2 reasons to watch Hafiz Hussain

Earlier last month Obama announced the appointment of Rashad Hussain as a new special envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). This is Obama’s second special envoy directed towards the “Muslim world” and part of his strategic “New Beginning” program he initiated in his speech in Cairo last June. His first special envoy, Farah Pandith, was designated as “Special Representative to Muslim Communities,” and, partly because of the nature of such a global charge, has done little concrete since then. There are at least two reasons to believe that Hussain might be able to do something more substantive.

First, Hussain enjoys a specific charge to the institution of the OIC. One of the most important transnational networks of sovereign states, the OIC has struck up an increasingly vocal note in its ambition to shape the contours of international discourse and policy, especially in the areas of Human Rights and the Middle East Peace Process. As Obama’s man-in-the-OIC, Hussain has the opportunity to make a concrete case for the existence of nodes of policy cooperation between the U.S. and the Middle East/Muslim World, and to lobby to make that cooperation happen.

Second, Hussain is Hafiz, meaning he has memorized the Qur’an in whole, and, what is more, he has played an active part in the American Muslim community, especially as a student involved in the Muslim Students Association. When questioned about what she had to say to the Muslim world, Pandith has responded with vague statements about lessons she learned meeting Turkish Muslim immigrants working for the state department in Europe (interview here). But when Hussain goes to make a case before the OIC, he can speak as the voice of one who’s been a protagonist for his own religious community in the U.S. and, Obama-Cairo-style, try to diffuse the facile anti-American stereotypes floating near his interlocutors by telling the story of his own American religious flourishing.

Hussain’s job is not going to be easy, and his profile also includes several disadvantages: He is exceptionally young (31 years); he is an Indian-American like Pandith (and, thus, like Pandith, is already stoking charges that the U.S. is not serious about taking the Middle East seriously); and his Islamic religiosity scares folks in the U.S. (see, for example, here ). But I would not count him out and hope his American story can help him along to substantive and fruitful bargaining at the OIC.

Iran’s Clerics

Saturday’s world-wide, coordinated protests against Iran’s election results, along with President Ahmadinejad’s week of difficulties in presenting a coherent and believable cabinet, have kept the spotlight on the Islamic Republic’s question of legitimacy and what minimal level it needs to keep functioning as such.  So it is interesting to watch the response of the religious clerics in Iran and to try to guage how much power they really have over politics. Rafsanjani, former president, powerful cleric, made big headline waves with his speech on July 17th which seemed to criticize the supreme Ayatollah Khamenei, although Rafsanjani has been working hard this week to signal that he is not putting Khamenei or the Islamic Republic in doubt, just discussing an electoral issue (see aljazeera article). Although he used a Friday prayer sermon to deliver the message it is unclear how much his status as religious leader gives him any bargaining power over the decisions made by Khamenei. It appears that the same question can be posed of the group of 9 highest ranking clerics, of whom, the New York Times reported this week (see article), 3 have openly protested the post-election results and only 1 has actually congratulated the election winner, Ahmadinejad. In the weeks since the final results of the election were posted, it has often been said that real change in Iran will have to come from the inside, and through deft use of the republic’s religious and clerical language. Some clerics are now publically doing just that, but the power which that language and symbolic status bestows upon them to affect change is still to be seen.