Biden’s envoy for religious freedom

As a Muslim growing up in Dallas, Rashad Hussain learned how the freedom to worship can be a force for world peace.

Reuters
People from the Yazidi religious sect, persecuted by Islamic State, stand in line to vote in Iraq's Oct. 8 election.

Growing up in Dallas as a devout Muslim decades ago, Rashad Hussain noticed only a few mosques in his Texas city. Now there are dozens, an affirmation, he says, of the American freedom to worship. On Tuesday, a Senate panel welcomed him as the president’s nominee to be ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. If approved by the full Senate as expected, he would be the first Muslim to hold the position, marking a strong break from past bigotry against Islam in the United States.

Major Christian and Jewish leaders endorsed the nomination, noting Mr. Hussain’s work under two previous presidents in seeking religious harmony in troubled countries and finding ways to prevent young Muslims from joining terrorist groups. As he said in his testimony, “In an era of vigorous partisan debates, Americans continue to be largely of one mind regarding the importance of defending international religious freedom.”

His appointment would affirm a recent finding by the Institute for Economics and Peace. In a global survey, the think tank found that religious plurality in countries can have a pacifying effect, countering the notion that religion is a driver of violence and the main cause of conflicts.

The post of envoy for religious freedom, created by Congress in 1998, reflects both a basic right in the U.S. and the country’s long and hard struggle to protect it. “Our own experience, our own example, is what compels us to advocate for the rights of the marginalized, vulnerable, and underrepresented peoples the world over,” said Mr. Hussain.

His past work includes working with Middle East religious leaders on a 2016 document, known as the Marrakesh Declaration, that laid out Islamic principles for protecting the rights of minority religious groups. As someone who memorized the Quran and earned a Yale law degree, he relies on positive ways to end religious discrimination.

During the Obama administration, for example, he sought to create constructive paths for young Muslims to express their faith rather than being tempted to join the Islamic State group. He worked in Muslim countries to offer alternatives to media that dehumanized non-Muslims.

His main diplomatic tactic is to convene people of different faiths for heartfelt dialogues, pushing them to rely on each religion’s concept of love. As the late Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of Britain, wrote, “To insist that being loved entails that others be unloved is to fail to understand love itself.”

Many people of minority religions, from Muslims in China to Christians in Vietnam, share a common experience of persecution. “I am committed to fighting, day in and day out, for their rights,” he told the senators. It is a right he knows well from the days when he freely worshipped as a Muslim in Dallas.

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