Rashad Hussain's appointment as the Obama administration's envoy to the Organization of Islamic Countries, part of the broader strategy of outreach to the Muslim world, was as welcome as it was overdue. Hussain, a lawyer who had been working in the White House counsel's office and also working with the NSC on Muslim engagement, seemed an excellent pick. The announcement in Doha showed a renewed sense of urgency about delivering on the promise of Obama's Cairo speech to the Muslim world. It is good to see a Muslim appointed to such a position. After the failed Christmas bombing most would agree that the task of combatting violent extremism is as urgent a national security priority as ever.
But then, an all-too-familiar script began to play out. A paper-thin but insinuation-heavy hit piece laid out the template for a rapidly unfolding smear campaign: damning him by association for appearances at various events sponsored by Muslim organizations, for being on the "wrong" side of a number of controversial trials of Muslims (as if there were only one legitimate perspective on those hotly contested issues), and of allegedly doctoring the record of comments about Sami al-Arian (see Daveed Gartenstein-Ross's detailed, rigorous analysis of the textual evidence which decisively debunks the charge). The hit piece was quickly picked up by the noise machine and disseminated through a range of right wing blogs and websites, migrating seamlessly to Fox News and Politico, and becoming the fodder for another manufactured scandal of the day. Within days, it has become standard to describe Hussain as a "terrorist sympathizer"... and the hate is flowing. It is no less despicable for being so commonplace.
One irony is that Hussain is actually one of those Muslims who has been speaking out against extremism, forcefully and eloquently, and whose role in Muslim engagement was explicitly focused on building alliances with Muslims around the world to marginalize al-Qaeda. In a Brookings paper published in 2008, Hussain wrote that "[T]he terrorist ideology is advocated by small, fringe groups and rejected by a vast majority of Muslims . . . as American policymakers and leaders have recognized, Islam rejects terrorism." He argued that "there exists a near-unanimous, overwhelmingly accepted view among Islamic scholars rejecting terrorism and the practice of takfir to justify terrorism." He went on to argue that "If the global coalition to stop Al-Qaeda and other terrorists groups is to succeed, it must convince potential terrorists that Islam requires them to reject terrorism." Indeed, he argued, "The most paramount task for the global counterterrorism coalition is to emphasize that engaging in terrorism is antithetical to the shari’ah, or Islamic law." This is not a close call.
That a Muslim who has written so powerfully against extremism and terrorism is nevertheless so casually tarred as a terrorist sympathizer is shameful. It is also strategically dangerous. Those serious about counter-terrorism and combatting violent extremism now mostly understand that such campaigns also have the potential to deal a sharp blow against U.S. efforts to combat violent extremism and to counter al-Qaeda's narrative. It threatens to offer ammunition to al-Qaeda's claim that the U.S. is at war with Islam, not with "extremism", and to sabotage Obama's efforts to establish a new narrative. Hussain's critics know perfectly well that he's not a terrorist and doesn't support terrorism, and probably understand that their campaign against him will have a negative impact on the Muslim community in America and beyond. Evidently they don't care.
Fortunately, the story doesn't end there. The bright spot in this sordid affair has been the willingness of a few national security experts on the hawkish side of the spectrum to stand up in public and denounce the railroading of Hussain. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, wrote a powerful personal defense of Hussein as primarily motivated by civil liberties concerns, not by Islamism. He took that defense on TV, where he had to face the wild-eyed insanity of Frank Gaffney (apparently, memorizing the Quran is evidence of extremism) and to confont head-on the madness of the anti-Islamic post-9/11 fringe. Some other conservative national security experts rose to Gartenstein-Ross's defense -- I'll single out Max Boot and Eli Lake, though they certainly aren't the only ones. For others, well, welcome to the Islamofascist stealth jihad, ya Daveed.
The response of these national security conservatives has been heartening. There's more and more understanding of the importance of disaggregating the challenge, placing al-Qaeda and the jihadist movement as a dangerous but tiny fringe movement rather than lumping together all Islamists or Muslims. Pushing back against this campaign is important just as it was essential to not over-react after Fort Hood or the Christmas bombing. So is the response of the White House, which has stood fast against the smears rather than folding at the first sign of an attack. Hopefully both national-security conservatives and the White House will continue to do so. If sensible people stand up against these contemptible smears, it could send a powerful message that the days of such intimidation and smear campaigns are past. Let's hope.