Osman Siddique, the first South Asian American and Muslim American ambassador, speaks about his memoir.
In Leaps of Faith, M. Osman Siddique, a former U.S. Ambassador to Fiji, Tonga, Tuvalu and Nauru, chronicles his American journey in a captivating manner. In fact, the memoir’s subtitle — An Immigrant’s Odyssey of Struggle, Success, and Service to his Country — itself is a précis of the book. In 1999, President Bill Clinton nominated him as America’s chief diplomat in the Melanesian and Polynesian regions. Siddique, born in Dhaka, then part of East Pakistan, was the first South Asian American and Muslim American to serve as a US Ambassador and chief of mission. In May 2000, the democratically elected government headed by Fiji’s first Indo-Fijian Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry was toppled in a coup orchestrated by a businessman in May 2000. Siddique deftly handled the situation, preventing it from becoming a bigger crisis.
Siddique came to the United States in 1972 to study at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN, where he completed his undergraduate degree and later earned an MBA. After working for a Fortune 500 firm, he launched his entrepreneurial career by founding ITI/Travelogue, a travel management company.
Siddique and his wife, Catherine Mary Siddique, live in McLean, VA. They have four children, Omar, Julene, Leila and Zachary.
In an interview with the American Bazaar, the former diplomat speaks about the book, which was released last summer.
Book: Leaps of Faith: An Immigrant’s Odyssey of Struggle, Success, and Service to his Country
Author: M. Osman Siddique
Publisher : Transcon Publishing; Illustrated edition
Congratulations on the book. How has the response been so far?
Thank you! I’m pleasantly surprised so far by the acceptability of my book by a large section of people worldwide. Of course, the biggest impact has been in the United States, but I was amazed to see the level of interest in places like Kosovo, Fiji, Indonesia and Bangladesh.
There are several interesting anecdotes in the book. For instance, you describe very vividly your first meeting with President Bill Clinton, who wrote the preface to the book…
My first formal meeting with President Clinton was perhaps the seminal moment in my relationship with him. As I elaborated in the book, that meeting allowed me to effectively present my personal credentials to the President and also draw attention to his Director of White House personnel, Bob Nash, who was also present there at that time.
When you were nominated as the U.S. ambassador, did you realize its historic nature?
Yes and no. Of course, the appointment of the first American Muslim of South Asian descent to be Ambassador and Chief of Mission was in itself historic. It was another step forward toward our cherished goal of acceptance and assimilation of all Americans in public life. “E pluribus unum… out of many, one!” On the other hand, although I was aware of the racial divide between the ethnic-Fijians and Indo-Fijians, I was surprised by its severity which culminated in a coup ousting the democratically elected Indo-Fijian prime minister and his government.
When your nomination was announced, the Fijian leadership opposed you because of your South Asian heritage. But you gradually won over the ethnic-Fijians. How did you do that?
When the Fijian government expressed some reservations about my appointment because of my ethnicity, the Clinton White House stood firm. When it comes to race relations in Fiji “let America lead the way” was their response. As the American ambassador, the Fijians soon overlooked my background and ethnicity when they saw behind those stars and stripes a man entrusted by the President and the Commander-in-Chief of the United States as his personal representative and ambassador. As my country’s ambassador, I made it amply clear that I represented all Americans for all Fijians. My mandate was to foster bilateral relation between our two countries and help improve the Fijian people with their economy and social issues. I kept my word and the Fijian people appreciated my work in those areas.
One of the most dramatic anecdotes in the book was your description of a meeting with a tourism official in Hawaii, on your way to Fiji to serve as the ambassador of the United States. The official was under the impression that you were an ambassador of another country, not the U.S. Why did you decide to highlight that in the book?
I mentioned the incident because there is an underlying lesson to that. Stereotypical typecasting cannot be in vogue in our country anymore. America is changing. Since that incident, we had Barrack Obama as President and we now have Kamala Harris as our Vice President. That may be one bold step by two great individuals but a giant leap forward for all Americans.
You also write at length about your relationship with Sen. Ted Kennedy, who was a mentor to you. He was one of the people that inspired you to enter public service. Describe your relationship with the late Massachusetts senator.
Sen. Ted Kennedy was not only “’the Lion of the Senate,” but a tiger when it came to human rights issues. He was a voice for the voiceless and a fighter for the downtrodden. He played a pivotal role in the emancipation of Bangladesh. I was very fortunate to know him personally and he also played a huge role in shaping my politics here for which I’m so honored, proud and grateful. We were neighbors, friends and worked together on many political issues together. I have dedicated a whole chapter on him in my book.
Your dad, your brother and yourself, between the three of you, served three different countries and a global organization. It was an amazing thing considering that your father was the first person to go to college. Tell us about your family.
My dad was the son of a farmer but his academic brilliance, his integrity and public service changed the destiny of him and his family. They say it takes a spark to light a fire and he was truly that spark. This proves that no matter where you are and however you are placed within society, hard work, persistence and a bit of luck can change all things.
You were also witness to the Bangladesh liberation war. You saw death and destruction while at the university. How much of a lasting scar has it left in you? How has it changed you as a person?
The Bangladesh liberation war has left an indelible scar in my memory. Nothing justifies the killing of innocent people by an organized force. I believe that all faiths predominantly enshrine our common humanity. We are all equal in the eyes of God.
Kamala Harris’ selection indicates an inclusive future for America (August 21, 2020)