(RNS) Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday (Feb. 16)officially introduced the Obama administration’s new special envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference, 31-year-old White House lawyer Rashad Hussain.
Hussain is the American-born son of Indian Muslim immigrants; he received a law degree from Yale and masters degrees from Harvard in public administration and Islamic studies.
More important to his credibility in the Muslim world, Hussain is a hafiz, someone who has memorized the Quran, Islam’s holy book.
In his first meeting at the OIC’s headquarters in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Hussain met with Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the OIC’s secretary general, as well as members of the group’s Science and Technology Department.
The meeting suggests that Hussain will focus less on hot-spots like Palestine or Afghanistan, and more on economic development, a key component of Obama’s “smart power” approach to relations with Islamic countries.
“The No. 1 priority in this part of the world is jobs, jobs, and jobs, and education that leads to jobs,” said Al-Husein Madhany, a long-time friend of Hussain’s, and an Islamic studies expert who works on development and governance issues in the Muslim world.
Madhany said Hussein’s relative youth would be an advantage. In Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Yemen, Jordan and several smaller Muslim countries, people under 25 represent more than half of the population; in many other Muslim-majority countries, they comprise more than 40 percent of the population.
“The fact that he’s 31 will make it easier for younger people to connect with him,” said Madhany, who in 2008 co-authored a Brookings Institution paper with Hussain on “Understanding the Role of Islam in Counterterrorism Policy.”
Madhany said news of Husain’s appointment is reaching the Muslim masses. “Its front page news all over the Gulf,” he said.
Hussain replaces Texas businessman Sada Cumber, who was President George W. Bush’s envoy to the OIC. Obama’s other representative to the broader Muslim world is Farah Pandith, 42, who also served in George W. Bush’s administration.