Roundtable With Special Envoy to the Organization of the Islamic ConferenceSada Cumber, Special Envoy, Organization of the Islamic Conference
Foreign Press Center Roundtable
March 26, 2008
MODERATOR: This is just a fairly casual roundtable. I just wanted to present -- as you know, President Bush recently announced the Special Envoy for the Organization of the Islamic Conference. And so it's with great pleasure we have here at the Foreign Press Center Sada Cumber, who is the President's Special Envoy. And we'll just kind of open it up to him for some brief remarks and then we'll go to questions and answers.
MR. CUMBER: Okay. Thank you. We're settled down now. You want to wait or you want to just move forward?
MODERATOR: No, I think we go ahead and start.
MR. CUMBER: Okay.
MODERATOR: Those who were prompt that are on time, (inaudible).
MR. CUMBER: They'll show up - excellent. Can I close my eyes? (Laughter.) Very nice. Thank you very much.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir.
MR. CUMBER: Thank you, sir. Well, thank you for being here. On the invitation of His Excellency Dr. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, who is the Secretary-General of the OIC, I was invited to visit Dakar for the 11th annual summit for the Organization of Islamic Conference in Dakar, in Senegal. And the -- and the visit was very, very successful. Before that, in fact, on the day that I started this assignment, which was March 3rd, I had -- the first day in the afternoon, I was put on a plane to go to Dakar -- I'm sorry, to Jeddah to visit with the OIC Secretary-General again. And we had a very engaging, successful dialogue and during that time, we were able to talk about how we are going to advance our dialogue with the United States and OIC member countries.
One of the opportunities that we are working right now is to work on a memorandum of understanding to be signed between the United States and also OIC in which we are looking at the 10-year program for the OIC. There are certain areas that we would like to engage, especially in education, bringing the status of them and raising the status, and also in science and technology area.
The other thing that I shared at -- in Dakar and when I was visiting Jeddah was my -- the fact that there are -- there is a message that I carry, which is that in U.S., we are literally between five and -- five to seven million Muslims and how myself and my family and other practicing Muslims are enjoying the quality of the life and the lifestyle in America, enjoying the core values, which is we are able to practice our faith freely. And at the same time, we are able to enjoy the freedom of expression and at -- the other factor, which is the most important one, is that the core values and the pure ethics of America allows us that we have great respect for all religion, including the religion of Islam; and also, U.S. Government, to make sure that we are engaged with the Muslim leaders to make sure that we have peace and prosperity and stability for all peoples in all regions.
So having said that, again, I wanted to welcome you, thank you for being here, and I am now ready to respond to any questions that we have. So let's go ahead.
MODERATOR: If you could identify yourself too, please, just for the microphone and all that. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Sabah Lebbar from the Moroccan news agency, Maghreb Arabe Presse. Thank you for your time and the opportunity.
MR. CUMBER: Pleasure.
QUESTION: I will start with the (inaudible) question. Now this process (inaudible) for a year, but we haven't been -- for the common process, the (inaudible) of the President or President Bush. Now at the end of his presidency in the (inaudible), it is going to be -- again, what is the situation?
MR. CUMBER: Well, President Bush has appointed me in this -- as you said, this is the first appointment. He made - I think he - when he spoke at the Islamic Center in Washington, at that time, he suggested that he's going to be making this appointment. And I have this appointment for a year and, Insha'Allah, I look forward to working with the OIC and the Muslim Ummah, where whoever is in the next administration will be encouraged, hopefully, to make sure that we have this very important assignment and we can move forward in working with the OIC and the Muslim communities around the world.
QUESTION: So -- go ahead.
QUESTION: It's okay.
QUESTION: [Talha Gibriel, Asharq Al-Awsat] Oh, that's it. So do you expect that the new administration, then, is going to have the same goals and they will be -- they will appoint another one in this new position with the Islamic organization?
MR. CUMBER: The one-word response is Insha'Allah. (Laughter.) Insha'Allah --
QUESTION: They say the same thing.
QUESTION: [Assem Kamal, Al Ahram] I want to ask about -- Mr. Cumber, your experience and your background as a businessman -- you are or you were a businessman. Do you think that you are qualified or able to -- dealing with this deep cultural and political difference between United States and the Arab world? (Inaudible) and the Arab world, but United States and all the West with Arab and Islamic world?
MR. CUMBER: As I said in the remarks that I made at the reception that day, I am
And then at the same time, as you said, that President Bush has looked at me to lead this assignment because I do have the same culture. I come from the same culture and the heritage that we all, Muslims, have been engaged in. So I feel very confident that between the private sector and my work with the civil society space, I'll be very successful in engaging and taking this dialogue to the further stage.
QUESTION: Can I follow up on that one?
MR. CUMBER: Please.
QUESTION: Of course, you know that there is -- United States image in Arab world, that it is negative image and (inaudible). Do you think this will be a helpful factor to achieve your goal or to, I think, to make your missions too difficult?
MR. CUMBER: In fact, I come -- again, living here in a free society where we are able to practice our faith and engage in this continuous dialogue, I feel very confident, in fact, and U.S. has always been engaged in the dialogue with the Muslim Ummah. In fact, I was reading the speech that President Eisenhower made 50 years back, laying the cornerstone of the Islamic Center. And if you look at the speech at that time, we are still on the same track.
As I said, America respect -- has deep respect for the -- for Islam and the communities that we always work with. And I am very confident, in fact, that the -- given the opportunity and traveling extensively and having bilateral meetings with the leadership and with the Muslim organizations within America and outside, I feel very confident that I'll be able to share this message, as I said earlier, that the United States is looking for peace and prosperity and stability in all the regions in the Muslim world. And we are engaged and we are continually taking it to the next level.
QUESTION: You said one of the core values here in America is respect for -- Heather Yamour, Kuwait News Agency. You said that, you know, one of the core values that you've enjoyed here in the United States is respect for religion, of all religion, including Islam. Now, what is your stance on the Danish cartoon? I know the OIC spoke out against that. But what's your stance on it?
MR. CUMBER: As a Muslim American, as an American, as I said earlier, we are living in a free society here. Here, we are able to engage in practice of our faith absolutely the way we want. We also are free to ignore whatever we do not agree with. In fact, we are able to freely express our views and sometimes even -- sometimes we find them, you know, offensive. But then again, you know, we are free to reject those views. And as long as we have a very free and clear understanding that we are able to express ourselves and practice the way we want, we can also reject any of these views, and I think as long as we reject them in a peaceful manner.
QUESTION: Well, part of the argument among the cartoonists is that this is the freedom of expression, but it's offensive to many in the Islamic world. Is this -- which side of the debate do you --
MR. CUMBER: The joy of living in America is that we can reject what we do not like. That's the joy and that's the freedom I exercise and I enjoy. And if you're asking me to give me -- give that freedom away, I'm not prepared to do that. But at the same time, if somebody is making -- having -- you know, if they're able to express something that is offensive, I can walk away.
QUESTION: [Assem Kamal, Al Ahram]But the difference is that Arab world and Islamic world don't understand what is the meaning of the freedom of expression with matters dealing with religion (inaudible) offensive against the Islam in the American media and among some politician also. How can you explain this matter to your colleague in the organization?
MR. CUMBER: Well, as I said earlier, these are -- these are some of the -- this is some of the environment that we have an opportunity not to accept. You know, anytime there is an issue like this, we can reject it and we can ignore it. And if there's an opportunity, we're living in a society which says we have rule of law and there are ways to handle it. As long as we are rejecting it in such a way that there is no violence, I think we have an opportunity to walk away and ignore this. And then the expression of freedom, like I said, to express our views, that's the freedom we thoroughly enjoy and we cherish, and that's very important to us.
QUESTION: But you are a Muslim, American Muslim. Do you think it is freedom to attack the Islam as a religion?
MR. CUMBER: Well -- and you know, as I said in Dakar, you know, there is always bigotry in the -- how much any institution wants to invest resources, assets and capacities. Because if you look at the Muslim world today, look at the opportunities we have. We have 1.5 billion Muslims in the world. They represent 20 percent of the world population, and our GDP is less than 6 percent.
We have an opportunity today to work to take and build a strong civil society, and that's the reason I'm engaged in the OIC, to make sure that we are working on education, we are working on bringing the status of women, we are working to make sure that we are engaged in civil - in science and technology. Once we are able to build that civil society -- strong rule of law, transparency, good governance -- that's where we are supposed to be focusing more. How much time do we need to go ahead and deal with the few -- you know, and I said bigotry is always going to be there.
QUESTION: Okay. (Inaudible) forget to (inaudible), my name is Talha Gibriel from Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. You said that there are about five to seven million American Muslim. According to this statistic, how these people -- these -- the American Muslim can build a sort of bridge between the American and the Islamic world? And we know that the -- now the relation or the image of Islam in America is -- I don't want to say anything, but it's very, very negative.
MR. CUMBER: That's a very, very interesting question because the more I have lived and observed, the dialogue -- the interfaith dialogue which is going on today in every city of America between Muslims and other groups is phenomenal. I mean, we have an opportunity right now to engage in a very positive dialogue. I see more and more relationship coming up where we are engaged in the dialogue with interfaith. And you saw what happened yesterday; even, you know, King Abdullah from Saudi Arabia has initiated now the fact that there should be a dialogue between Muslims and other major faiths. So there is an opportunity going on. But again, if you look at American Muslims today and --
QUESTION: Are you supporting this initiative of King Abdallah?
MR. CUMBER: Well, dialogue is always an encouraging thing. Any kind of dialogue and engagement to further -- to build a strong civil society and a society which is free is always encouraged.
Having said that, you know, there are many dialogues going on interfaith and I think -- I think this is a very positive move. And within America, if you look at the Muslims today, we are all able to work together, all of us. And it doesn't matter what school of thought you're coming from, and which is the beauty of living and enjoying the freedom -- what that I have said, the freedoms that we have here.
QUESTION: Mr. Cumber, I'm Anwar Iqbal, Daily Dawn newspaper.
MR. CUMBER: Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you. As an envoy to OIC, are you supposed to present American -- or represent America, ordinary Americans, or also the policies of the U.S. Administration? And if you are defending the policies of U.S. Administration, how difficult do you think you may find selling policies like the invasion of Iraq, the fight there, or maybe a possible invasion of Iran, and similar issues?
MR. CUMBER: My engagement with the OIC is to -- as I have suggested to the Secretary General, is to work on their 10-year plan. And in those 10-year plans, there are many times that there are some of those issues where we disagree. But that does not allow us to disengage, because we need to be -- to stay engaged, to make sure, as I suggested earlier, that we are working. Part of that 10-year plan is to work on education, science and technology, and in the areas where we can build the status of women. And those are my focus areas when it comes to working with the OIC and the Muslim Ummah.
QUESTION: But do you think situations like the one in Iraq make it more difficult for you to work among the Muslims?
MR. CUMBER: No. The engagement is very simple. The message is very simple: U.S. is committed to bringing peace and prosperity and stability in that area. So we are committed on that course and you can see that. We are engaged every day in that -- on that path.
QUESTION: Another point of progress was democracy. President Bush always said that he wants to put more democracy in the Islamic world as well as in other places. Do you think the Administration is doing enough to do that?
MR. CUMBER: Well, we are always engaged in making sure that we have rule of law, we have good governance. And as I said earlier -- and these things will come if we are able to build a strong civil society. And engagement, like working with the OIC on their 10-year plan and with the Muslim Ummah to work in education, in -- like I said, other areas like science and technology and women, are helpful to move in that direction.
QUESTION: But the situation like in Pakistan recently -- I mean, elections were held and Americans want the country to -- general expectations did not come very strongly in favor of Musharraf and allowed political forces to play their role. Do you think this can be replicated in other places in the Islamic world?
MR. CUMBER: Well --
QUESTION: Like, do you see it as a good thing?
MR. CUMBER: Well, you probably know it better than any in this room, that my heritage is from Pakistan. I was born there, and then 31 years back, I moved into U.S. So I personally -- on a personal level, I watch the development in Pakistan. But then, as far as being a policymaker, I'm not, and that's not part of my mandate.
QUESTION: [Sabah Lebbar, Maghreb Arabe Presse] But don't you think that initiatives to appoint a U.S. Ambassador to OIC came a bit late? Because of the image now in the Arab and Islamic world, anything coming from America is rejected. How are you going to manage it? How are you going to convince people to accept your proposals?
And another question, if you can elaborate on the memorandum of understanding that you want to sign with the OIC?
MR. CUMBER: Thank you. As I said earlier, the U.S. has always been engaged in the dialogue with the Muslim Ummah. And my appointment does not really bring something which was not there before. I'm just here to make sure that I am engaged and I take it to the next level. And as a Muslim American, I'm very pleased that President Bush looked at a Muslim American and made that appointment.
But I am very confident that even a year that I have, and if you see my background from the private sector, I do build capacities and bring resources in short order, because I have built 25 companies in the last -- 11 companies in the last 25 years. So I'm very aggressively engaged in this. And for -- a year for me is a very good time to have a positive impact. And I'm constantly engaged, and that's one of the reasons I'm looking at signing an MOU, which is now being developed and we are having a conversation on it.
And that MOU, the memorandum of understanding, would allow us then to engage formally to work on the three priorities that I'm initiating, which are part of the OIC 10-year mandate to work with those three areas which I said, which is the science and technology. And all of these areas, if you look at it -- science and technology, working to bring the -- raise the status of women, and education -- America has always been engaged.
MODERATOR: One more question.
QUESTION: [Talha Gibriel, Asharq Al-Awsat] Yeah, one more question. What is your view -- your point of view about the division in the Islamic world, which is now -- actually, even the Muslims are suffering from this division of Sunni and Shia and the other. How are you going to deal with this division in the Islamic world?
MR. CUMBER: You know, as a Muslim, we have taken the same Shahada, the unity of God and the Prophet as our last prophet. We all have. It doesn't matter if you are Sunni or Shia. We have taken that Shahada. And United States is the absolute good model to be seeing how, in America, Muslims from all different preservations have been able to work together.
In fact, living in America even qualifies me better to take that model out. In fact, this morning, I was thinking that there will be a -- where would you see a better model than all the Muslims working together? And I said to myself, it's either in America or I have seen at the Haj. You go to Haj and you observe all Muslims, us together work and there's no division. If we are able to work together in that environment and we are able to work in a free society like America together, I think it gives me an opportunity as an American, living in America and enjoying the quality of life, to take that model. I think the American Muslim model is a great model, and I am prepared to engage in the dialogue where we can bring all of us together because we have been working together and -- all the Muslims in America.
QUESTION: (Inaudible.) Are you planning to tour the Islamic world to visit the - two parts, actually. Secondly, for this initiative of King Abdullah, are you -- if you are invited, are you going to attend this conference?
MR. CUMBER: Insha'Allah, yes. And then the second part is that if you look at my mandate, I will be intensively travelling to the Muslim countries. In fact, next week, I'm taking a trip to about five - to six countries including -- I'll be --
QUESTION: Could we know those countries?
MR. CUMBER: Yes, we are working to travel to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, and then I'm going to Dakar to visit with the new chairman of the OIC, President Wad.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) travel to Maghreb?
MR. CUMBER: Maghreb, yes.
QUESTION: Egypt is not in your program? (Laughter.)
MR. CUMBER: Egypt. Egypt, Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Maghreb, all the countries. They are all on the agenda.
MR. CUMBER: I'm glad you asked because your Foreign Minister has personally invited me to come to Kuwait, so I'm looking forward to that visit.
QUESTION: So your first visit will be to Saudi --
MR. CUMBER: Sir?
QUESTION: Upcoming visit will be to Saudi Arabia?
MR. CUMBER: Yes, sir.
MR. CUMBER: As I said early, you have to realize that Jeddah would be one of those places that you will see me probably more than monthly visit because the OIC headquarter is in Jeddah.
QUESTION: Oh, okay. And the schedule of visiting the other countries like Egypt and the Maghreb (inaudible), could we have an idea about the timing -- your timing or schedule?
MR. CUMBER: I would say I have a very aggressive plan so, Insha'Allah, it will be sooner than you think.
MODERATOR: Any other final? (No response.)
QUESTION: Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much, sir.
MR. CUMBER: Thank you.
Released on March 26, 2008