizations committed to achieving the Sustainable Development Goal of promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment. Through interfaith initiatives, IRUSA has taken steps to equip local religious leaders – including youth – to prevent violence and increase support for survivors. It is also dedicated to ensuring better health services for women, children, and adolescents around the globe, and has worked with World Vision and Catholic Relief Services in a partnership called Faith Alliance for Health. Religiously-affiliated organizations like IRUSA are important because of their work in reaching out not only around the world, but in their respective faith and congregational communities to build greater public awareness of the relationship between the SDGs, their own values and beliefs, and key multilateral goals that have considerable impact on the lives of millions.

I work as part of the Office of Religion and Global Affairs, which was launched by Secretary Kerry in 2013. We work to strengthen and institutionalize cooperation between the Department of State, multilateral organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), academia, and religious actors on diverse cross-cutting, global issues, including combating climate change, conflict prevention, and disaster preparedness, just to name a few. I can attest to the vital role that faith-based organizations like IRUSA have played in advancing U.S. foreign policy priorities.

On climate change, religious groups played a critical role in mobilizing around COP 21 in Paris last year. Just last week, the Paris Agreement crossed the second and final threshold needed for it to enter into force – less than six months after its signing. The rapid timeline underscores the widespread recognition of the urgency at hand, and it is a testament to the continued determination to act on the social, economic, and moral imperative to address the dangerous impacts of climate change. I’m excited to be participating in the Summit of Conscience in Fez that will precede COP 22, to help highlight the important role that religious communities play in protecting the global commons.

In peacebuilding, religious actors can have a unique place and role in society based on an earned respect and shared history. These relationships, the deep bonds of trust, and shared values make them vital partners in bringing peace. Religious leaders and organizations have helped to model the kind of interfaith collaboration that we know is critical for sustainable peace and prosperity around the world. For example, Islamic Relief has worked with other religiously-affiliated humanitarian organizations like Caritas and World Vision to provide assistance in the Central African Republic. That interfaith, humanitarian collaboration is intertwined with peacebuilding activities of local religious leaders and other civil society organizations, like the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers. I know Anwar and Dr. El Sanousi were in Bangui just a couple of weeks ago working on this issue.

In terms of disaster response, religious groups and organizations are usually on the ground and active before disaster strikes, during the worst of it, and in the difficult recovery period following a disaster. As a native of New Orleans, I’m grateful for the work of Islamic Relief and other organizations in their response to Hurricane Katrina. IRUSA now regularly is among the first to respond to disasters in the USA, as we saw with the Flint, Michigan water crisis, the floods in Baton Rouge, and now with the response to the devastation of Hurricane Matthew.

Religious organizations have also been important actors in combating gender-based violence like female genital mutilation and cutting (FGM/C). By mainstreaming such issues in its work, Islamic Relief is helping to address these challenges in a comprehensive way. Islamic Relief’s recent report on the prevalence of FGM/C in Indonesia, for example, has been influential in changing perceptions about the practice and mobilizing religious actors to address it.

In our relationship with the OIC, we have focused on forging lasting partnerships, including on humanitarian assistance and health programs. At the UN General Assembly last month, USAID Administrator Gayle Smith and the OIC Secretary General extended indefinitely the US-OIC Memorandum of Understanding on humanitarian cooperation. Civil society organizations like Islamic Relief have been critical in making these partnerships sustainable, effective, and productive.

On refugee resettlement, six of the nine organizations that work across the United States to welcome refugees as part of a public/private partnership with the federal government have a religious affiliation. Faith motivates them to do good works; their professionalism allows them to serve all, without regard for the beliefs of their beneficiaries and without proselytizing. And I know that Islamic Relief has partnered with some of those organizations to assist in this critical work too.

There is much more I can say about the role of religious actors in other areas of our foreign policy work, but time is short. So I’ll conclude with this – there is a reason why millions of Americans and others around the world donate to religiously-affiliated humanitarian organizations like IRUSA, and there is a reason why the United States and other governments and international organizations partner with them: they’re professional and effective; they’re dedicated and inspiring; and they’ve earned their place at the table.

Thank you.