An Interview with Farah Pandith, State Department Special Representative to Muslim Communities

by Anubhav Gupta

In June 2009, President Obama appointed Farah Pandith as the first ever U.S. Special Representative to Muslim Communities. She reports directly to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in executing the Administration’s vision of engagement with Muslims around the world. Before this posting, she worked as Senior Advisor to the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs. She has also worked as Director for Middle East Regional Initiatives for the National Security Council and as Chief of Staff for the Bureau for Asia and the Near East for USAID. She is a Fletcher alum. 

On April 4th, 2012, Special Representative Farah Pandith spoke to The Fletcher Forum about foreign policy careers and how the United States government is engaging with Muslim communities around the world. She commented on many issues, including the need to get past “us vs. them” narratives, a “youth quake” around the world, and how to be an “entrepreneurial diplomat” in the 21st Century.

Interview conducted by Andy Gupta.

Engaging Muslim Communities

AG: Do you want to tell us what you’ve been doing recently? Is there a specific issue that has been taking up your time?

FP: There’s not a specific issue, but I can give you a larger answer for that. In the last couple of weeks I’ve been to several countries. I was in Greece, Albania and the UK with my colleague Hannah Rosenthal to work on our campaign 2012 Hours Against Hate. It is a campaign that was launched on Facebook for young people, asking them to donate one hour or more of their time for someone who doesn’t look like them, pray like them or live like them. It’s not my full time job obviously. It was something that was created in the context of an American delegation going to a conference on tolerance in Kazakhstan. And a couple of weeks earlier I was in Sudan, Kenya, the Comoros and France. So I spend a lot of time traveling. And it is in that role that you wanted to speak to me about right — what I do as Special Representative?

AG: Yes. Could you tell us what Secretary Clinton envisioned for this office and what your primary goals are as Special Representative to Muslim Communities?

FP: This position is a new one. It was created because this president has made engagement with Muslims a priority. You know that – you heard his inauguration speech, you heard his speech in Ankara when he spoke to the Turkish Parliament, and you certainly heard it in his broad and all encompassing speech in Cairo in June of 2009, where he laid out his vision for engagement based on mutual interest and mutual respect. And he has asked every part of our government to engage with Muslims and to do it with as many tools in their toolbox. The president talked about education, women’s empowerment, entrepreneurship, science and technology, and new kinds of partnerships.

Here at the State Department, Secretary Clinton asked us to build off of programs that we’ve been doing in terms of engagement. We have many wonderful programs that we have here at State which have to do with education and cultural exchanges. But we wanted to do more than we have ever done before. So this office was established so that, the Special Representative would be the first person in history actually to have this role. It’s completely focused on civil society. So everything I do is grassroots, it’s community driven. It is focused on the communities under the age of 30, which is very particular because most Muslims in the world are under the age of 30. We are really interested in this Facebook generation. We are focusing on using social media; we are focusing on building the capacity with our embassies around the world.

We are focused in three ways in terms of how we’re organizing ourselves. It would be important to put it in terms of relationship building, so that there is no “us and them.” And that’s something the President has talked a lot about — that there this is no “us and them,” there is just a “we”. The President has said that Islam is part of the West. He’s talked about the fact that Muslims are part of the American family. And every thing that we are doing, both through the State Department and with other departments and agencies around the world, is that we’re breaking down the narrative of an “us and them.” That is a critical and very important piece.

The second thing is that we’re building new networks for new narratives. We are connecting people — especially young people – around the world who are likeminded thinkers. So for example, you have a social entrepreneur in Stockholm, who is connected to somebody in Dhaka who is doing the same thing. We are using our strengths as the United States government to be the convener, the facilitator and the intellectual partner with the ideas that we hear on the ground. And these new networks are critical, because they allow young Muslims to talk about what it means to be of this generation worldwide. And Muslims are one-fourth of humanity — there are 1.6 billion Muslims on the planet, most of which are under the age of 30. So what we want to do is get to know these young people in various ways in a time of non-crisis, not just in a time of crisis. So we are building strong communities worldwide. So the three major objectives are relationship building, building positive counter-narratives and building strong communities. And we do that in a wide range of ways.

AG: Great. You talked about Islam being part of the West and there not really being this conflicting divide between the two, but there is obviously a lot of tension. In the last decade Islam and the West have come into contact in many ways because of the attacks on 9/11 and the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since. And there has been a lot of engagement and dialogue because of those events. But do you think the dialogue today is more positive? Do you think there is a lot more understanding today than there was ten years ago, or have we gone backwards?

FP: As you know, I have been in this space since 2003 — I served as a political appointee in the Bush Administration and now serve in the Obama Administration. And one of the things I will say to you is that at no other time in American history were we as engaged with Muslims as we are right now. The President, as the Commander in Chief, has made this a priority, which makes this a very different era. There is a very important thing that you said about what has happened in the last ten years. One thing that is important for us to understand is that there are a lot of moving trends. First of all, from the government’s point of view, we understand more than we ever have before the importance of the diversity of Muslims around the world– that we’re not treating Muslims as a monolith. Right?

AG: Yes.

FP: When I was at Fletcher Andy, in 1993, Sam Huntington came out with the Clash of Civilizations. It was the premier thing that we were all thinking about — is there a clash. Well, there is no clash! Muslims are part of every community in the world and the way in which we as the United States government understand and talk about those issues is really important. It is important to go back to what the President said in Cairo — that we treat people with respect and that we respect the diversity of these communities around the world. That a Muslim living in Kenya is as important to us as a Muslim living in Morocco, Indonesia, Brazil or Denmark.

We understand, that over the course of this last ten years, with this Facebook generation, with the click of a mouse, with a 140 characters on Twitter, these young peers are talking to each other in ways that no other generation before them has done. So things impact this generation in new ways. The sound bytes made by media gurus on TV as well as tweets from average citizens around the world are actually impacting the way people think about things. So something, for example, that happens in Copenhagen affects a life in Kabul. So with this shift, the ecosystem that we’ve seen over the last ten years is significantly different than any other time in history as we’ve looked at this demographic. The American government is focused on being respectful to the diversity of Muslims — you can hear it in the language that the Secretary and the President use. We talk about Muslim communities; we don’t talk about a Muslim world. We talk about the importance of giving dignity and really getting to know this next generation. We are not just focused on those with the loudest voices. We are going deep and wide within our engagement strategies within our embassies. So we’re getting to know young entrepreneurs and bloggers and others that make up civil society. And we are going community to community, not just looking at countries as whole swaths. We are taking the time to understand the differences and to really be keen on getting to know this next generation.

Youth Quake

AG: I agree that the United States is making a huge effort to engage Muslims all around the world. This engagement is really positive, but to some extent a lot of it was a product of the various events of the past decade. So I’m wondering as the United States withdraws from Afghanistan, we’ve already withdrawn from Iraq, what happens to this engagement? And how does the US government plan to keep up the engagement past 2013 and into the future?

FP: This is an important question and really goes to the heart of everything. Engagement around the world is part of our national security. It is not something we do on the side. The Secretary has been really clear about our long-term investment in youth around the world. This isn’t a flavor of the day. This is not some effort just get us past a goal line. This is a long-term effort on behalf of the United States government to get to know the youth demographic that is growing around the world. 62% of the world’s population is under the age of 30. The Secretary has made youth a priority. And we’re doing that in many different kinds of ways. The kinds of programs and initiatives that we are embarking on are really vast. Whether we’re talking about science and technology, entrepreneurship, education, or social media or any foreign policy issue, we’re looking at youth. You are looking at Ambassadors who have Youth Councils that are part of their regular business. You are looking at the fact that our folks on the ground are engaging on Facebook and Twitter because the Secretary is really focused on 21st Century Statecraft. This is entrepreneurial diplomacy. This is how we connect the dots in new ways. This is what it means to be a diplomat in 2012! We’re not just using the old silos and the old [pages] from a manual that doesn’t work anymore. We’re being creative and innovative about what we’re doing and what we need to do to know the next generation.

And it is critical for us to understand that a young person has the capacity to shake things up. I keep calling what I see around the world a youth quake. These young people want to be heard. Their ideas matter! And it matters not just to their peer group, but it matters to our government because we want to understand what’s taking place. So this is a long-term effort on behalf of the U.S. government — the kinds of initiatives and the form of the initiatives may change over time — but what will not change is our dedication and our interest in engaging with youth.

AG: You’ve spoken a lot about youth and social media, and that brings me to the Arab Spring. I was wondering if you were surprised by the scope of the Arab Spring? How did your office react to it? And how do you think the United States has harnessed what has happened around the world to continue engaging with youth in these countries.

FP: I don’t think any scholar anywhere in the world could have predicted the movement of forces and the calls for freedom across the Middle East. I mean I would be really shocked if anybody knew that that was coming.

I would say to you however that if you’ve been watching the youth space around the world, been watching what is being said on Twitter and on Facebook, if you’ve been listening and reading the blogs, if you’ve been paying attention to this generation, you’re not going to be surprised that they want to be heard. And that they are seeing a future that is very different from the future of their parents. They understand that there is no digital divide. 4/5 of the planet has a cell phone. If Facebook were a nation, it would be the third largest nation in the world! So these young people see what’s happening around the world and they want a piece of it, they want to be in it, they don’t want to be separate from it. They are not waiting for governments to tell them that they can do something. They are interested in doing it now. We see so many young social entrepreneurs around the world who began what they are doing because they weren’t going to wait to someone else to do it. They decided to pick up litter. They decided to create ways for clean drinking water. They [found] ways to teach people in the slums how to read.

I mean, it doesn’t matter where in the world I’ve been, I’ve seen these young people harnessing their talent, creativity and innovation. So when I think about the importance of what’s happening in the Middle East, and don’t get me wrong it is critically important, that part of the world is essential to think about the youth demographic… but let us remember that this generation that is shaking things up in the Middle East is part of their peer group around the world [who are] asking for the same things — they want fundamental human rights and freedoms to exist and to be able to dream the biggest dreams that they have.

AG: Going off of that, the peer group for young Muslims in the Middle East for example, youth in the United States… Is there a way to engage American citizens and youth to help bridge that divide on the grass roots level? Is there a way that the State Department is trying to engage Americans in building relationships across the world?

FP: Let me tell you about one of the initiatives that I’m really excited about that has come directly out of our office. The Secretary launched in 2010 something called Generation Change. Are you familiar with it?

AG: I am not.

FP: Okay. Generation Change is the generation under the age of 30. These are change makers. They come from various backgrounds… they may be a musician, a scholar, or maybe a tech entrepreneur. It doesn’t really matter what your industry is. These people are proving themselves in really remarkable ways. They are leaders that are interested in making positive contributions to their communities. And we have branded this as Generation Change, and we are building 25 chapters around the world of young Generation Change-makers.

This is basically talent-scouting — finding young people who are amazing and connecting them with each other and connecting them with the world. So this network of Generation Change started here in the United States when Secretary Clinton invited 75 of them, Americans under the age of 30, to the State Department to allow them to network with each other and work on communal projects together. That’s the anchor of the American chapter and that chapter is connecting with other chapters around the world. So peer-to-peer we are acting as that facilitator and that convener. We’re not telling them what projects to work on and what to do. We are creating the platform for them and the platforms on Facebook and they are meeting people they would never have met before. But what they all have in common is that they are under the age of 30, they are digital natives, and they are interested in making a positive contribution to the planet.

21st Century Diplomacy

AG: That’s incredibly exciting that initiatives like that are getting off the ground and are finding success! Speaking of young people, what about Fletcher students and the next generation of policy makers? What would you want them to know and consider when they are working on issues that engage with Muslim communities around the world?

FP: Well there are several things and I’m glad you asked that question… I came to Fletcher recently and gave a speech on entrepreneurial diplomacy and that’s what I believe all of you are — you are entrepreneurial diplomats if you go into the field of foreign policy on behalf of the government. You have to be creative and innovative about how you use the tools in the toolbox. We are not in 1930, we are in 2012. And we have to think more creatively. The Secretary spent a lot of time thinking about and putting forward new tools that we are using more effectively — how we use diaspora, how we use civil society and citizen diplomacy, how we allow citizens to play a larger role in what’s taking place on the ground. She talked about grass roots and about community activism. She talked about using technology to be able to talk to each other, to put ideas forward and build networks. This means that you have to think out of the box and you need to be creative and innovative about how you do things. So being an entrepreneurial diplomat is really essential. And to understand what it means to use the strengths of a government. It is not only about dollars. Dollars are really important in terms of the ability we have to actually jumpstart initiatives and build capacity. But it’s also getting to know on the people side who is doing what. To not just go to the same old people, but to be creative about how you think about who the leverage points are.

AG: You mentioned citizen diplomacy, grass roots, and community activism, and it made me think about what is happening in the U.S. domestically. Recently, there was a lot of criticism of the NYPD regarding secret surveillance of American Muslims in New York and New Jersey. Do you think controversies like this get picked up by Muslims around the world. And does that complicate what your office does?

FP: Andy, we’re not in a bubble here in the United States. At no other time have we had so much attention and people looking at what’s taking place in our country and building that out across the world. Let me give you an example. Ever since the preacher in Florida, named Terry Jones, pulled the stunt when he was threatening to burn the Quran. The American media gave that man, who had 50 people in his church, only 50 people, so much oxygen for days on end. And the impact of that I get even now, a year later.

Every community that I go to around the world, I don’t care where in the world I am — whether it is the Comoros, Kenya, Sudan, Europe, or Southeast Asia — people ask me about him by name. They know his name is Terry Jones. And they believe that he is representative of Americans; that all Americans want to do that. So we have to be really conscious of the fact that nothing is isolated, that every shrill voice in America, every radio talk show, every anchor on the nightly news, every thing that we think are just [part of] American politics, is being observed and analyzed by a generation of young Muslims around the world.

There is also a very important component here too, which is that many people don’t discriminate between America and Europe. They can’t see the differences. They see the West as a bloc. So when something really controversial is happening in Europe around integration or assimilation or multiculturalism or any of those things having to do with diversity, when a country bans freedom of expression or the ability to build something, it comes back to us. So, I spend a lot of my time overseas talking about our country. Talking about the fabric of America, about our constitution, about the rights of our citizens. While we are not perfect, we have freedoms in America that no other country has, and the ability to express ourselves and to practice our faith. You can have that conversation but it usually stems from a direct question to me about Terry Jones or about some commentary on some politician that said something negative about Islam or Muslims.

Countering Extremist Narratives

AG: That makes sense. You’ve worked on integration issues in Europe. And I was wondering what the challenges there were and the challenges in the Middle East or the Arab world in countering extremist narratives and bridging the divide between communities.

FP: In order to push back against extremist narratives, you have to have alternative narratives. It is important no matter where in the world we are, that we find ways to push forward, in authentic and organic ways, credible voices on the ground that can speak very clearly about the importance of pushing back against violent extremism or extremist narratives. And those credible voices come in many different shapes and sizes. It is not just the person who has the most degrees on theology; it is not just the person who has the loudest voice. Community to community, you look at the different kinds of influencers on the ground. And we are doing that. Part of the reason that building networks are so important and connecting people who are working on the same agenda, is to provide alternative narratives to the narrative of an “us and them” or the narrative that al Qaeda and its affiliates want to put forward. We see that in the strength of people all over the world who do things in a wide variety of ways. You have to understand that everyone gets impacted in different ways. You need somebody who’s going to use very analytical arguments in one place. You could have somebody else that uses art and culture or music in another place. It really needs to have as many alternative ways of hearing the message as possible.

AG: I totally understand. I think religious patriarchs have a lot of sway in these communities, so empowering people on the ground is a really effective way to inject these alternative narratives. Now, to switch tracks a little bit, I wanted to ask you a little bit about Kashmir… I was born in India and I know you did your Fletcher thesis on the insurgency there. What prospects do you see for progress in Kashmir and what can the U.S. do to facilitate a solution in Kashmir?

FP: As I’m sure you are aware, my job as Special Representative to Muslim Communities has a very specific mandate. I am focusing on youth, civil society, building networks and increasing the capacity for young Muslims to engage in positive ways and to work and build relationships with this generation. My job is not to work on policy issues specific to countries. So the team here at the State Department that works on issues in the Subcontinent is obviously the South Asia Bureau. So I will simply say to you that the work that I did as a Fletcher student on my MALD on Kashmir [was during] a very different era and it was something that I was very passionate about and continue to be very interested in. I have a lot of interest in that part of the world…

As a State Department government official, I will say to you that the United States has always welcomed a dialogue and better relations between India and Pakistan. And that includes the issue of Kashmir. But Andy, the pace, the scope and character of that dialogue is something for the Indian and Pakistani leaders to decide.

U.S. Foreign Policy Careers

AG: Okay, I understand. One final question — I know you have to go. I’m actually going to be at the State Department this summer as an intern…

FP: Where are you interning?

AG: I’m going to be at the India Desk in D.C.

FP: Well, you’re going to have that line memorized, my friend.

AG. Yes, yes. You’ve worked at State and at the NSC and with USAID, and I was wondering what is the fundamental difference in approach at State if you’ve noticed one? And for Fletcher students who are trying to get into this field, how can they best manage a career where they may have to jump around from agency to agency?

FP: My career was not plotted in that way Andy. I could not have predicted when I got out of Fletcher that I would be someone who has had experiences in different parts of government. Let’s remember that we all have one message, and we all work for the President. And we are all, from every angle of government, following his vision and what it is that he wants to get done. Whether you are the Secretary of State or you are working as the Administrator of AID, you know, the marching orders are the same — you’re working on an agenda that the President has set forth with his foreign policy team. So, it’s important to simply say that we are a unified team in executing the President’s vision.

There are definitely character differences in the environment in different organizations… Certainly I could speak to that in more detail in terms of the tools in the toolbox. Those folks that work at USAID have different ways in which they accomplish the President’s goals. Here at the State Department, we are diplomats who are working through our embassies through a whole another set of tools and circumstances. But together both AID and the State Department work hand in hand on the broader vision of foreign policy. At the National Security Council, my role as Director at the NSC was to manage the interagency process, and to make sure that we were doing what needed to be done for the President from that angle. So it was a very different environment and pace and a different way in which we were executing the President’s vision.

But in each one of my jobs I’ve had to be very careful about making sure that the work that I was doing was the best work that I could do for the President, whoever that President might be. And when you sign on to become a member of the U.S. Government as a potential person yourself Andy, as you look at your career and the kind of things you want to do, you need to be thinking about what’s the best environment for the kind of person you are. Not everybody is the same. Are you the person who wants to be on the outside of an issue sort of working from behind, or do you want to be the spokesperson in the front. Those are the kinds of questions that policy folks at Fletcher, any students in foreign policy ought to be thinking about. Is your career one in which you want to spend 25 years in the Foreign Service, are you somebody who would rather go in and out of government. These are questions that should be asked, not is that agency better or is this agency better, because we’re all part of the American team.

AG: That’s very helpful thank you. Do you have to go?

FP: I do.

AG: Thank you so much for talking with me. It was an honor. And I will try to come talk to you this summer when I’m in D.C.

FP: Please do. And what month are you starting your internship?

AG: I’m going to be there in the beginning of June.

FP: Great, well there’s travel craziness in my life but come up, don’t be shy. Andy, what part of India is your family from?

AG: I was born in what used to be Madhya Pradesh but is now in Chhattisgarh. It is a town called Jagdalpur.

FP: Great. Well come up and introduce yourself to me in person. Thank you so much and thank you for your interest in my work.

AG: It was a delight. Have a good afternoon!

FP: Thanks Andy. Bye.

About the Author

Andy Gupta is a Masters student at the Fletcher School focusing on U.S. foreign policy, international security issues, and South Asia. You can follow him on Twitter: @AndyGupta21

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