Hamza Kyeyune and the USA ambassador in radio Bilal newsroom
The US Ambassador to Uganda, Scott H Delisi gave a special interview for the listeners of Radio Bilal in Kampala, before Eidul Fitri. The Special interview hosted by journalist Hamza Kyeyune focused on social media, United States relations with the Muslim World, Interfaith dialogue, Palestine sovereignty and many more.
Ambassador Scott Delisi, grew up in Saint Paul, Minnesota where there was no single Muslim in the neighborhood, and had never seen a mosque as a young boy. Just as many other Americans, Ambassador Scott has learnt to understand a faith that was new to many Americans.
Below is the full interview;
1.You must be enjoying your stay in Uganda Ambassador, in spite of your diplomatic status, social media seeps into every aspect of your life. How does it feel, all those comments that you get? What kind of questions do you get?
Social media has become a tremendous tool for us, I started using this when I was an ambassador in Nepal, and I continue to use here because it gives us an opportunity to reach to reach out and engage with a broad spectrum of society.
In the old days, the ambassador’s job was to talk to the president, members of parliament and a few business people. But today, especially in a country (Uganda) where 80% of the nation is below 30 years, if we are not reaching out to them, if we are not hearing from them and understanding issues of the young people and the society, I don’t think we are doing our job.
So it’s wonderful to do this, I get all sorts of questions including one such as, are really the American ambassador? And for those of you who are wondering, yes I am. When I speak on face book, when I post on face book, I think it’s important for people to know, that they can talk to us. And that is who we are as Americans, the ability of people to reach out and we talk and we engage, regardless of the status and titles.
2.When I went to the US, as a first time visitor, there were many surprises awaiting me. When you first arrived in Uganda, what surprised you? That lasting impression?
When I came as the ambassador here, it was my first visit in Uganda, but I have leaved and served in Africa in the course of my career. And I have had the chance to engage people across the continent. I think for me, it wasn’t much a surprise, but discovery, to find the tremendous warmth and hospitality of the people of Uganda, I think that was the most striking thing right from the beginning.
And having come from a country, where again the people were known for their warmth, the way they interacted with each other, so constructively, I was worried I would not find the same thing here but I found the same thing here, and a very welcome discovery.
3.USA closed more than 20 consulates and embassies mainly in the Middle East and North Africa. A state department global travel alert, issued on Friday, is also in force until the end of August. Is Ugandan embassy open?
Ours is very open and we are ready for business as usual. We remain absolutely committed, not that our other embassies are not, but as you know today’s world, there are often challenges and threats. And we have a responsibility to deal with them effectively to protect our people.
We recognize that if there is an incidence in the country, its often not just Americans who are hurt, it’s the citizens of that country, and we don’t want to put anyone at risk. In certain countries at the moment, the information available suggests that there is a greater degree of risk, so in those countries we have taken appropriate steps. Here in Uganda, we take security seriously, but we also feel we have got great cooperation and support from the government of Uganda, and we are very confidently going about our business, engaging with the people and the government of this country.
4.In your Ramadan message of July5-2013, you did say that the U.S. Government is committed to engaging Muslims in Uganda on the basis of mutual interest and mutual respect. As President Obama said, true partnerships require cooperation in all areas – particularly those that can make a positive difference in peoples’ daily lives, including entrepreneurship. Is there funds at the embassy to fulfill this?
There is not a fund for entrepreneurship per say, but we are working with all sorts of youths across the country including a chapter of generation change started here in Uganda a year ago, made up largely of young Muslims and through our partnership with these youth groups, youth ambassadors, we are identifying ways how we can provide training, and support those who develop entrepreneur ideas. We can’t fund their businesses for them, but we can give them the training, the skills, put them in touch with mentors. We have done a television program recently on NTV, about young entrepreneurs in Uganda, youth works and it was a tremendous program and we fund these things to give young entrepreneurs the opportunity to grow.
5.There are many Muslim faith based organizations that you are funding in Uganda including; Muslim Centre for Justice and Law, (MCJL), CEDA, AYDL, REC, among others, how do you chose them?
These are partners that we have met along the way, who have come up with ideas that are consistent with the programs and values that we think are very important. They have often come to us and when we are able to find a common ground, we have got grants available for certain activities, MCJL for example came to us and said; we know you are committed to Interfaith Dialogue, we are doing this, we can be good partners, and so we found ways to move forward.
One of the fundamental challenges is, although we are committed to working with young people in Uganda, there is tens of millions of young people across the country, we can’t fund every project, we can’t work with every individual, but we are trying to find ways, to work with organizations that have the capacity to expand our voice and our reach. And if we can support those organizations that in turn have the ability to work with young entrepreneurs, young people who want to be agents of change and build the future of Uganda because it’s their country, that’s great. These young people make up 83% of the population, they will shape this nations future and we want to be as helpful to them as we can be.
6.Let me ask you about the US-Muslim relations. President t Obama delivered a speech on “A New Beginning” on 4 June 2009, at Cairo University, the speech would attempt to mend the United States’ relations with the Muslim world. How far has that been achieved?
I think I would almost be inclined to ask the Muslim community how they see the relationship with the United States since president Obama came to office. I don’t know that he sought to mend so much as to reframe and recast and explain to people in a clear and more definitive way than ever before, the United State’s respect, commitment and desire to build partnership with the Muslim world.
But when we talk about the Muslim world, we have to include ourselves, because we have a significant Muslim population in the United States. Our Muslim population in United States is greater than the Muslim population here in Uganda. It’s a significant part of our nation, and when we look at the world, 25% of the global population, follows the faith of Islam.
We have to engage, but not just on the basis of faith, we don’t wanna engage with someone just because someone is a Muslim, or a Christian or a Jew, we engage because we want to build relationships based upon shared values, about the dignity of the individual, about nature of the world about governance, about how we can shape this planet effectively together. And I think that’s part of what president Obama spoke about but he recognized that there are many in the Muslim world who have looked at the United States with questions, and who somehow feel that we are an enemy of Islam and that is far from the truth.
I was talking to one of your colleagues, a young Imaam from Mbale, who just returned from the United States. I asked him what his impressions were, what he thought, and he said before he left for the United States, he was very doubtful about the reception he would receive, he had many questions and doubt of sincerity of the United States commitment to partnership with Islam, and he came back seeing this differently.
And I was glad that he saw it differently and am glad that this was something that he came to through his own experiences, not because we told him or we are the best friend of Islam but because he saw the nature of our society in which his faith and all faiths were respected and treated with equality and decency.
7. Attacks on the United States served to reinforce the widespread public perception that Islam, is linked to violence in some special way. What is your comment about that?
There is very little we can do at times about public perceptions, like those who have this perception that Islam was linked to violence, and we know this is not true. Government leaders and officials, we try to recast that argument. And it’s the same thing that we see when so many in the Muslim world perceive the United States as Islam’s enemy and also that is not true. So, we work through engagement, through discussion, through demonstrated actions to show that there are things not true, and we begin to shift it, but I will say this to you, one of the things that is striking me, is the figure that I saw recently, that the Muslim population in united states has almost doubled since the 9/11.
I find that very interesting, and even if there has been public concern for the Muslim world and the Muslim citizens of our country, still many more have come to America, that number has grown, and they are living in peace, they are leaving in harmony able to exercise their faith and be part of the fabric of our society, despite those perceptions, that were shaped after 9/11, but I think we moving beyond many of those.
8.It is interesting to learn that Islam is the fast growing religion in the United States, but on the other hand, Islam is probably the fast depleting religion in the world. Look at Syria, many Muslims dying daily, Iraq, Afghanistan, in Egypt, more that 150muslims have died since the ouster of Muhammad Morsi. Given the role of America in the international affairs, what are you doing about this?
There are people who die in countries all around the world, all the time. And every human life is important and we have all to value this, and we all have to try to find ways to ease conflicts wherever they are.
I served in Sri Lanka, and I watched Sinhalese and Tamil dying every day and in a horrid conflict that never should have reached the point it did, that should have ended sooner than it did. But while we work for peace and we are committed to peace, we are only one country and the world is vast and we cannot work and manage every problem in every nation even if we sought to. These nations are sovereign states and they have to find their own answers, we will do whatever we can to try and help, but as you know as well as I know the way of the world, if the US seeks to insert itself, what will we hear? We will hear oh! USA you are seeking to meddle, you are seeking to dictate to us, that’s not our goal. Our goal is to help bring peace and we have done this in many countries, and we have worked effectively, as a bridge for peace at times and secretary Kerry today is very actively engaged, as is president Obama, as is our nation, trying to once again find a solution to the intractable problems that have plagued the Middle East for so many years, recognizing the dignity of all people of the region. We have to find a solution, that addresses the aspirations and concerns of all the people and that is something that we are committed to and we are working hard at. And yes when people die, this is a sad thing, but we are committed to addressing this, and I hope that our colleagues around the world including our Muslim brothers will join us in trying to address these problems, because it takes all of us to solve them.
9.There is a new concept; interfaith dialogue, which is an ongoing process in which different religious traditions learn to interact positively with each other, According to Dr. Rashied Omar, PhD, a research scholar in Islamic studies and peace building at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana.
The concept of interfaith dialogue emerged in response to situations of conflict specifically after 9/11. In Uganda, we have Inter Religious Council of Uganda (IRCU) which USAID funds. What do you aim to achieve?
First of all, am just struck by the distinguished professor whom you quoted, when you talk about these different religious traditions, finding a positive way to interact with each other, I note that he is speaking as a faculty member from one of the prominent catholic universities in the United States of America, Notre Dame, and I think there, Catholics and Muslims have certainly found way to interact and share positively and those many people besides Catholics in Norte Dame.
About IRCU and other entities, we have a lot of money that we devote to our partnership in Uganda, in the health sector alone, we spend over a trillion shillings annually. But when we are partnering with IRCU, it’s not about having to give them tones of money, because leadership, vision, belief, faith, partnership doesn’t require a lot of money. What we seek to do though is to support IRCU as a body that represents all the major faith communities in Uganda, with whom we are partnering effectively to address the greatest challenge that the nation is facing that includes the health sector. Our partnership with IRCU is based partly on the fact that faith based communities are tremendous service providers, when it comes to health issues in this country.
We seek to fight the scourge of HIV, to help protect people from malaria which kills three hundred Ugandans every day, we need to do this not only in partnership with the Ministry of Health, but with the faith leaders of this nation whose voices are so important, to whom people listen because we know that it’s not enough for us to come as a bunch of “MUZUNGU’S” and say, here is what you need to do about your health, we need Ugandan leaders, we need voices from Ugandan partners that we can support, and that is what we do with the IRCU.
10.I believe in interfaith dialogue as an effective tool of sowing seeds of peace and harmony in the community. But the Critics of this concept are skeptical, that your aim is to reform Islam, and have Islamic tenets opened up for criticism. For example, if Christians can endure the attack on the person of Jesus Christ (peace be upon Him), and Christians find nothing in it, it stands to reason, therefore, that Muslims should be able to tow the same line whenever Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon Him) is attacked.
(Laughs) am almost speechless Hamza. Let me just tell you, we have “NO DESIRE” whatsoever, to have the prophet peace be upon Him be subject to criticism. This is not our goal, we respect the holy figures of all faiths and anyone who seeks to degrade or attack those figures, whether in Christianity or Islam, or Judaism, or Buddhism, any of these holy figures, we have no room and time for that.
What we would say is that a violent response to such actions, of criticizing the holy prophet, the answer to these sorts of acts for which we have no respect is not violence in response. That’s our only message. We would never say all of these figures should be held up for criticism, but I would hope that as members of the faith community, we can all talk constructively to each other and learn from each other about the tenets of our faith, about how we perceive those important figures in our faiths differently, and similarly in many cases.
For many Americans, for me as a young boy growing up in saint Paul, Minnesota, I knew no Muslims, they weren’t in my community, no one in the neighborhood down the block, I had never seen a mosque, but all that is changing today. As a society, we are learning to understand a faith that was new to many of us. We are learning and growing together, and it takes time, as you know in any country where we see these changes taking place, we always have to learn.
11.Absolutely, there are always new experiences, while in the US last year, Dr.Muhammad Elsanousi, the director of community outreach at Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) invited me to the 15th annual Interfaith Unity Banquet, by ISNA. I dinned with a Rabbi, I had never in my life seen how a rabbai looks like, surprisingly, she was a woman like all other women I have seen.
That’s how we learn Hamza, but the idea that we somehow seek something else, that we have a hidden agenda is not true.
Our hidden agenda for Uganda is a very simple one, it’s not in an envelope, sealed, it’s very open, we want Uganda to succeed. We want this nation to be a prosperous, stable, and democratic in which people’s voices are heard and respected. And if Uganda is strong and successful, America is happy, because that what we want for Uganda. That’s our hidden agenda, people don’t have to believe it, but am telling you that’s all I know and that’s what I work for everyday.
12.About Islam in the United States, hate incidents in Massachusetts and New York occurred following the deadly bombings at the Boston Marathon. Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman the Council On American-Islamic Relations CAIR reported that a mother of Middle Eastern heritage wearing a hijab, was assaulted in Malden, Mass., by a white male shouting anti-Muslim slurs. She said the alleged attacker shouted, Muslims, you are terrorists,” and he blamed Muslims for the Boston Marathon bombings. What can you say about that?
First of all, that individual if he was captured by the police, he is probably in jail. We have laws against this sort of thing, we protect our citizens. You talked earlier about a public perception after 9/11, there are individuals who have hate in their hearts, and I cannot change that, a government cannot change that. We see hate crimes in many countries including here in Uganda, including throughout the continent and across the world, this is not something that is confined in the United States. I would say to you that in a country that is vast as America, with this large population, when we have a traumatic attack like the one at Boston marathon, that touches people around the world.
There were very few hate crimes, and I would say that I am sorry if anyone was blamed for the acts of an individual that have nothing to do with faith. I would also say to you that in a population of two hundred and sixty million people, the number of these incidences is actually very small, and for everyone that you can give me an example of, if you give me a few days I can come back to you, and I can tell you a story of a Muslim family, who found friendship, who found support, who found people who reached out to them and told them, we know that this is not your faith. I don’t condone this incidence and I wish we had none of them.
But I do not think that it’s a representation of the fabric of American society, I don’t think it’s typical of the way Muslims are received in America, how our fellow citizens view each other, and how the Muslims citizens are treated. People who engage in hate crimes will be sought by the police and will be arrested if they are found, they will be tried and will be convicted because we are a nation of law and we respect the rule of law, and we expect our citizens to adhere to it.
13.About Palestine, while at your residence during the Iftar dinner, in a message from President Obama to us your visitors, president Obama mentioned his support for a two state solution.
Again when president Obama visited Palestine in March this year, he made such a beautiful speech, and I quote. “The Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and justice must also be recognized. Put yourself in their shoes – look at the world through their eyes. It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of their own, living their entire lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day. It is not just when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished. It is not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands; to restrict a student’s ability to move around the West Bank; or to displace Palestinian families from their home. Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer. Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land”
So, my question to you is, Will USA accept full Palestinian sovereignty and statehood? Because this would give Israel a genuine negotiating partner.
I don’t feel comfortable in speaking for my president, on this very significant issue, I leave it to Washington because am here in Uganda, and my focus is on Uganda and I know that in the middle East, when we talk about these issues, every little word becomes very important and people interpret it differently, and I would not want to create a wrong impression.
Let’s go back and just look again at what president Obama said about his commitment to self determination and justice for the people of Palestine, I think that gives you a good sense of where he is going, what our beliefs are and I live it to secretary Kelly and the president to more fully articulate how that will unfold.