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Rashad Hussain — Indian-American & first Muslim nominated as US’ religious rights ambassador

US President Joe Biden has nominated Hussain, the son of Indian immigrants from Bihar, as the US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom but it still needs approval from the Senate. 

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New Delhi: Indian-American Rashad Hussain, 41, was Saturday nominated by the Joe Biden-led administration as the US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. 

The position entails heading the Office of International Religious Freedom in the US State Department. If approved by the Senate, Hussain will be the first Muslim to hold the post.

The son of Indian immigrants from Bihar, Hussain has led a diverse career as an attorney, professor and diplomat.

He served in three key roles under the Obama administration — US Special Envoy to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), US Special Envoy for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, and Deputy Associate White House Counsel. 

He was also a part of the Justice Department, as the senior counsel of the National Security Division.

In his roles as envoy, Rashad “spearheaded efforts on countering anti-semitism and protecting religious minorities in Muslim-majority countries”, noted the White House in a statement.

Hussain currently serves as Director for Partnerships and Global Engagement at the National Security Council. The council, made up of senior national security advisors and cabinet officials, is the President’s principal forum for national security and foreign policy decision-making.

Also read: Why now is Biden’s best chance to abandon Iran nuclear talks

Early life and education

Hussain was born in Wyoming on 19 September, 1979, and raised in Plano, Texas. His father, a mining engineer, moved from Bihar to Wyoming in the 1960s and eventually married his mother, an obstetrician in Plano. He speaks Urdu, Arabic and Spanish.

He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, received his Juris Doctor degree from Yale Law School, and Master’s degrees in Public Administration (Kennedy School of Government) and Arabic and Islamic Studies from Harvard University. 

At Yale, he worked as an editor of the university’s Law Journal. He also taught as adjunct professor of law at Georgetown Law Center and the Georgetown School of Foreign Service. 

‘Close and trusted member of Obama’s staff’

Prior to joining the Obama Administration, Hussain worked as a legislative assistant in the House Judiciary Committee. He was also Obama’s speechwriter, helping compose the president’s infamous 2009 address in Cairo where he appealed to Muslims who had been the “other” front in former President George W. Bush’s war on terror.

Obama once described him as a “close and trusted member of my White House staff” and “a hafiz,” a person who has memorised the Quran.

In February 2010, Hussain was appointed as the US Special Envoy to OIC, serving in the role until February 2015. 

The position, “a kind of ambassador at large to Muslim countries”, was first created by former President George W. Bush. 

Hussain’s job was to strengthen cooperation between the US and OIC, and counter any disparaging images of the US in the Muslim world.

During his stint as envoy to OIC, Hussain traveled to several countries and international gatherings and met with foreign leaders and Muslim communities across the world. 

In 2010, he visited various Indian cities like Aligarh, Mumbai and Patna to meet top Muslim leaders, officials and academicians to discuss the US’s initiatives on education, global health, entrepreneurship, and countering violent extremism. 

Later, Hussain served as US Special Envoy for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications from 2015 to 2017. In this role, he was tasked in leading staff from various federal agencies to expand international engagement and deepen partnerships to counter violent extremism.

In January 2013, he received the Distinguished Honor Award for his exceptional service to US government agencies. 

“Eight years ago, as an inexperienced lawyer just a year out of law school, I was given a chance by President Obama to serve on his legal team. I happened to be in the right place at the right time when dedicated public servants…were making a concerted effort to invest in young people from all backgrounds,” he said in a Facebook post in 2017, while looking back on his career.

Also read: How US can exit Afghanistan and still avoid the ‘betrayal’ tag

Controversy over 2004 comments

Immediately after Hussain’s appointment as envoy to OIC in 2010, reports emerged about comments he had made on a panel in 2004 at Yale Law School, in which he called a few domestic terrorism prosecutions “politically motivated”. 

One case he criticised was that of Sami Al-Arian, a former computer-science professor in Florida who pleaded guilty to aiding members of a Palestinian terrorist group. He had asserted that Al-Arian’s prosecution involved significant abuses.

The comments provoked backlash from political conservatives. On 22 February 2010, American magazine The Washington Examiner ran an editorial with the headline “Obama Selects a Voice of Radical Islam”.

At first, the White House said Hussain did not recall making the comments but after Politico obtained an audio recording of the panel discussion, Hussain acknowledged the comments.

“I made statements on that panel that I now recognise were ill-conceived or not well-formulated,” Hussain said.

In his works, such as a co-authored paper for Brookings Institution, Hussain has argued for the use of peaceful teachings of Islam to fight terrorism.

(Edited by Arun Prashanth)

Also read: Joe Biden to nominate Indian-American surgeon Atul Gawande to senior USAID position


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