Weekly Insights and Analysis

The 2008 U.S.-Islamic World Regional Forum – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

October 15, 2008

By Gordon Hein

Since the U.S.-Islamic World Forum’s launch by the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution in 2004, it has made important contributions to dialogue and understanding, and has served as a catalyst for action among organizations from many countries. It is our belief ” and our hope ” that by holding this conference in Southeast Asia, we can add an additional, vital element to the dialogue that can make it even richer, deeper, and more successful that it has been to date. For this opportunity, I would like to express our gratitude to Ambassador Martin Indyk and his staff at the Saban Center. We are also pleased to be co-sponsoring this event with ISIS, the Institute of Strategic and International Studies here in Kuala Lumpur — led by Tan Sri Mohamed Jawhar Hassan. ISIS is an organization that has contributed so much over the years not only to Malaysia, but to the Asia-Pacific region as a whole, and it’s an organization with which The Asia Foundation has had a long and fruitful history of cooperation.

For more than two decades, for us at The Asia Foundation, our interest in the U.S.-Islamic World Forum reflects our role as a non-government, international development and foreign affairs organization that is headquartered in the United States — in San Francisco — but which, since our founding in 1954, has always been firmly embedded on the ground in Asia. We work through a network of 17 country offices from Indonesia and Vietnam, in Southeast Asia, up to China and Mongolia, and as far west as Pakistan and Afghanistan, including an office in Malaysia. Through these offices, we support and implement programs in the areas of good governance, rule of law, economic reform, women’s empowerment, and international relations, all in close partnership with Asian government and academic institutions. For us, the theme of this conference is particularly relevant, since, as an important part of our work on good governance and economic reforms, we have developed and maintained strong partnerships with literally hundreds of Islamic organizations throughout the region, in some cases going back to the 1970s. These partnerships have ranged from associations of Muslim intellectuals in the ASEAN region, to grass-roots community development groups working to improve the quality of life in rural Bangladesh; from support to Muslim NGOs doing non-partisan voter education and independent poll monitoring for elections in Indonesia to organizations in Mindanao and Southern Thailand that are seeking to promote peace and development by addressing local grievances and contributing to local governance.

Indeed, I well remember that when I first joined The Asia Foundation as Assistant Representative in Indonesia in 1981, the first project I was put in charge of was an effort to improve the curriculum and expand the community development work of Islamic boarding schools in rural Java. This was an effort that was led by a group of local religious leaders associated with the Muslim cleric and NGO leader Abdurrachman Wahid, who of course went on to become President of Indonesia almost 20 years later.

In all of our programs with Muslim organizations, we have tried to take an approach based on mutual respect, partnership, and a shared concern for the betterment of Asian societies, whether the issue was improved livelihoods for communities, respect for human rights, free and fair elections, expanding educational opportunities, or efforts to reduce corruption or combat human trafficking. And we have found, to our profound gratitude, that this approach has been uniformly met with a most welcoming and receptive response in Asia.  We feel privileged to have in place well-established networks of cooperation and trust with Muslim organizations throughout the region that are probably unique for an American-based organization, networks we believe contribute greatly to our ability to support positive change and development in the region.

We very much believe that there are opportunities as well as challenges in the relationship between the United States and the Islamic World. And we hope that, by giving full attention to some of the unique characteristics and dynamics related to Islam in Southeast Asia, this conference can make a positive contribution to increased understanding and cooperation in this vitally important but sometimes difficult relationship.

Gordon Hein is The Asia Foundation’s Vice President for Programs. Below are his welcoming remarks at the 2008 U.S.-Islamic World Regional Forum on Monday in Kuala Lumpur, co-sponsored by The Asia Foundation, the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution, and ISIS. He can be reached at


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