A defense of Rashad Hussain

As Fox News notes, President Obama’s newly-announced envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), Rashad Hussain, “is at the center of a controversy.” He is not only beset by criticism for a quote he has admitted to making about the prosecution of Sami al-Arian in 2004 (at the age of 24) but also by insinuations and accusations about his participation in, as Cal Thomas calls them, “events connected with the Muslim Brotherhood.” Much of the criticism has taken on a crude sensationalistic tone. The American Thinker calls Rashad “pro-jihadist” and the Jawa Report calls him a “terrorist sympathizer,” while Brad Blakeman argued in a Fox News appearance that Rashad has “more in common with our enemies than what we stand for as a nation.” Most directly, Pamela Geller suggests that Rashad Hussain is a “jihadist in the White House.” I write to provide a different perspective on Rashad Hussain’s views and character.

Before I address the various controversies that have surrounded Rashad, I’d like to make clear that I have known him for a considerable length of time, since 1998. Those familiar with my own biography will realize that I was a practicing Muslim back then. So I have known him as a co-religionist; and know him now as someone who worships a different God than I do, but whose religious practice I respect. My first contact with Rashad came through intercollegiate policy debate. I had won the national championship in 1997, in my junior year, and decided not to debate my senior year but to stick around and occasionally judge at tournaments; when we met, Rashad was a freshman. We have been groomsmen together at a wedding; Rashad worked as a summer associate at the law firm where I briefly was a litigator; and we continued to see each other periodically for coffee or a meal after I became involved in counterterrorism full time. Rashad once attended a speech I gave at Harvard Law School when he attended the Kennedy School of Government, and was complimentary of my “balanced” approach to CT work. The last time I saw him was shortly after he took his job as deputy associate White House counsel. He was thrilled to be able to bring about “change” as part of this administration, while I (consonant with our different political outlooks) cautioned him that the public’s expectations for Obama were far too high. In short, I have known Rashad in a number contexts, and consider him a friend.

Friendship can be a double-edged sword. It can truly illuminate for us how a person views the world, show us what he cherishes and fears, give us insight into his character. It can also have a distorting effect, causing us to be defensive when we should not be, and to overlook our friend’s flaws. But as I will explain, I think the dozen years in which I have known Rashad and had the opportunity to assess his beliefs and character provide important context for this defense. Many of the attacks on him are the proverbial view from 50,000 feet: and it is sometimes easy to misunderstand what you see from that distance.

From my experiences with Rashad, I can say that policy debate had a profound impact on him. Different people learn different lessons from debate, both the right ones and the wrong ones. At best, debate can train people to understand that there is more than one side to an issue, and to think dispassionately before making up their minds. At worst, it can show people that they can succeed at dogmatically defending positions regardless of the truth of the matter. Rashad learned the right lessons from debate, not the wrong ones. In addition to (and more important than) debate, Rashad has also been shaped by his faith. As an American Muslim, he is self-critical of that community even while being a respected part of it. There is much talk of Muslim “engagement” among scholars in the counterterrorism field, and Rashad in many ways exemplifies engagement at its best, discounting neither the American nor the Muslim part of his identity during the course of his success within the political world. Despite his intemperate remarks about al-Arian, I do not know Rashad to be an individual given to extremes, political or otherwise, nor do others who know him well; he is someone whom I and others who have interacted with Rashad know to be calm, rational, thoughtful.

So what of the attacks against him? First I would like to examine the finding of the Global Muslim Brotherhood Daily Report (GMBDR) that Rashad “has a history of participation in events connected with the U.S. Muslim Brotherhood as well as support for Brotherhood causes.” It is on the basis of the information in the GMBDR that Cal Thomas argues Rashad’s appointment “should be of serious concern to Congress and the American public … because Hussain, a devout Muslim, has a history of participating in events connected with the Muslim Brotherhood.” This is where we get the view from 50,000 feet: reports on events that Rashad attended without any context for why he was there.

The GMBDR‘s first link between Rashad and the Brotherhood is an October 2000 event “sponsored by the Association of Muslim Social Scientists (AMSS) and the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University (CMCU)” entitled “Islam, Pluralism, and Democracy.” GMBDR notes that the event “featured many leaders of the global Muslim Brotherhood including former German diplomat Murad Hoffman, and International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) leaders Louay Safi, Jamal Barzinji, Hisham Al-Talib, and AbdulHamid AbuSulayman.” At the time of this conference, Rashad was a graduate student at Harvard’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. I spoke with another person who was a Harvard graduate student at the same time, who reports that Harvard students working in this academic area were heavily encouraged to submit papers to the conference by their (non-Muslim) academic advisers; a large number of graduate students applied to present papers there. Part of the culture of academia includes a push for this type of engagement, and for conference presentations. Given that context, it would be wrong to read something sinister into Rashad’s attendance.

The GMBDR lists several other alleged Brotherhood-linked events that Rashad attended. Without getting too much into the weeds, Rashad’s attendance at these other events does not make me question his character and allegiance. For example, one of these linkages was that Rashad, while at Yale Law School, “was listed as part of the organizing committee for an April 2004 conference organized by a student organization known as the Critical Islamic Reflections (CIR) group. Among the CIR sponsors listed on the their [sic] web site was IIIT and the Fairfax Institute, the IIIT educational arm.” CIR is a reputable event, attended by many top American Muslim scholars — people who have tenure and tenure-track positions. The GMBDR‘s reporting does not provide us with enough information to determine much. Was IIIT an established sponsor, beginning prior to 2004, or was that its first year? Was Rashad responsible for bringing in IIIT sponsorship? Or was he only working on the academic side of organizing this reputable conference? Moreover, given IIIT’s wide influence in academia, is it legitimate to say that the group’s sponsorship is a red flag? I am not a fan of IIIT, largely because I find its “Islamization of knowledge” program highly questionable academically, but without any context this linkage — Rashad Hussain + IIIT — cannot be interpreted in any meaningful way. [Note: Paragraph edited after finding web page for the CIR event.]

And so it is with the other events to which Rashad has been connected. Rashad’s attendance may or may not give an observer reason to be suspicious, and to desire more information — but if red flags are indeed raised, the next step should be pursuing that additional information. That is why I outlined in such detail my relationship with Rashad, and my own observations of his character: because they go beyond the view from 50,000 feet and hone in on the person who stands behind that conference attendance. I strongly believe that it is wrong and unfair to suggest, as Cal Thomas does, that Rashad might possess “a personal ideological or religious agenda that is not just un-American, but anti-American.”

The other controversy surrounding Rashad is a comment he made about the prosecution of Sami al-Arian on a 2004 MSA panel, that it was a “politically-motivated persecution.” Rashad initially said he had “no recollection” of making this statement, and the White House press office attributed it to another panelist; but after being shown a transcript of the event he admitted that those were in fact his words. Politico provides much more context on the quote. Though I strongly disagree with Rashad’s 2004 comment (which he now describes as “ill conceived or not well formulated”), it does not justify the overblown attacks on Rashad: in my experiences with him, I know this kind of intemperate remark as the exception rather than the rule. The fact is that Rashad was quite young when he said this, 24 years old. Almost all of us have said and done things that we regret at a similar age; and it is far easier to say something intemperate or unwise when speaking extemporaneously.

The fact that there is controversy about this quote is not unfair, but let’s not misunderstand where his views were coming from. Rashad’s concerns about the al-Arian prosecution, and other prosecutions that he discussed in that context, stemmed not from an Islamist ideology but rather from a civil-libertarian ideology. It is clear from his 2004 speech that Rashad is a Kerry-supporting Democrat rather than a bin Laden-supporting jihadist. To be clear, I largely disagree with Rashad on the issue of selective prosecutions, which was the main thrust of his panel remarks: I co-authored a monograph in 2007 defending what I dubbed the “Al Capone model” of anti-terror policing. (Al Capone’s activities were ultimately shut down through selective enforcement of US income tax law.) But I see our differences on these issues as policy disagreements, and not the kind of thing that should lead one to believe that Rashad has “more in common with our enemies than what we stand for as a nation.” As I wrote in the Washington Times in 2007: “Working alongside moderates with whom we may disagree on some issues but who nonetheless genuinely oppose jihadist violence and the forceful imposition of Islamic norms will help bring more valuable, authentic voices into the discussion. Indeed, listening to and respecting differences of opinion are among this nation’s strengths.” Rashad is not pro-terrorist; he is not a “jihadist in the White House.”

I realize of course that gullible journalists have in the past been fooled by some Muslim figures with nefarious agendas. But I am far from being naive about these issues. My first book describes my time working for an extreme Islamic organization; it names names. I have helped to expose the Muslim American Society’s highly problematic Brotherhood-influenced curriculum. And at times I have been attacked by dishonest and highly ideological journalists who place themselves in the role of propagandists for jihadist groups. I do not defend Rashad out of gullibility or false hope, but rather based upon a course of dealings that has given me insight into him in many contexts.

This is not to say, of course, that there are no legitimate lines of criticism in this case. Part of politics in the United States is public scrutiny of nominees and appointees. There is now controversy about whether Rashad lied about his al-Arian remarks rather than suffering a memory lapse. If he did lie about the matter, I would find it highly disturbing as a citizen; as a friend, I would fear that it signaled Rashad’s growing cynicism consonant with the process of US politics. There is also very legitimate criticism to be made of the OIC (see, for example, this column by my colleague Claudia Rosett), and there are real questions about whether we should even have a special envoy in the first place.

But these are not my concern today. Rashad exemplifies so much of the best about Islam in America, and I write to defend him against the overblown attacks on him — many of which have been far more intemperate than anything Rashad said in 2004. Rashad deserves better than this; we as a country deserve better than this.