The AFSA report: chief of mission guidelines

There is a critical need for senior diplomats who understand the language of Islam. This gestalt, Islam, is the linguistic tool of educated Muslim intellectuals

The AFSA report: chief of mission guidelines

The American Foreign Service Association is the representative body of 31,000 current and prior service diplomats. The process of writing an updated ‘Chief of mission guidelines’ began in September of 2013. The report was released last month. ‘Guidelines for successful performance as a chief of mission’ is concise and thoughtfully prepared. The document is anchored by four general guidelines for assessing all future Chief of Mission (COM) nominees. These guidelines for ambassador nominees remind us that roads paved with good intentions do not always match reality on the ground.

My focus today is on the fourth guideline: understanding of host country and international affairs, ability to promote and advance US interests, “The nominee has experience in or with the host country or other suitable international experience, and has knowledge of the host country culture and language or of other foreign cultures or languages. He or she has the ability to manage relations between the US and the country or organisation of assignment in order to advance US interests, including the interests of US commercial firms as well as individual US citizens and nationals. The nominee skillfully interacts with different audiences — both public and private.”

There was a flurry of activity within the Department of State (and later, the newly minted DHS) after 9/11. The federal branch sought out a new breed of career diplomat and intelligence-gatherer, noting a critical need for Arabic linguists. However, men cannot rise beyond their own limitations. Talent recruitment is limited by the perspective of the individual seeking a better diplo-intelligence weapon.

This thought was brought home to me last week. I was scanning a few e-mails, which were making their way to the shredder. One was from a PhD and multi-linguist (Arabic, Persian and Turkish) but he possessed a glaring lack of understanding of Islam within context of his comments directed towards me. The man understood the mother tongue of other nations. He did not speak ‘Islam’.

There is a critical need for senior diplomats who understand the language of Islam. This gestalt, Islam, is the linguistic tool of educated Muslim intellectuals. Many geopolitically active intellectuals are multi-lingual professionals who have been educated at the best universities in the west. In other words, they have already mastered the English language. They can converse in English yet they still use Islam as a linguistic laser. Strong powers of deductive reasoning are converted into an agile intuitiveness, which communicates thoughts. Beyond language fluency is a more powerful realm. It is the realm of Sufi-psychology. Forget Freud! The language known as ‘Islam’ is not only analytical, it also eclipses into a shared and exciting communication experience where signals, symbols and codes swirl about the dinner table. This includes Quranic and Hadith exegesis, tightly packaged for intellectual use. Meaning is caught within the greater net of Islamic understanding. This requires a minnow net to properly cache conversations and their subtle nuances.

The Arabic word for intuition is hadad (Arabic root H D S). Although the word is not used in the Quran, the word is used in Sufi-psychology. There are things that can be perceived, understood, and felt by hadas but this level of perception, understanding and feeling can be a mismatch when a distinctly western perspective seeks to interface with the intuitive skills of Islamic thought. It reminds me of my own attempt at ‘pig Latin’ at age five. There were squeals of laughter all around as my older brother and I tried out our heightened linguistic capabilities. I thought I was a genius. Unfortunately, both of us were an ordinary class of fools.

Learning to speak Islam is an ongoing process for those of us who have not been birthed within a Muslim family. Vibrant culture is sustained by the oral traditions of Islam. These traditions are anchored in such a universal manner that a saying and/or action of a Muslim in Jordan may match the saying and/or action of a Muslim in Yemen. We like to imagine ourselves as unique. In actuality, we are a product of our generations, place of birth and historical time-line. Deeply felt sentiment, civilisational perceptions and understanding are communicated. However, I have found that the best communication between myself and those who speak the language of Islam is not based on bold speech. It is based on the silence between the words, based on the sub-text of what is spoken. It is based, not on what is obvious, but what is beneath the surface. Hadas. What is perceived is of far greater importance.

How is my nation perceived within the chain of Muslim-majority nations? Are we viewed as inept, and incapable in the diplomatic arena? The geopolitical chessboard has changed dramatically for the Muslim-majority nations of the world. Few could have predicted what has occurred within the last decade. It is critical that we send our best to represent the US’s interests abroad.

President Obama has a destructive penchant for selecting diplomatic nominees who bring in truckloads of campaign contributions. Colleen Bell is a prime example of a woman who should not have had her passport stamped for any ambassadorial destination. She is the producer of a soap opera, ‘The Bold and the Beautiful’. Hotel executive George Tsunis is also a “bundler” of campaign dollars for the POTUS. During his confirmation hearings, he called Norway’s Progress Party a “fringe element”. It is a part of the ruling government coalition. Cynthia Stroum, a democratic campaigner for Obama, managed to secure the COM for Luxembourg. She did renovate a bathroom during her tenure. I hope she upgraded to a toilet seat with a heating element.

Hopefully, the new guidelines in the AFSA report for COM will function as benchmarks for minimal qualifications. We can ill-afford appointees who leave us with a big question mark regarding any real expertise. It is critical that our appointees to Muslim-majority nations are chosen from a reservoir of talent that understands the gestalt of Islam.


The writer is a freelance journalist and author of the novel Arsenal. She can be reached at