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Why the U.S. Needs Its Envoys

Particularly at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation

A picture taken on November 17, 2016 shows the national flags of the members of Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) states flying in front of the clock of the Abraj al-Bait Towers which overlooks the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Mecca. / AFP / STRINGER

by Arsalan Suleman

Over the past few months, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has undertaken a radical shakeup of his department and has expressed a desire to remove a number of special envoys and representatives. Although it is healthy to prune positions that have become redundant or obsolete, reckless downsizing without the proper replacement for key functions could damage national security. The U.S. special envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) is one such position that if removed would eliminate a proven platform for building constructive partnerships with Muslim-majority countries and communities on core national security issues. In fact, given the spread of global terrorism and the ongoing conflicts and humanitarian crises in OIC member countries over the last few years, the position should be not only maintained but also enhanced.

Since 2008, the special envoy to the OIC, which was created at the tail end of President George W. Bush’s administration, has represented the United States at the OIC, a 57-member international organization made up of states with substantial Muslim populations. Its membership spans the globe and includes some of the United States’ closest allies, such as the NATO members Albania and Turkey, and half of its major non-NATO allies (Afghanistan, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Pakistan, and Tunisia). The OIC actively engages with the United States on a wide variety of issues, such as conflict resolution, countering extremism, humanitarian affairs, human rights, and economic development.

At first, the special envoy to the OIC focused principally on efforts, through public diplomacy, to engage with Muslim communities around the world. This was motivated in large part by the need to demonstrate, in the aftermath of the disastrous U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the ongoing quagmire in Afghanistan, that the United States was not at war with Islam. But in 2010, President Barack Obama broadened the envoy’s mandate to deepen and expand U.S. partnerships with the OIC, in line with what he had advocated in his June 2009 speech in Cairo. He had called for “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world,” and so he added several much-needed areas of collaboration, such as conflict resolution; humanitarian affairs; health, science, and technology; human rights; entrepreneurship; and countering violent extremism. 

The expanded role of the special envoy yielded substantial dividends that would otherwise have been unattainable, since there is no other position at the State Department that could carry out a productive and sustainable relationship with the OIC. Having served as the acting special envoy for two years and the deputy special envoy for over four years before that, I observed firsthand the unique access that the position of special envoy provided to senior foreign government officials and religious leaders. At the OIC’s invitation, the special envoy attended four OIC heads-of-state summits and witnessed such historic moments as the OIC’s suspension of Syria’s membership in 2012, former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s presiding over the 2013 OIC summit in Cairo, and, on several occasions, the symbolic exchanges between the Iranian and Saudi heads of state. The envoy’s role provided a distinct, collaborative platform for addressing sensitive issues that intersect with religion and for engaging with senior religious and community leaders.

The special envoy to the OIC also broke new ground on tough issues such as conflict resolution and counterterrorism. In 2014, the envoy collaborated with the OIC in facilitating the first civil-society-led intrafaith mediation effort in the Central African Republic. Over several years, the United States worked with the OIC to solidify international support for concrete action on countering violent extremism. This included promoting the UN secretary-general’s 2016 Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism, the UN’s first comprehensive strategy to address the underlying conditions that fuel radicalization. Other joint U.S.-OIC projects for fighting extremism have included partnering with the Global Counterterrorism Forum and the OIC’s Islamic Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (ISESCO) to examine the role of religious education in advancing peace and countering violence—the first-ever OIC-wide program. To build on this progress, the United States, the OIC, and ISESCO are now collaborating on an effort to help grass-roots religious and community leaders develop and implement initiatives for countering extremism.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C) poses for a family photo with the leaders of participating countries during a family photo of 13th Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Summit at Istanbul Congress Center (ICC).
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday hosts over 30 heads of state and government from Islamic countries in Istanbul for a major summit aimed at overcoming differences in the Muslim world. Turkey seeks to showcase its influence in the Muslim world, particularly in lands once controlled by the Ottoman Empire, at the two-day summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

Throughout its engagement with the OIC, the special envoy has prioritized the protection of human rights, routinely championing the equal rights of religious minorities and opposing laws that criminalize blasphemy and apostasy. This advocacy successfully ended the OIC’s “defamation of religions” resolution in the UN, which had been used by various states to legitimize blasphemy laws and other restrictions on free expression. It was replaced instead with a consensus resolution on combating religious intolerance, discrimination, and violence, which then helped guide other countries in tackling those issues. 

The special envoy has made a concerted effort to promote women’s rights and combat gender-based violence, which has helped undercut assertions that there are religious justifications for such practices. In 2016, for example, the United States and the OIC co-convened panels at the UN highlighting the role of religious leaders in combating female genital mutilation or cutting (FGM/C) and the role of women in promoting social change. Several religious leaders who spoke at the UN event on FGM/C launched public-awareness campaigns debunking religious justifications for the practice. In one video released early last year, several survivors of FGM/C spoke out against the custom, as did Imam Mohamed Magid, the former president of the Islamic Society of North America, who said, “Such practice cause[s] a woman not to live her life fully with dignity and it cause[s] her physical harm.” 

Other areas of cooperation have included addressing humanitarian and health emergencies, such as the famine in Somalia, the Syrian refugee crisis, the Ebola epidemic, and the delivery of aid to war-torn Yemen. Such efforts have expanded significantly over the past eight years. Back in 2009, there was no formal mechanism for U.S.-OIC humanitarian collaboration. That changed in 2012, when a memorandum of understanding for cooperation was established, allowing strategic dialogues, expert exchanges, and joint forums of nongovernmental organizations. And in late 2016, the special envoy helped successfully negotiate an indefinite cooperation agreement between the OIC and the U.S. Agency for International Development, which resulted in further efforts to train humanitarian responders. Other key global health projects have included promoting maternal and child health and accelerating the eradication of polio, particularly to improve the reach and effectiveness of vaccination programs in Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan. 

The role of the U.S. special envoy to the OIC has proved so effective that seven U.S. partners—Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, and the United Kingdom—have all appointed special envoys to the OIC as well. Eliminating this position would derail significant partnerships and slow down the international momentum to constructively engage with the OIC. In fact, the special envoy’s substantial track record justifies elevating the role to an ambassadorship, which would guarantee that the position receive the resources it needs to continue its mandate. Right now, the special envoy lacks dedicated funding and staffing and does not have a fixed placement within the State Department. Creating an ambassadorship need not be difficult. The United States already has a consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where the OIC is based, and has room to house an ambassador. What’s more, the United States has ambassadors for other regional organizations of which it is not a member, such as the European Union, the African Union, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. It’s time to create one for the OIC.

The power to create such a position lies with Congress, but the special envoy to the OIC is of bipartisan lineage—begun by Bush and expanded by Obama—and should therefore continue as such. President Donald Trump already tacitly demonstrated support for U.S. outreach to OIC members during his trip to Saudi Arabia in May, where he led the Arab Islamic American Summit, which included all of the OIC’s members except Iran and Syria. As Tillerson decides on which positions to eliminate, he should not only maintain the role of the special envoy to the OIC but also recommend that Congress upgrade it to an ambassadorship.

This article was originally published on ForeignAffairs.com.

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