“The way that you really communicate with people is that you have to speak in ways that are relevant to their lives,” Hughes stressed during a June 11 interview with RFE/RL in Prague. “You have to recognize that faith is very important to many people’s lives. So if you exclude that from your conversation, you are excluding something very important to many people.”
Hughes’ main mission is to try to improve the image of the United States around the world, especially in the Muslim world. Her job is made considerably more difficult by reports of abuses of Muslim prisoners at the U.S.-run detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the ongoing violence in Iraq, and U.S. soldiers killing civilians in Afghanistan.
But Hughes is convinced that people-to-people contact, including her meetings with average citizens around the world, will help refocus the world on what is good about America, including what she describes as its respect for faith.
Hughes acknowledges that respect for Islam must be a part of any initiatives with the Muslim world, and she welcomes a dialogue with Islamic leaders. A major part of her communications strategy will be sending American Muslims out to help lead that dialogue.
“We’re going to be sending Muslim-Americans to different regions of the world to meet with Muslim communities and begin a dialogue,” she said. “I think one of my roles is to help empower those voices and to let Muslim communities across the world hear different points of view and hear debates."
Hughes emphasized that the U.S. war against terrorism is not a war against Islam and that the Bush administration does not see Islam as a threat.
Islam Is Not The Enemy
“I was one of the people who advocated that the president visit the mosque in the aftermath of [the] September 11[, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States] to send a signal that we understood that we have many Muslims in America who are very peaceful citizens, who are proud Americans,” she said. U.S. President George W. Bush was credited by many with helping to minimize attacks against Muslims in the wake of the attacks by making highly publicized visits to mosques.
The message Bush gave during his visit to the mosque was clear and direct, Hughes said.
“This was not about the faith of Islam, but this was about some people who were violent extremists, who were trying to use the cloak of religion to try to cover acts that were really acts of murder," she said.
Talking directly to the estimated 1 billion Muslims around the world, and encouraging interfaith dialogue, is the best way to undercut the arguments of extremists and empower voices of moderation in Islam, Hughes said.
“I think it is important that we seek to foster interfaith dialogue and that’s one of the things that President Bush asked me when I took this job," she said. "He said, 'meet with religious leaders, foster conversations among religious leaders.'”
Hughes, an elder and a Sunday School teacher in her Presbyterian church, took up that task, believing, she said, that religious leaders could help communicate across cultures and promote tolerance through common values.
“The world's major faiths all believe that we should live in peace and love for each other, that we should love God and love our neighbor,” Hughes said. "All believe and teach that life is precious and that the taking of innocent life is wrong."
“The violent extremists obviously don't value human life -- they've targeted innocents and committed horrible crimes against innocent civilians across the world,” she said. “Essentially they say, ‘you have to agree with us, or we want to kill you.'"
“I think it's very important that we, as a world community, as an international community, draw a very clear contrast between our vision -- which is for education and openness and tolerance and inclusiveness -- and the extremist vision, which is a very narrow, rigid ideology.”
As Hughes focuses on strengthening the ties among religious leaders, she also is trying to correct what she says are mistaken notions about U.S. attitudes toward faith.
“We have in America separation of church and state.... I'm worried that sometimes freedom of religion has come to mean freedom from religion. And I don't think that's what was intended,” she said.
“America has people of many different faiths -- Muslims work and worship and practice their faith very freely in my country," Hughes noted. "And so do many Jewish citizens. So do many Christian citizens of all different denominations. And some Americans choose to practice no faith at all, and that's fine, too."
America As A Model Of Tolerance
Americans value tolerance, she said, allowing people to practice the faith of their choice without fear. The estimated 6 million to 8 million Muslims living in the United States know that, she said, but so do many others outside of the country.
“I was in Morocco last week and I was talking with a couple of people who had been on exchanges and I asked them what their feeling was in America,” Hughes recalled. "They said they felt so free. They couldn’t believe how free they felt.”
“A woman who wore cover told me how sometimes when she travels to Europe and other places, she feels as if people stare at her and look at her as if she is a little different or a little suspect,” Hughes said. “And yet she said in America she felt totally free. Because we are a very diverse and very welcoming country and society.”
A Muslim woman (left) watches a Christian procession in Madrid in March (AFP)
READCONFERENCE ON ISLAM: A major international conference on Islam concluded in Vienna in November 2005 with strong appeals from prominent Muslim leaders to recognize international terrorism as simply "terrorism." Political figures from Islamic countries, including the presidents of Iraq and Afghanistan, argued that it should never be labeled "Islamic" or "Muslim" terrorism because Islam is based on peace, dialogue, and tolerance. "Salaam" -- meaning "peace" -- was the key word of the three-day conference, titled "ISLAM IN A PLURALISTIC WORLD."
Iraqi President Jalal Talibani and Afghan President Hamid Karzai used the word in their remarks to emphasize the peaceful nature of Islam. Other speakers quoted passages from the Koran to the effect that all men and women, regardless of faith, are creatures of God and should live in peace with each other without discrimination...(more)
LISTENListen to Afghan President HAMID KARZAI's complete address to the Vienna conference (in English):
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LISTENListen to UN special envoy LAKHDAR BRAHIMI's complete address to the Vienna conference (in English):
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THE COMPLETE PICTURE: Click on the image to view a thematic webpage devoted to issues of religious tolerance in RFE/RL's broadcast region and around the globe.