Interviewee: Farah A. Pandith, U.S. special representative to the Muslim communities, U.S. State Department
Interviewer: Toni Johnson, Staff Writer, CFR.org
October 28, 2009
The Obama administration has created the post of special representative to the Muslim communities with the goal of building trust with the world’s Muslims. The first person to serve that role, Farah Pandith, a Kashmir-born Muslim, says the U.S. role in Muslim engagement includes working with the local communities, to try to provide an opportunity across the board in every region, and opportunities to build on initiatives for the common good. The new initiative will employ social media and a host of other tools to help meet the needs of diverse Muslim communities. “The United States is not engaging with a particular kind of religious leader or endorsing a particular type of Islam,” she says.” Our effort is to engage with a wide scope of civil society, included in that will be people who have influence whether they’re religious leaders, scholars, academics, teachers, businesspeople.”
Your position as Special Representative to Muslim Communities was created following President Obama’s address to the “Muslim world” in June in Cairo. You’ve been working in the State Department for quite some time on Muslim issues. How is this position different from your last one, and what do you hope to accomplish now?
I was senior adviser to the assistant secretary for Europe, so my reach was only in the Europe bureau. The new office of the special representative is a global portfolio. This is an opportunity to go beyond the traditional government-to-government approach and to really think about how we can build cooperation, partnerships, dialogue, to share ideas with civil society and with Muslim themselves who are making a difference in communities and who are interested in finding ways to move forward with their ideas.
My job is to be the hub here at the State Department to coordinate such efforts and I will spend a lot of my time on the ground working in two ways. One is a strong focus on the next generation of Muslims – the youth demographic is extremely important when it comes to Muslim communities around the world. We need to do more to get to know this young generation, and I’m working very hard on that through our embassies. Two, we have a focus on building networks of likeminded thinkers around the world. All of these programs and all of our approaches will be based through our embassies, which will work with me here in Washington. But it’s our officers on the ground who will be working to collaborate with my support and involvement. This office isn’t on an island in of itself – we’re working with several important parts of the State Department, [including] the public diplomacy team, the women’s empowerment ambassador-at-large, [and] the new media teams.
U.S. foreign policy has largely focused on Islam in the Middle East even though most Muslims live in Asia. Given that the “Muslim world” is culturally and geographically diverse, how do you go about courting it?
You used the term “Muslim world.” I don’t. There are over 1.4 billion Muslims in the world, and we have a very healthy and diverse group of communities around the world. As we approach Muslim engagement, we are looking at those different nuances and understand fully how important it is for us to be doing Muslim engagement in every part of the world where Muslims live. Muslims with minority communities, whether we’re talking about the Western Hemisphere or Europe, as well as Muslims in Muslim majority countries in Africa, the Middle East, and East Asia. No matter which group of communities we’re talking about, our approach is definitely going to be differentiating based upon the needs on the ground and what the issues are.
The president in his Cairo speech talked about a sustained dialogue with Muslims. How would the U.S. government reflect that they’re listening instead of dictating?
The United States approach in terms of Muslim engagement is one in which we are building a capacity in many different ways to work on projects together in a respectful and dignified matter, in a matter that honors the cultural traditions and the nuances within these communities. The approach is built upon that. In terms of sustainability, this is not the flavor of the day-this is a sea change in we’re thinking about our relationships with 1.4 billion Muslims around the world we want to get to know, because we want to get to know folks in a time of non-crisis and not in a time of crisis. It requires us to begin now and to work over years and decades ahead to build these relationships in ways that will make sense for all of us.
Given that Islam doesn’t have a hierarchical structure in the same way as some other religions do, can you describe who you hope to engage with that might garner meaningful results?
The United States is not engaging with a particular kind of religious leader or endorsing a particular type of Islam. That’s not our role. Our effort is to engage with a wide scope of civil society, included in that will be people who have influence whether they’re religious leaders, scholars, academics, teachers, businesspeople – places of influence differ depending on the area that we’re talking about. Sometimes they’re elders in a particular region. Sometimes it’s a local council or a youth group. It totally depends on where we’re engaging. Within that group, certainly there will be religious figures with whom we’ll engage. I was just in Nigeria, my first visit as the special representative, and then went to Kazakhstan. In both of those countries I did meet with influential folks within the community, some of whom were religious scholars and imams who have great interest in making sure we’re finding ways to engage with the youth and have a lot to say about their communities and local efforts. I met a young imam in Abuja who was so taken with the efforts that we were doing with social media and talking about ways in which he could connect Muslim voices across his media that he said he wanted to start a youth campaign to work on common projects. This was a guy who was probably twenty-three years old. So it’s a wide range of people.
When addressing Islamic communities, how do you address Islamic radicalism? How do you foster good ties with Muslim communities while staying vigilant on terror issues?
Clearly the vast majority of Muslims that live on this planet are not engaged in such activities. But when you think about the issues that are taking place within a community and the opportunities that violent extremists use to come into communities to preach their radical ideology, it is very clear that the only voices that can push back against that ideology are Muslims themselves.
I’ve met a lot of mainstream Muslims who have created ideas to make sure that that ideology doesn’t seep into their communities. I’ve met young Muslims who are interested in working on efforts online to create more education for young people who don’t hear the other narrative. The only narrative they hear is the narrative of the violent extremist. I’ve met other Muslims who are working diligently to get out there and use debate and use the power of persuasion to talk about what’s taking place in a very honest way. But in all of these cases there are Muslims themselves who are actually talking about what’s taking place on the ground.
In the United States you’ve got very loud people on both sides of political arguments. Where is that loud Muslim voice on the moderate and liberal side?
There isn’t going to be a megaphone that is blaring out a response to the corrupted ideology of violence and extremism that is loud enough to be able to blow it out of the water. It hasn’t happened yet because there isn’t one force that can do that.
What I do see is a lot of local efforts. You can look at a think tank that is working on debating these ideas. You can look at arts and culture in a wide variety of ways that are coming out. I can think of the Khayaal Theater Company in the United Kingdom whose plays and songs talk about the positive side of identity rather than prey upon the weaknesses that are elaborated by others. [There is also] the Sisters Against Violent ExtremismNGO that was started in Vienna in which these women from around the world have started chapters to push back against violent extremism.
There are things that are happening, and they are growing organically. They aren’t growing as fast as one might want, but there are initiatives that are taking place. I understand that more can be done and that more must be done, but we need to help those voices get out who have creative programs whether it is the common word document or the fatwas that have been written by North American scholars about violent extremism or the fact that the OIC[Organization of the Islamic Conference] a couple of years ago put out the fact that suicide bombing was not allowed in the name of Islam.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has pointed to the Russian Republic of Tatarstan as a model for Europeanized Islam. What’s your take on the challenges facing Europe and what are the policy implications?
European governments are working very hard to think about ways within their own communities on how to bridge the divide that exists between the minority and majority population. I know Muslims in Europe are also working hard to try to find ways to educate their own communities and talk about the balance between being Muslim and Western, not Muslim or Western and to talk about the fact that Islam and democracy are compatible and to talk about the fact that you can be both modern and Muslim. There are lots of conversations that are taking place in communities all across Europe, and it’s very important to think about. It’s a growing and active population. A Muslim community in Denmark may be very different from those in Italy or in Barcelona. There’s a lot of diversity within these communities, and the governments approaching these communities are beginning to work very hard on building initiatives that are stemming from what it is these communities are saying that they need.
It’s one of the most critical regions of the globe in terms of understanding what is taking place. The navigation of identity is an issue that young people in Europe are working through. We all need to do a better job of helping that conversation take place in ways that make sense. What happens in Europe makes a huge difference in other parts of the world as well as in our own country.
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