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.

Are you a dedicated reader of FDD's Long War Journal? Has our research benefitted you or your team over the years? Support our independent reporting and analysis today by considering a one-time or monthly donation. Thanks for reading! You can make a tax-deductible donation here.


  • IK says:

    Rashid Hussain played the same “Us poor Muslims are victims of the political and evil United States government” card as every other Islamic group.
    He took the side of a person who funneled money to blow up buses in Israel. He said the US engaged in “politically motivated prosecutions”

  • Steve Klein says:

    Mr. Gartenstein-Ross, you wrote: “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.”
    Exactly. I’m sorry, your friendship with this man has had a distorting effect. It has caused you to overlook your friend’s flaws. Please be honest, if not with the reader, then with yourself. I listened to the audio of Mr. Rashad Hussain on Politico. Mr. Hussain mentioned George W. Bush’s intimate associations with Sami Al-Arian and his family during his 2000 campaign for the White House, to President Bush’s eternal shame and discredit – as though this ought to legitimize Rashad’s statement that Al-Arian’s prosecution was politically motivated? I only reluctantly voted for then Governor Bush in 2000. Had I known of his and his father’s intimate associations with America’s enemies, I would never have voted for this man.

  • Bing says:

    So this guy Rashad is like almost every other politician?
    He’ll fit right in Washington.

  • Oz says:

    Bill thank you for maintaining objectivity and Posting this on your website. I also admire Mr. Ross for publishing this because I know he will take a lot of heat from the Right, particularly the so called “anti-Shariah” camp. I think the anti-shariah camp makes no distinction between Muslim radicals and Muslims and therefore plays a negative role withh respect to US-Muslim relations.
    As you have rightly pointed out so many times Bill, American Muslims (like myself) and Rashad Hussain are not only allies in this fight but essential components to its success. An attempt to demonize or guilt by associate every Muslim involved in national security is a misguided and ultimately self-defeating tactic. Judgment on Rashad should be decided on how he represents US National Security interests at the OIC not speculation about his alleged personal motivations.

  • t says:

    Nice example of a distorting effect.

  • Mr T says:

    al taqqiyah. Color me skeptical.

  • T Ruth says:

    Bing, 15 words of wisdom to a 13 long paragraphs post.

  • Johnabraham says:

    I hope you understand what you said.
    In US there is anti-Shariah camp, yes and US constitution is the primary anti-Sharaiah document.
    Shariah (even with a moderate interpretation) does not allow anyone to criticize Islam(Mohammad) without punishment.
    US constitution allows freedom of speech(not calls for violence). So if someone expresses their opinion/beliefs about Islam they will not be punished under US constitution, diametrically opposite of Sharia judgment.
    Sharia demands that anyone leaving Islam must be put to death, US Const gives people freedom of(from) religion.
    Sharia includes Diyyat laws according to which a Muslim man is worth about 4 times as much as a Christian woman.
    US const does not allow such blatant discrimination.
    Separation of religion and state guaranteed by US const is negated by Sharia.
    SO I guess the anti-Sharia camp has their perspective from US const. And the essence of being a US citizen lies in abiding by US constitution.
    So ant-Shariah camp is actually pro-Constitution camp. I don’t see anything un or anti American about it.
    I do see Sharia as inherently anti-American and with reason so shall you.

  • David:
    You have given a compelling defense of Rashad Hussain.
    Since you have been reasonably close to him, you can shed light on issues he may not have talked about in public.
    I notice that his parents originally belonged to the Kashmir Muslim community in India. I strongly suspect that he discussed with you the “plight”

  • Moorthy:
    It is, as always, good to hear your feedback. With respect to Rashad’s opinion of the Kashmir conflict, it is not something that he ever brought up. This is not to say that he does not have views on the conflict, but that he never expressed them to me — such that I have simply thought of him as an “Indian Muslim” during my time knowing him rather than as Kashmiri.
    There have been other reader comments that deserve some response, but I’m off to spend the rest of the day with a very good friend whom I rarely see. I may weigh in again later.

  • Daveed
    As always, thank you for the clarification.
    We all continue to evolve our thoughts on all issues; Rashad Hussain should be no different.
    Since you and others didn’t, I need to bring up here Obama’s Cairo speech.
    According to ABC’s Jack Tapper: “Hussain is a devout Muslim and helped inform the speech President Obama gave in Cairo – particularly with the speech’s references to the history of Islam and the Koran, and its general tone.”

  • Render says:

    Given that Geller openly published articles from the BNP I fail to see why her opinion is relevent to anything at all.

  • Magnolia says:

    “In other words, Obama, guided by the likes of Rashad Hussain failed to identify the problem in Muslim communities and in their religion.
    Really? Is that was what that speech was supposed to do?
    I can’t imagine that would’ve been well received.

  • “Really? Is that was what that speech was supposed to do?
    can’t imagine that would’ve been well received.”

  • WDSF says:

    I thank you for writing this article. Even though I do not agree on all your points on the OIC, the right-wing has taken this story and spin-ed so badly. To implicate an American Citizen as being un-American by using subjective evidence is wrong, and other right-wing commentators should be ashamed of themselves.

  • Jim says:

    Thanks for your comments, Moorthy, and, more importantly (although slightly off-topic here), thanks for your excellent book, Defeating Political Islam. I learned a lot from it and deeply appreciate your contribution to this global struggle.
    Your questions regarding Hussain’s views on Kashmir are excellent. Would that Hussain, this kid, really, with no more credit to his name than being a pedigree as a devout Muslim with a law degree, was available for interviews, press conferences and some real scrutiny. About his own bona fides and also about his new job-related issues.
    I’ve begun to think that Muslims who, like him, argue that Islam’s “hijacked” by violent misunderstanders and those who invoke the religion’s teachings to say quite the opposite are ALL insincere. If they weren’t they’d be challenging each other to frank, detailed open debate. Instead, they conveniently participate in the endless shell game that leave the rest of us spinning in our tracks and going nowhere.
    What if, hypothetically, western leaders honestly declared jihad itself to be as threatening a doctrine to liberal values as the communist disregard for democracy? We’d then embark on a real war of ideas and, as you argue so well in your book, we need to do that because we’re otherwise fighting and losing it anyways.

  • Thank you, Jim.
    Let me follow through on your earlier post.
    I think you are right on the mark. Conviction in their thought process drives the jihadists and those Muslims who claim that Islam has been violently “hijacked”

  • Josh Goldberg, a long-time friend of Rashad Hussain, has a piece today defending him. Goldberg has known Hussain for 17 years, and makes the point that he has discussed most every issue imaginable with him: “I have eaten in his house more times that I can recall and discussed every issue imaginable – from Middle East peace to Tiger Woods.”
    We had a brief exchange of e-mails earlier today, and he confirmed my earlier statement that Hussain has never really discussed the Kashmir conflict: “Rashad has never, ever mentioned anything about Kashmir in 17 years.”

  • Mr T says:

    And his parents are from Kashmir? That just doesn’t sound right. I have been away from my home state for 20 years but I talk about it quite often. I have a lot of roots there.
    Complete absence of mention is illogical to me and raises red flags. Is it reasonable, sure. Is it suspicious in light of his overall controversy, certainly. Thats a big ticket item and for someone with roots there who is politically active to not have mentioned it is strange. Almost political in itself.

  • Josh Goldberg says:

    Mr. T – the comment referring to Kashmir says that Rashad’s parents “originally” belonged to the Kashmir Muslim community. I am not sure what that means but Rashad’s heritage is in India, not Kashmir; hence why Kashmir wouldn’t ever come up in conversation as it would not be relevant.
    The specious Kashmir claim has no basis in fact – and I can attest to the fact that Rashad does not, based on my discussions with him over a 17 year period, view it is a topic of expertise or interest.
    Rashad is an American. He was born here, grew up here. and attempts to “foreignize” or radicalize him are not just wrong but reflective of attempts to undermine and delegitimize him.
    I think it is time to dispense with the conspiracy theories, it is getting a bit ridiculous at this point.

  • Josh
    I am the one who initially brought up the issue of Kashmir.
    This was based upon the background of his parents, which appears to have Kashmir links.
    The Kashmir jihad is one of the most popular causes among the jihadists and can be considered a litmus test of Muslims here in America whose families are from the region.
    We have every right to vet Muslims or anyone for identification with jihadist ideologies for important federal positions. To do so is not to “”foreignize” or radicalize him [Rashad] are not just wrong but reflective of attempts to undermine and delegitimize him.”


Islamic state



Al shabaab

Boko Haram