Thank you, Wade, for that introduction. And thank you for the important work that you have led and continue to lead at the Leadership Conference, work that has made our country stronger and better. It is always a pleasure to see you and it is an honor to be here with you tonight.
And thank you very much to Zainab and to Jill and everyone else at AIC for inviting me to speak here this evening. Mike Posner, the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, and my boss, had been looking forward to being here, and he regrets that last minute travel pulled him away. In any case, his loss is my gain, for it is truly a delight to be able to celebrate with you and to commemorate the work that AIC has done over the last decade.
The American Islamic Congress is a remarkable organization, not only because of the valuable work which the AIC does to foster tolerance and understanding here at home and abroad, but also because of the story of its origins. Most of you know that the AIC was founded in the months after 9/11. At the time of the 10 year anniversary two months ago, many of us found ourselves, one way or another—either because of a newspaper article or television retrospective, or simply as we stared at the date on the calendar—transported back in time to the horror and sorrow of that moment in our nation’s history. It was a time when feeling quite understandably trumped thinking, and the talking heads—with more wisdom than they often demonstrate—concluded that it would take the distance afforded by time before we could fully grasp the meaning and implications of 9/11. And that’s why it’s particularly notable to me that in the midst of that moment wrought with emotion, the AIC was founded not on an emotional response, but rather with an explicit commitment to the principles of human rights and fundamental freedoms that Americans, and the world, would need to keep front and center as we sought to reckon with and move forward constructively after 9/11.
Inspired by the particular and urgent challenge of countering rising anti-Muslim sentiment, the AIC didn’t limit its stated moral scope. Instead it recognized from the outset that the protection of individuals who are members of a particular group is best achieved through adherence to and advocacy for universal principles. That simple truth is lost on so many, and yet is so crucial to our progress toward a more peaceful and just world for everyone.
Tonight I want to talk about how, as a policy-maker, I see the work of the AIC as particularly relevant in the context of two broad challenges that have been central to American foreign policy in the last decade and will continue to be central in the decade to come, especially as we work to support democratic transitions in the Middle East.
The first is the challenge of promoting, reinforcing, and upholding universal standards that apply to everyone, including ourselves. And the second is combating intolerance. The first is about securing the basic rules requisite for living together. The second is about increasing the likelihood that those rules will be respected, and that the universal principles on which they are grounded will be appreciated.
Working constantly and earnestly to secure universal respect for human rights is an imperative that follows from a commitment to human dignity. But reinforcing the responsibilities of all governments to protect and respect human rights, to secure those rights in law and demonstrate a commitment to those rights in practice, is also fundamental to the long term security and prosperity of the United States. A world with more rights-respecting democracies will be more stable, more able to resolve conflicts and solve shared problems peacefully and efficiently. Achieving such a world must be a central strategic objective of U.S. foreign policy, and that is why it is acknowledged as such in the President’s National Security Strategy.
When she was asked recently to sum up her approach to foreign policy, Secretary Clinton said “I believe strongly in the United States of America. I believe in our values. I believe our values represent the greatest accomplishment in political history and the history of the world, and those values are not just American values. So I believe the United States has both an opportunity and obligation to make clear around the world that democracy and freedom, free market economies that are open, and meritocracies, providing support for people’s human rights and those fundamental badges of liberty that we know enhance your God-given potential, that’s who we are as a people.”
The Secretary was right. And I’m not just saying that because she’s my boss. The Obama Administration has upheld and re-affirmed the American commitment—sustained through Republican and Democratic administrations alike– to promoting human rights and democratic governance in the world.
Because we recognize that change is more likely to “stick” and remain when it’s driven from within, we have invested in support for citizen-changemakers and NGOs around the world. We have created new mechanisms—such as Lifeline, a fund to support embattled NGOs in countries where the government restricts or attacks them, which Secretary Clinton announced in Krakow in the summer of 2010. More than a dozen other governments have joined us with financial commitments, and the first round of grants have kept advocacy organizations running in some of the most difficult places.
We’ve pushed for respect for human rights in our bilateral diplomacy and in our public statements. Even in our most complex relationships, like our relationship with China, we have made clear that human rights are a central plank of our agenda. I recently traveled to Xinjiang in western China and in discussions with officials made clear that upholding the legal rights of Uighurs and protecting their fundamental freedoms was far more likely to bring about stability than heavy-handed repression. Similarly, we also make clear that restrictions on freedom of expression and failures to uphold the rule of law are inconsistent with Pakistan’s international obligations and a risk to Pakistan’s long term stability.
And as a new era begins in the Middle East, we’ve made clear repeatedly that the universal aspirations behind the revolutions must be fulfilled by the new governments that replace old regimes. After the fall of Mubarak, President Obama declared that “nothing less than genuine democracy will carry the day…that means protecting the rights of Egypt’s citizens, lifting the emergency law, revising the Constitution and other laws to make this change irreversible, and laying out a clear path to elections that are fair and free.” More recently, a couple weeks ago in Tripoli Secretary Clinton remarked that “democracy makes a virtue of the diversity of its people. No democracy can function effectively unless every group contributes. So Libya will need the talents of all of its people, young people, women, people from every part of the country.”
In addition to our direct engagement with governments, we’ve worked with others in the international community to reinforce human rights standards in multi-lateral fora. We led the effort at the Human Rights Council to create a Special Rapporteur to report on the human rights violations perpetrated by the Iranian regime. We worked with partners around the world to create the first-ever Special Rapporteur on freedom of association and peaceful assembly, so that there will be a prominent voice calling attention to the restrictions that governments place on their citizens and NGOs. And last spring we achieved a major victory when we successfully engaged the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and its members to find an alternative to the so-called “Defamation of Religion” resolution. That resolution, which promoted the idea that the proper response to religious intolerance was to criminalize speech and endow religions, rather than persons, with rights, was a threat to established international standards. We engaged diplomatically and said “look, there’s a real problem here—religious intolerance, including anti-Muslim intolerance, is a scourge. So let’s find a practical way of addressing it.” And we were successful in achieving an alternative resolution that focuses on cooperating to enhance education and combat intolerance. Secretary Clinton traveled to Istanbul in July to reiterate our commitment to that resolution, and announced that we will convene international experts here in Washington to work on action plans that will advance its objectives.
Securing human rights around the world requires not only the investment of resources and diplomatic effort abroad, it requires a commitment to demonstrate that the principles we defend really are universal, that they apply to everyone, including ourselves. Former President Clinton reminded us, in 2008, that the “people around the world have always been more impressed by the power of our example than the example of our power.”
And so we have sought to lead by example. President Obama, on his first full day in office, signed an Executive Order on Ensuring Lawful Interrogations. In February of 2009 the President signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. And last December the President signed legislation that repealed Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. With each of these actions we have continued to make progress toward a more perfect union – to show that, as the President has said, “here in the United States there is no ‘them’ or ‘us;’ it’s just us”.
As we have advocated for more inclusive societies abroad, and for governments that secure the rights and well-being of all of their citizens without distinction for race, ethnicity, religion, gender, disability, or any other aspect of diversity, we have worked to advance our own protections for all citizens here at home. The President has convened an interagency process working with Native American tribal leaders to address health, education and other challenges. Similarly, the Administration has engaged the Muslim American community — just as it does with other segments of American society — in all aspects of domestic policy, including health, education, and law enforcement, because we view the community as a source of solutions. And we have continued to prosecute hate crimes and discrimination in employment against Muslim Americans, as well as protect the rights of Muslim Americans to build mosques and practice their religion freely. The President made very clear in his State of the Union speech this year that as we confront our common challenges, we do so “with the conviction that American Muslims are a part of our American family.”
Last year we demonstrated our commitment to universal standards when we participated in the Universal Periodic Review process, in which every country in the world presents its own record on human rights to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. To prepare our report and presentation, we engaged in an unprecedented set of consultations hosted by civil society groups across America. Senior federal officials met with citizens and activists from Dearborn, Michigan to New Orleans; from San Francisco to the Navajo nation in Window Rock, Arizona to Harlem. We listened to what we heard and drew from our meetings to produce a report that highlighted our strengths and successes and was candid about the areas in which we need to make more progress. A year ago, a senior delegation of federal officials travelled to Geneva to present our report to the Human Rights Council, and after presenting, we held an open meeting with civil society in the Palais de Nations in Geneva, where the delegation took questions—much tougher and more substantive questions than we got in the Council in most cases—from NGO representatives.
We were particularly honored to have Zainab there with us, as a public delegate on our delegation. I will always remember overhearing Zainab outside the Council chamber being interviewed by a journalist who was clearly keen to get her to offer a negative comment. The journalist asked a leading question, something like “don’t you find that Americans hate Muslims, aren’t you oppressed?” to which Zainab responded “As a Muslim American woman, I am more free to practice my religion and to live my life as I choose in America than I ever was before I came to America.” I knew that Zainab, like many others, didn’t have a stainless American experience. And she didn’t say “America’s perfect.” But her reply exhibited a confidence in the promise that our country represents for so many: the promise that the principles on which our country was founded will continue to provide the foundation for progress.
We have work left to do. Wade and others do a good job of reminding us of that, and of pushing us to do better. And I’m confident that we’ll keep making progress.
It is difficult now to reckon with the fact that a year ago, if I had stood at a podium like this one, and predicted that Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Qaddafi would be gone, and that the people of Syria would have bravely taken to the streets over months to issue the clarion call that Assad must go, and Assad, by his own violations and response would have eliminated his international legitimacy, , everyone would have been willing to bet me more than whatever they bid on tonight’s silent auction, that I was wrong. 2011 has been a momentous year of change, one for the history books. And while we have already seen hopeful new beginnings like last month’s elections in Tunisia, there is much hard work ahead. Building democracies isn’t easy. But it’s worth it. And now our commitment to holding fast to human rights as first principles is as important as ever. It is for the people of Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya to build constitutions, governments, and societies that represent the aspirations and protect the rights of Egyptians, Tunisians, and Libyans. And the international community must stand ready to support them in that work, to support inclusive political processes, fair and free elections, and peaceful transitions. Securing human rights for all citizens should be a central goal guiding the new governments, and fidelity to human rights and fundamental freedoms should also guide the process through which new governments are born.
As I said at the outset, the AIC has been committed to advocating for universal rights, and empowering others to do so. The AIC has trained hundreds of activists, and particularly women, who are cut out of political processes and decision-making to the detriment of good governance and human rights all over the world, and who have been historically left out in the Middle East. The work of the AIC to empower these local actors will help them work with their compatriots, and debate with them and argue with them when necessary, to secure new constitutions that protect the rights of all, including members of minority groups and women.
We shouldn’t expect transitions to be neat and tidy. Everyone in Tahrir Square agreed that Mubarak had to go, they agreed that an Egypt that did far better at meeting the economic and political aspirations of its people was possible. But we shouldn’t be surprised that not everyone agrees on how to make it happen. It is one of the virtues of rights respecting democracies that disagreements about how to achieve national goals can be accommodated peacefully in democratic debates.
These transitions represent tremendous moments of human opportunity. And it is in moments like this that the first challenge I talked about—the challenge of securing respect for human rights for everyone—is so obviously important in order to ensure that people can work together to design and bring about a better common future.
But getting constitutions and laws that protect human rights isn’t enough. Getting governments that are committed to enforcing human rights protections isn’t enough. Because those achievements are improbable if not impossible without also tackling, at the same time, the intolerance that too often tears societies apart and prevents people from working together to build a better tomorrow. And so that is where the second challenge comes in.
“Fighting intolerance” can sound treacle and mushy—it can come off as a “soft” agenda. And those of us who talk about it can sometimes find ourselves dismissed as being on a quest for a “kumbaya” moment. That’s wrong. Those who dismiss it as soft will run up against the hard fact that unless we confront hate, unless leaders take it on as a threat to healthy politics and healthy societies, they won’t achieve either.
The proof is in the history—of the last decade, of the last century, of the human experience. Securing rights in law and establishing governmental institutions that enforce the rule of law is necessary but not sufficient—respect for the dignity of each person must echo not only in courtrooms but also in classrooms, it must be written not only into constitutions, but also into the sermons of prelates, it must be felt not only in the rhetoric of leaders, but also in the hearts of citizens.
There are leaders who have and will continue to exploit rifts rather than mend them, to burn houses of worship rather than build them, to oppress rather than enable. But we have seen the strength of unity across the Middle East and North Africa – like in Tahrir Square, when the protesters chanted “Muslim, Christian, we are all Egyptian”, and members of both faith communities protected each other from harm while they performed prayer services. Our challenge is to support those fighting intolerance, those who recognize that stable and prosperous societies are built on recognition of the common dignity underlying universal human rights and fundamental freedoms, not on division and hate. We are committed to that struggle.
Last year, at a high-level meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the US Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, Hannah Rosenthal, and the Special Representative to Muslim Communities, Farah Pandith, were each preparing to deliver speeches about Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Then, late the night before, they got an idea: they decided to swap. Of course people were surprised when a Muslim spoke out forcefully against anti-Semitism and a Jew condemned Islamophobia. It was an effective attention getter. But it also sent a deeper message. Because fighting anti-Semitism isn’t the job of Jews. Fighting hatred of Muslims isn’t the responsibility of Muslims. Combatting misogyny isn’t women’s work. Rejecting homophobia isn’t for gays alone. It’s all of our work. If anything, those who are the targets of a particular strand of hate are often less able to fight against it. We are each diminished by hatred in our midst. We are each responsible for replacing it with understanding and tolerance.
Tolerance can be misunderstood as merely abiding, or putting up with something. But in the sense I’m talking about it tonight, tolerance means something different. Tolerance is better understood as being comfortable with difference, as using an appreciation for human dignity as the foundation for being at ease with human diversity.
Last week I attended an award ceremony for a Muslim American man, a Bangladeshi immigrant, who was working at a 7-eleven in Dallas ten days after 9/11 when a white supremacist seeking “revenge” came in, asked him where he was from, and before he could answer, shot him in the face with a shotgun. Rais Bhuiyan survived, unlike two other victims of Mark Stroman’s anti-Muslim rage. After turning to his faith to find forgiveness, in the decade that followed Bhuiyan led a campaign to have his attempted murderer’s death penalty sentence commuted. Stroman was executed last July, but Bhuiyan continues his advocacy.
There’s a line in the Koran that starts “show forgiveness, speak for justice,” five words that serve as a pretty good guide to each of us who seek to make our societies, and our world, a more just and gentle place.
Thank you very much for having me.