America’s face to Muslims

Fletcher Features

Farah Pandith, F95, sworn into the position of US Department of State Special Representative to Muslim Communities by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

Imaduddin Ahmed | June 18, 2010

Tufts University Fletcher School graduate Farah Pandith spearheads US President Barack Obama’s initiative to launch a ‘new beginning’ with Muslim communities

“I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.

I do so recognizing that change cannot happen overnight. No single speech can eradicate years of mistrust, nor can I answer in the time that I have all the complex questions that brought us to this point. But I am convinced that in order to move forward, we must say openly the things we hold in our hearts, and that too often are said only behind closed doors.”

US President Barack Obama addresses Muslims around the world from Cairo, June 4th, 2009 

Farah Pandith, F95, is one of two faces of President Obama’s re-branding initiative of the USA to Muslims. Her new position – US Department of State Special Representative to Muslim Communities – indicates the Obama administration’s desire to reconcile the American state with Muslims. That the two entirely different entities should be in want of a reconciliation at all was prophesied by Samuel Huntington, whose era-changing essay ‘Clash of the Civilizations’ was published while Pandith was a Fletcher student.

In contrast to her colleague Rashad Hussain, Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Countries, Pandith is charged with an unprecedented mandate as a diplomat of ambassadorial rank to engage directly with Muslim civil society: students, entrepreneurs and NGO workers.

Appointed the Special Representative to Muslim Communities by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in June 2009, she joins a number of Fletcherites serving in the State Department as assistant or deputy secretaries and ambassadors.

“We are everywhere. And that is the way it should be!” says Pandith, a member of Fletcher’s Board of Overseers. “One of my favorite colleagues at State now is from our ranks, professor and alumnus Vali Nasr, F83, F84.”

For Pandith, Fletcher Professors Leila Fawaz, Andrew Hess, Richard Shultz, and Sugata Bose all played pivotal roles in the way she thought about issues. “In the spring of 1993, two members of my family were killed in Kashmir—one by a militant group and the other in a random firing at the funeral procession of my assassinated relative.”

Encouraged by professors, Pandith went to Kashmir to conduct field research for her Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy thesis, investigating how foreign ideologies impacted a community and how regional grievances are used for larger global action. “It was my introduction to violent extremist ideology. It was my ‘James Bond’ summer—interviewing militants and very high level members of the Indian government,” says Pandith.

But that was years ago. Since her time at Fletcher, she has worked in the private sector, then post 9/11 in government, at the U.S. Agency for International Development, the National Security Council, and the U.S. Department of State. She has had two positions created especially for her. As Senior Advisor to the Assistant Secretary for Europe, she focused on Muslims in Western Europe, a position that was created for the first time in U.S. history.

Her newest job is another historic first. In September 2009, Pandith was sworn in as the first-ever Special Representative to Muslim Communities.

Since her appointment as Special Representative, Pandith has entertained an aggressive travel schedule, meeting with Muslims around the world, in countries including Nigeria, Kazakhstan, Brazil, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Sweden, France, and the UK. Pandith engages civil society from a wide range of sectors, including students, entrepreneurs, faith leaders, and non-government organizations. She works with embassies around the world to reach out beyond the typical contacts to build partnerships and dialogue in new ways. She understands that relationships take time, but that in order to build trust and eventual partnerships you have to begin by listening.

“We are bringing people to the table in an unprecedented way,” says Pandith, who is focused on understanding new perspectives and connecting with younger generations, “because they are the leaders of tomorrow. We want to connect with them as they are becoming leaders and as they are inserting their ideas into the public discourse. Approximately forty-five percent of the world population is under the age of 30. We don’t want to get to know them later. We want to get to know them now and develop long-term relationships.”

Citing the example of 2006 Muslim Nobel Peace Prize-winner Muhammad Yunus, Pandith says that tackling big problems—poverty, climate change, corruption—can begin by working at a person-to-person level. Her mandate is global: “A Muslim in San Paulo is as Muslim as a Muslim in Surabaya or Stockholm. All of our embassies are engaging in new ways, whether Muslims are living as a majority or as minorities.”

Pandith sees a great deal of diversity in terms of the issues young people face, but a consistent, global issue of identity pervades. She often recalls the young Pakistani Norwegian she met in Oslo. Born in Norway, he has never been to Pakistan, yet said he was neither Norwegian nor Pakistani. “‘Is a Norwegian supposed to have brown hair, skin, and eyes?’ he asked.”

Many young Muslims find difficulty confronting their identity—balancing pride for one’s heritage with pride for one’s nation. Pandith recounts the case of a Filipina youth who asked her what it meant to be a Muslim today.

“Young Muslims—members of the Y and Z generations—have grown up in a world where, since 2001, they have been confronted by the burden of constant media attention on Islam and Muslims,” she said. “This generation is asking questions about identity and belonging in new ways, very publicly. The answers they get will impact the way we react to changing demographics and public discourse.”

Pandith enjoys meeting young people and finding ways to use the strength of the United States government to be “the convener, facilitator, and intellectual partner” with the grassroots. She talks about creating the space for great ideas to come forward from the bottom up. Additionally, the discussions give her the opportunity to dispel myths about being Muslim in America to Muslims abroad—there is no contradiction between being a Muslim and an American, she insists.

Pandith immigrated to America from India as a baby and grew up on the South Shore of Boston. She talks about the American immigrant narrative and the impact the history of Massachusetts had on her growing up. The stories of the Irish, Polish, Italians, and others made her very aware about the importance of respecting all parts of a community. While president of the student body at Smith College, she worked on creating more education and awareness around the issue of diversity. At Fletcher and in her time the private sector, she also worked in various capacities to provide opportunities to build dialogue and partnerships.

While she doesn’t say so explicitly, improving the image of the United States at a grassroots level isn’t the most ineffectual form of public diplomacy. In the viral age of the Internet, word spreads quickly.

“We are building networks among like-minded people. So getting the person in Kano, Nigeria, connected to the person in Solo, Indonesia, connected to the person in Alexandria, Egypt about ideas that are similar is important because they are the ones who are able to work off of each other, incubate ideas, and build relationships and networks that can be very impactful. This is the Facebook generation, and we need to use the power of new media and great ideas to make change on the ground.”

Does Pandith make an effort to talk with people who may not have a favorable view of the United States?

“Of course,” she replies. “It’s not really added value if you’re only talking with people who love you. There is a lot of discourse about foreign policy, about what’s happening in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, for example. But we can work on those issues while at the same time working to seed initiatives at the grassroots level for the common good.”

While Pandith seeds initiatives from the grassroots level to build partnerships for the long term, she does face short-term challenges as well. For example, the Transportation Security Administration’s new security regulations that highlight specific countries was raised repeatedly on her visits to Pakistan and India.

“Of course,” she says, “my job is impacted by everything that happens around the world … but open and respectful dialogue must continue no matter what recent crisis or new security initiatives are taking place.”

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