Political engagement has to start from bottom, ex-envoy says.
By Frank Islam
M. Osman Siddique is a trailblazer within the South Asian American community. The Bangladeshi American was nominated by President Clinton as the U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Fiji and to the Republic of Nauru, to the Kingdom of Tonga and to Tuvalu, in 1999. Siddique, who lives in McLean, Virginia, is also the first Muslim American to be appointed as ambassador. In a recent interview with Frank Islam, he speaks about his days as an American diplomat, issues and challenges that South Asian Americans are facing, among other topics. Here are the edited excerpts:
Mr. Ambassador, you are a constant source of inspiration for all South Asian Americans. Tell us about your experiences as a U.S. diplomat…
You can serve in any capacity with the U.S. government, and it’s an honor, but when you represent the President of the United States, the commander-in-chief of the United States in a personal capacity, I think it’s a great honor. So the ambassadorial position in our constitution, our government, is unique. I can tell you this that my honor in representing my country was not just my individual honor, it was an honor for my community and my country. I really thought that this a unique opportunity for me to showcase what our country is all about.
You showed a different face of America…
That is true. This is a new America. The demographic and the cultural aspect is so different than what it was 50 years ago. So you and I represent [the] new America.
Your tenure to Fiji was especially noteworthy. You were in charge of the U.S. mission when a coup took place on that island nation…
This is something that I think back. It happened on May 19, 2000, and that was my 50th birthday. So I can never forget that day. It was interesting because I was aware that some preparations were being made “without my knowledge” to celebrate this and a big party was being organized. In the office, they were doing something. But the fireworks that ensued were entirely different and it changed the whole course of my tenure there. And, to be honest, what happened after that day was entirely different, which I was not even prepared for. The briefing book that I was given by the State Department had no such chapters. But I got to tell you this: This was a unique experience. Although I say—let me clarify this, it was not good for Fiji—but as far as I am concerned, it gave me a different dimension for the job that I was entrusted to work for. I saw the collaboration between our security agencies, our intelligence agencies, our civil societies, how we interacted. It was a tough time, but it was something that, as a U.S. ambassador, I played a leading role.
Let me tell you a little history: the reason why this coup took place was basically because of race line: Indian Fijians and ethnic Fijians. Indian Fijians came to Fiji 120 years ago as indentured laborers working in the sugar cane fields. They are hard-working and they’re smart. Gradually, they started taking over commerce. But when they took over government, the Fijian tribal chiefs got really unnerved, and that was the genesis of the change.
Here I am, a U.S. ambassador [of South Asian origin]. So you could see the sensitivity, the delicate line that I had to walk. But the day I came to Fiji, carrying the American flag, I made it amply clear to all parties concerned in the country that my mission was that of American; I represent the United States of America; the color of my passport is blue. So there was no debate or discussion as to which side I am. So when the coup took place—this is an area, where the Aussies and the Kiwis have a lot of influence—but the military, the civil society, the tribal group, they all said, “We want the U.S. ambassador to mediate” and to be involved in.
I want to talk about the Council of American Ambassadors, with which you are involved in. What is it all about?
The Council of American Ambassadors is 501-(c) [organization]. It was started in 1983 by a group of former U.S. ambassadors who are not career [diplomats], but political ambassadors. The reason why this was established was the career people had the Foreign Service Association. This platform was created to propagate the issues, contemporary issues, to liaison with the State Department, and with other countries. We hold different round tables with different government heads, with ambassadors here. We carry out fact-finding missions. One of our members, whom we call our honored patron, is President George HW Bush because he was an ambassador to China and the United Nations.
We are asked by the State Department and the White House to give our opinion on many, many issues, which we gladly do. When a non-career ambassador is nominated by the president, sometimes the White House will ask CAA’s opinion. We also are involved in the orientation process. When someone gets nominated by the president to be the ambassador, CAA will sit with that person and give a briefing and some orientation.
Why are South Asian Americans, who have a shared history, so divided?
This is unfortunate because we have a common history, common heritage. Despite that fact, we see that there are some lines that are drawn between [South Asian American] groups. Imagine if there were no such lines. If you are a Hispanic in this country, [it] doesn’t matter where you’re from Venezuela, or Bolivia or Colombia—you’re Hispanic. And look at the clout you have and look how well they are doing in this country. Whereas we are represented here, not as one common diaspora, but you’re Indian American, or Pakistani American, or Bangladeshi American. And, frankly speaking, sometimes they work against each other. It is unfortunate. This so vital population base in this country, which is high educated—they have one of the highest per capita income—if they get united, I think, they could do a lot of good things for this country. It will be good for everybody.
The Obama administration has appointed many South Asians. What has changed in the past decade?
I must congratulate the Obama administration for the outreach they have done to the South Asian community. I think, of all these [South Asian] groups, have come out… they have a good play book, they are well-educated, they are well-trained. And I congratulate them. Unfortunately, the Pakistani Americans and Bangladeshi Americans have not stepped up.
And they should. They have the capability, they have the content, to serve this administration and future administrations. And I hope things will change. We have a lot to learn. We have seen previous immigrant stories, whether you are Italian American, or Jewish American, or polish American, I see how they have progressed. There is a lot to learn [from them].
When it comes to foreign policy, South Asian Americans are not very engaged. What do they need to do?
Engagement just cannot start from the top, engagement has to be from the bottom. I would say that this community has a lot of potential to engage themselves from grassroots level, whether you are at the school council, or state legislature, or county delegation, whatever it is, you have to start from there and build your capacity. It’s a question of capacity-building, and we have the potential to do that. I see a lot of hope for the simple reason that there are some people from the Indian subcontinent who are now serving in the state level. But, your question, why are we not in policymaking…
Especially in foreign policy…
Especially, when it relates to South Asia. I think, in due course, we will see something. We have a USAID director, who is Indian American [Rajiv Shah]. Obviously policies are made at that level, which is a very high level. We’d like to see when there are issues relating to South Asian problems that the policy makers seek out people of our background, because you know what? We can not only give them content, but we can also give them a viewpoint which might be missing within that particular debate.
You were born in Bangladesh, you belong to a prominent family. Tell us about your background…
First of all, this is a great country, for anyone from any part of the world… I came from a family of educated people. I was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, but I left the country during the civil war that ensued between East and West Pakistan. I came as a student. I was fortunate to be able to come here as a student because I was accepted under some very extreme circumstances, and this shows the warmth and the generosity of this society. And in a span of almost 40 years, I got a great education here; I had a great run in business and I found the love of my life here. I have 4 children who are doing very well. I thank the Good Lord for his blessing, but I also thank this country which has enabled me to prosper in all these areas.
Sometimes it’s very fashionable these days to kick this country around, but I tell you, this is the last frontier, if you cannot make it here, you cannot make it anywhere.
(This interview was first aired on Diya TV)