Senior Advisor to Deputy Secretary Focuses on Relationship BuildingBy Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 15, 2007 – If Hesham Islam’s
life story was translated into a screenplay -- and it’s got all the
makings of a Hollywood blockbuster -- the director would be
hard-pressed to come up with a more compelling chain of events landing
him as a top advisor to the deputy defense secretary.
The movie would open with Islam
as a young boy growing up in Cairo, Egypt, huddling in terror as
Israeli bombs came raining down, demolishing much of the building
around him and his family.
special assistant for international affairs to Deputy Defense Secretary
Gordon England, spends a rare moment in his Pentagon office. Islam spends most of his time out of the office, building relationships. Photo by Donna Miles
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Next would be the scene of the
teenager who moves to Iraq when his Egyptian naval officer father is
transferred to help establish the Arabian Gulf naval academy Islam would later attend.
camera would then close in on a young merchant mariner adrift for three
days in the Arabian Sea after an Iranian torpedo sunk his 16,000-ton
cargo ship, drowning all but Islam and four of his crewmates.
viewers would see the young man, who after corresponding with an
American pen-pal for more than three years, dares ask for the
photograph that leaves him smitten with his future wife.
action would shift to the United States, where the new husband,
desperate to provide for his family, enlists in the Navy. Later he will
be accepted into Officer Candidate School, then ultimately retire 20
years later as a Navy commander.
Today, Islam is drawing on those vast experiences to advise Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England on international affairs.
life lends itself to high-drama scenes typically seen on the big
screen, England sees him more as a behind-the-scenes player with a
special talent for bringing other actors together.
Before retiring from the Navy, Islam contributed this skill and his regional and language expertise on the staff of then-Navy Secretary England. Much of Islam’s work focused on U.S. military engagement with the Middle East.
As England moved to the No. 2 Pentagon position, Islam followed, broadening his purview to “the whole globe.”
my interlocutor,” England said. “He represents me to the international
community. He assists me in my own outreach efforts, and he’s
extraordinarily good at it.”
is rarely at his Pentagon desk, believing the best way to serve as
England’s “man out in town in Washington, D.C.” is to be out and about,
“I am a strong believer that there are
no relationships between countries,” he said. “Relationships are
between people, and those relationships are what bring countries
“It is all about friendships between people,” agreed England, “and you build them one person at a time.”
calls relationship building “a contact sport.” “You can’t develop
friendships unless you actually go out and take the effort to meet
people and interact with people,” he said.
As he represents the Defense Department around the country and the around the world, England said, he counts on Islam’s insights and advice. “Hesham
helps me understand people’s different perspectives and how they see
things,” England said. “He has a cultural background that’s very
helpful, but he also works at it very hard to get a better
understanding of people and how they think.”
works tirelessly to befriend diplomats from around the world, learning
from each about their country, its sensitivities, and its requirements.
“I help them understand us, as Americans, and help my boss understand
them,” he said. “My goal is to bridge the gap and help people
understand each other, even if we are different.”
Not all Islam’s efforts are directed toward other countries. A Muslim, Islam
works closely with the Muslim-American community, encouraging its
members to integrate into American society and take an active stand
with the United States in the war on violent extremism. “This war can’t
be won by just Americans,” he said. “It’s a war that has to be fought
by Muslims. Islam has been hijacked, and it is time to take it back.”
said he’s proud of the 5,000 Muslims actively supporting that effort in
the U.S. military. Among them is his own son, Navy Lt. j.g. Rami Islam, who serves aboard the carrier USS Carl Vinson. “As a parent, I’m very proud that my son is serving this country,” he said.
After growing up in wartime, first in Egypt, then in Iraq, Islam
hopes this dialogue can help eliminate differences that can lead to
misunderstanding and conflict. “If people talk, people don’t fight. If
they talk, they don’t argue,” he said. “I try to bring talking and
understanding into the dialogue.”
has wonderful friendships and relationships, and therefore he can give
me extraordinarily good advice in dealing with countries and people,”
England said. “I take his advice, and I listen to him all the time.”
England said he rarely disagrees with Islam’s guidance. “After all,” he said, “if you have a good doctor, you listen to your doctor, right?”
|Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England (left) counts on the counsel of Hesham Islam (far right), his special assistant for international affairs, when representing the United States abroad. Here, Islam joins England during a visit to Iraq in July 2007. Courtesy photo |
|Now-retired Navy Cmdr. Hesham Islam
(right), special assistant for international affairs to Deputy Defense
Secretary Gordon England, poses before his retirement with his son, now
Lt. j.g. Rami Islam. Five generations of the Islam family have served as naval officers. Courtesy photo |