Karen Hughes and American
Muslims: Alliance against Extremism
By Dr M. A. Muqtedar Khan
Karen Hughes with President Bush
Washington, DC: Karen Hughes,
widely recognized as one of the most powerful people in America,
essentially because of her proximity to and influence with
the President, met with an influential group of American Muslim
leaders in Chicago on September 1 and kicked off the 42nd
Annual Convention of the Islamic Society of North America.
She not only listened to them, as she had promised, but also
engaged with them in a frank and open discussion and won many
allies in the Muslim community.
One particularly classy gesture she made spoke volumes about
the refreshing attitude that she is bringing to the job. After
nearly three and a half hours of discussions, she graciously
surprised everyone by offering to walk across to another venue
to speak a few words of encouragement to the 300 volunteers
who had worked hard to make the convention that typically
attracts about 40,000 participants a huge success. It was
easy to see why she was not deterred by Islamophobic critics
who seek to subvert all endeavors at building an effective
alliance against extremism, between American Muslims and American
The dialogue itself was interesting. It frequently revealed
the perception gap between Muslims and the government on many
issues. Ambassador Hughes was surprised that Muslims thought
that the US continued to have the “same old policies”
towards Palestine. She seemed genuinely amazed that American
Muslims did not give President Bush sufficient credit for
being the first American President for openly calling for
a Palestinian State. American Muslims, on the other hand,
were surprised that she was not fully tuned into the extent
of marginalization, demonization and alienation that they
routinely experienced, particularly with regards to the US
In her brief talk, Ambassador Hughes elucidated the four “Es”
of her approach, Education, Empowerment, Engagement and Exchanges.
She recognized upfront that one of her main tasks would be
to empower American Muslims so that they could become more
effective ambassadors for Islam in America and the US in the
Muslim World. Her main message was contained in her opening
statement: “You are the frontline in this [public diplomacy]
because you are more credible than I am”. She suggested
that American Muslims and her department should work together
to (1) advance a positive vision of hope and opportunity to
the Muslim World, (2) isolate and marginalize forces of intolerance
and violence, (3) foster a sense of common intent and common
purpose and common values.
Many Muslim leaders were a bit cynical going into the meeting.
The current administration has closed more doors than it has
opened for them. But they were heartened when during the meeting
Ambassador Hughes expressed the need for government and civil
society to do something that would make hate speech of any
kind absolutely unforgettable. She recognized that like the
radical ideologues in the Muslim world, there were American
ideologues too who were preaching hatred against Islam and
Muslims. Perhaps this issue can become a barometer to test
how serious she is about improving relations. Will she, and
can she, do something to check the Islamophobic messages that
consistently come from evangelical leaders, conservative talk
shows and columnists. I am sure she realizes that they ultimately
will undermine her own efforts at public diplomacy.
As one who was involved in inviting her to the event and facilitating
the dialogue, I am deeply committed to its success and hope
that it will lead to more cooperation between American government
and American Muslims. We are all excited and hopeful that
her visit will make a difference. The Bridging the Divide
initiative of Brookings Institution that I am associated with
has strongly advocated that the first step towards arresting
the growing chasm between the US and the Muslim World was
through reducing the existing divide between American Muslims
and the American government.
American Muslims are eager to work with her. They understand
the vital necessity of de-demonizing the US in the eyes of
Muslims worldwide and making it safe from terrorism and extremism
in the name of Islam. On this issue American national interests
and American Muslim communal interests are identical. But
the Bush administration, the media and public opinion makers,
particularly on the right, must understand that American Muslims
cannot help de-demonize the US, until Islam and Muslims are
de-demonized in the US.
We cannot be allies and effective on the frontlines of the
battle against extremism if our own government will not trust
us and if our fellow countrymen wage a campaign of disempowerment
by leveling false, unsubstantiated and often malicious accusations
against mainstream American Muslims and their institutions.
American Muslims and their institutions are often deserving
of criticism, but more for their incapacities and incoherence
rather than for anything sinister.
Karen Hughes outreach to Muslims at the ISNA convention will
go a long way in undermining the campaign of disempowerment
and contribute to confidence building.