US special envoy: US will take relations with Muslim world to next level
Regional-USA, Politics, 3/18/2008
Almost 30 years to the day after Sada Cumber came to the United States from Karachi, Pakistan, he was selected to be the first-ever US special envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), the 57-member Islamic organization.
In his new job to reach out to Muslims across the world, Cumber hopes his multicultural background will help him talk to Muslims overseas about the freedom American Muslims enjoy in practicing their faith. He said his job is to "share with Muslims my country's deep respect for Islam, its firm commitment to religious freedom." A biography of Sada Cumber is available on the State Department Web site.
The envoy's extensive business experience -- he has founded 11 technology companies and sits on boards of several economic-development organizations -- will guide him in his new mission. He believes America can contribute greatly to economic development efforts in OIC nations.
Stressing that the United States is a country that "hopes to work more closely with Muslim countries on creating new understanding," Cumber said that both President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told him they view his appointment as "an opportunity to take our relationship with the Muslim world to the next level."
America.gov spoke with Cumber recently on his appointment Following is the transcript of that interview:
America.gov: First, congratulations, Mr. Cumber on this wonderful appointment, and I might add, a very challenging one as well. My first question is how would you define your mandate or your mission as the first-ever US special envoy to the OIC?
Cumber: Thank you. My mandate, put simply, is to talk to Muslim communities around the world, to share with Muslims my country's deep respect for Islam, its firm commitment to religious freedom, and the President's determination to work with Muslim leaders to advance peace and prosperity for all peoples.
When President Bush appointed me in this job, he was signaling the next important step in our relations with the Muslim world. Recall that it has been 50 years since President Eisenhower laid the cornerstone of our Islamic center in Washington, and since that time the dialogue with American Muslims and Muslims around the world has been maturing.
Clearly, we want to continue working with the Muslim Umma (nation), expanding our contacts, strengthening our relationships. I took an important step in that regard during my first week as Envoy, when I traveled to OIC headquarters in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and met with the Secretary General and other Organization leaders. One thing that struck me was that, if you look at the goals of the OIC's 10-year program, you can see immediately that it reflects the Muslim Umma's values and Islam's values – and that they are completely in sync with our values in America.
When I was with the secretary-general of OIC, I told him, "I'm here to work. I have only one year in this position. I'm ready to work with you."
America.gov: What was your initial feeling about this appointment, considering that most people say that US relations with the Muslim world are going through a rough patch, especially since September 11, 2001?
Cumber: I really don't see the rough patch that is being suggested by some. Where there are misunderstandings, we, as American Muslims, need to reach out to the Muslim Umma and tell them about life here in America. As a Muslim-American, I and my family have enjoyed all the joy and all the opportunities that America offers any of her citizens. And I believe that is true for the other 5 to 7 million Muslims who live in America today.
I think the question is, how do we communicate the truth to the Muslim world, the truth about our freedom of expression, the way we freely practice our faith, live our lives, raise our families?
I was sharing this with the Secretary General of OIC, and I said, "The challenge within the Muslim nation is that we have 1.5 billion people, and yet the OIC member nations, 57 in all, represent only 5 percent of the world's GDP." So the larger challenge is how do we take care of our elderly, pay for education, grow our economies? America can bring a lot to these conversations.
America.gov: We'll to come to that question, actually, later on in the interview. But people may be asking the question: Why does the US even want to appoint a special envoy to the OIC now, in your view?
Cumber: Both President Bush and Secretary Rice informed me that they view this appointment as an opportunity to take our relationship with the Muslim world to the next level. We already do so much in terms of student exchange, economic development, educational development – but we can and should look to expand this engagement and look for new opportunities.
America.gov: And what would you hope to accomplish in this new job at the end of tenure, which you just mentioned to me -- it's a one year tenure, basically?
Cumber: I'm glad you asked! With the timeline that I have, I have to be ready to work very, very hard – and immediately. I have asked the OIC leadership to work with me, to identify their highest priorities that we can start working on now. I told them that I have one year, and that I believe in delivering, I believe in programs and timelines. In one year, if I'm able to work with OIC to put some programs together and build some lasting relationships, I think I will happily go back to Austin [Texas].
America.gov: Are you optimistic that at the end of your tenure that you would really be able to achieve, say, the top three or four objectives that you have set for yourself?
Cumber: I am a born optimist! Are we going to set priorities? Yes. Are we setting them quickly? Yes. I have offered the OIC that I can visit Jeddah on a monthly basis to make sure that I have a presence there, and so we can set some plans in motion.
America.gov: What are some of your immediate messages to the Muslim world? You talk about the grassroots, basically, and taking the message to the 1.5 billion Muslims. What are your immediate messages to those people as a US Muslim envoy?
Cumber: The immediate message to the Muslim world is very clear: The United States is a country that protects Muslim values, promotes respect for Muslim traditions, and hopes to work more closely with Muslim countries on creating new understanding and new relationships.
But the other message is for the Muslim world to look at America and see the values that America represents, and mesh those values with the Muslim values. I think we will all be surprised and impressed that those values are in most cases the same and at the same level.
America.gov: Some people in this country think that the US has three primary objectives in the Muslim world at this stage. One is to prevent the spread of extremism. Second, it needs to avoid creating the impression that it is actually fighting Islam, as opposed to extremism. And the third thing is to try to help the Muslim world address its own deeper economic, social and political challenges, which some say are feeding Islamic radicalism today. What do you think of that, with these objectives in mind?
Cumber: Well, I had a very interesting dialogue in Jeddah on this issue - presented to me as Islamophobia. My response to that was the fact that if you look at Islam or any other faith or culture or heritage there is always bigotry directed at it from somewhere. We need to keep our focus on how we address that bigotry, that intolerance, wherever it occurs.
America.gov: And again, a lot of people think that the discourse between the United States and the Muslim world in the past few years has been mired in too much negativity, that is kind of a cycle of charges and countercharges back and forth between the US and the Muslim world. The US would say, "Oh, you're not doing enough condemning terrorism and radicalism." And they shoot back saying that "you are applying double standards." Do you think your mission could help in trying to get out of this cycle of negative discourse and change it to a more cooperative tone, a more collaborative path?
Cumber: In my opinion we can either engage in rhetoric and not get to the next level, or we can open new channels for dialogue, for interaction, and for understanding.
At the same time we really need to engage in substantial opportunities, not only dialogue.
America.gov: In light of that, what could American Muslims do, both as individuals and as groups and civil society organizations, to bridge these differences between the United States and the Muslim world.
Cumber: I am so impressed with the activities of Muslim Americans. I truly believe that the Muslim American community can offer a great model for Muslim and other faith communities around the world. When I travel the country, I see tremendous dialogue between communities, between faiths, people talking to one another, learning from one another, growing closer, not apart.
But to respond to your question, I believe that Muslim communities in the US have done an excellent job since 9/11 of building new linkages to their communities, explaining their faith, and involving other Americans in the daily expressions of belief.
America.gov: Are you thinking of kind of some major initiatives that sort of movement toward the dialogue that we've been talking about, toward fostering a more cooperative, considerate dialogue between the US and the Muslim world?
Cumber: If such an opportunity presents itself, why not? The challenge is to not just talk the talk, but also walk the walk.
America.gov: One last question. How are you going to put your business background to work in this new mission? Prior to your appointment, your litany of business successes included founding 11 technology companies and, most recently, CACH Capital Management, a wealth management firm based in Austin, Texas. Your business expertise in global strategy and political insights make you a powerful corporate leader and advisor to numerous economic development boards. Are you going to use business as a tool to bridge some of these differences between the United States and the Muslim world?
Cumber: Absolutely. As you suggest, my background is in building assets. When you build assets, you create wealth, jobs, and opportunity. This is a chance for us to think outside the box, and look for new avenues, new possibilities. America is committed to this goal. I am personally committed, as is the President.
I look forward to building a new partnership with the OIC and the member states, many of which I hope to visit in the coming months.
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