Meeting with Concern: American Muslim Leaders Meet With Visiting Muslim Heads of State

Some weeks ago I was invited to attend a meeting with an important but controversial international Muslim leader.  I was conflicted about accepting the invitation.  I called the ‘usual suspects’ and asked if they were attending.  I have had concerns regarding the utility of attending such meetings.   Should I risk attending? Are they really listening or merely using the meeting for validation?  What will my friends in other faith communities say?  And ultimately, what is my role as an American, as a Muslim and as a person committed to the peaceful advancement of humanity?

I believe that in this critical time, American Muslims must exert leadership on foreign policy matters and that The White House and US State Department need to deploy American Muslims to address visiting diplomats.  Unfortunately, many Muslim heads of state while visiting America rarely take the initiative to meet with American Muslim representatives.

The Islamic Republic of Iran stands out as an exception.  Not having an embassy here, I must applaud the efforts of The Iranian Interest Section which serves as their diplomatic arm in the US.  They consistently gather representatives both Shiites and Sunnis including American Muslim voices of descent to meet with their representatives during state visits.

The first Muslim head of state I ever met was Iranian president Mohammad Khatimi.  During a visit to the United Nations he shared with American Muslim leaders over dinner his vision for the “Dialogue of Civilizations” and not Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations”.  I enjoyed our interactions and hoped that he would work toward improved US-Iranian relations.  After the change in the political futures of President Mohammad Khatimi, their US representatives continued the tradition with now president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Last year I and other leaders had dinner with the Iranian president.  I shared with the President of Iran that it does no good to his advocacy of the Palestinian cause to ‘appear’ to deny the Jewish Holocaust in Nazi Germany.  We confronted him on the issues of human rights for religious minorities such as the Bahai’s in Iran and denounced the development of nuclear capability for both peaceful and military uses.  God only knows how effective our discourse was.  But we can say that we said it directly to the president of The Republic as Muslims and as Americans. We presented letters from the mothers of the three hikers arrested in Iran for “spying”.  We applied our influence to ask for their release and just prior to Ahmadinejad’s recent visit he released the female hiker, Sara Shourd, for that we were grateful.

After deep reflection, I accepted the invitation for dinner with the president of The Islamic Republic of Iran and last night (Monday, September 20th 2010), I and many  “so called” American Muslim leaders met in New York City with president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  We requested the release of the remaining two American hikers.  In each gathering I and many of our representatives have expressed our commonality as Muslims but we also have differences of opinion.  Not withstanding my criticism I am invited back year after year.  I pray that our advice and criticism will have a positive influence on the understanding and policies of foreign leaders.

Although, American Muslims have been sent by the US State Department to improve the image of America abroad by engaging the “Arab Street” through cultural performances, academic visits and economic diplomacy a significant criticism after the powerful “Cairo Speech” was the regrettably limited engagement with traditional Muslim leaders in America.  Our president, Barack Obama, has said that if we want peace we must talk not only to our friends but those who we have differences of opinion with.  In that spirit American Muslim leaders must meet with visiting Muslim officials as long as we are free to raise our voices to provide constructive criticism and strategic insight from the perspective of Muslims and Americans.

A positive sign from the Obama administration is the appointment of Rashad Hussain as the US Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC).  The OIC is composed of the ambassadors from majority Muslim nations.  I look forward to dialoguing with him regarding the engagement of America Muslims to meet with the leaders of the OIC representatives.

Finally, if our government were to facilitate the networking of Muslim ambassadors and American Muslim leaders it would send a clear and consistent message that American Muslims are valued and respected partners in US society.  I believe this would be a good next step in building bridges between America and the Muslim world and a giant step in the service of world peace and global understanding.

Who knows maybe one day I might be serving my nation as a US Ambassador to a Muslim country forging global relations between America and the Muslim world….But until then….I’ll Be “Living Islam in America”.

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