Reaching Out to Muslim Youth

As U.S. Special Representative to Muslim Communities, Farah Pandith, F95, is creating positive new connections with young people the world over
Farah Pandith in Indonesia with youthful audience
Farah Pandith with a group in Indonesia in August 2011. “Sixty-two percent of the 1.6 billion Muslims on the planet are under the age of 30, and they are digital natives,” says Pandith. Photo: Courtesy of U.S. Embassy, Jakarta
September 5, 2013

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Against a backdrop of simmering hostility to the United States in many Muslim countries, how do you bring a positive message to them about America? If you’re Farah Pandith, F95, you do it by trying to engage young people by bringing them to the table and finding common ground. And in her case, that means being on the road, many months of the year.

The U.S. Special Representative for Muslim Communities, reporting directly to Secretary of State John Kerry, Pandith has traveled to more than 80 countries in the past four years, meeting with small and large groups, conveying the message that the U.S. wants to reach out and engage with Muslims worldwide.

For Pandith, the job is a natural outcome of her background and interests. A Muslim, she was born in Kashmir, in northern India, came to the U.S. as a child, and grew up in Milton, Mass. Soon after graduating from Smith College, she landed a job at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). After graduating from the Fletcher School in 1995, she stayed in Boston, working as vice president of international business for ML Strategies. But in 2003, prompted in part by 9/11, she moved back to Washington, working first at USAID and then at the National Security Council and the State Department. In June 2009, she was named the first U.S. Special Representative for Muslim Communities, sworn in by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

She focuses on working with Muslims under age 30, and not just in what many think of as the “Muslim world”; she also travels to meet with Muslims in Europe, Africa and South America.

Pandith, who received a Tufts Distinguished Achievement Award in May, is an active alumna. She serves on the Fletcher School’s Board of Advisors and was a member of the search committee for the next Fletcher dean.

Her professors at Tufts are effusive in their praise of her abilities. “Farah was an outstanding student—a really smart person,” says Richard Shultz, professor of international politics at the Fletcher School. Leila Fawaz, the Issam M. Fares Professor of Lebanese and Eastern Mediterranean Studies, agrees. “Farah was a warm, caring and committed student. She cared about the issues she studied and in which she excelled. She is wise and mature beyond her years.”

Between her travels, Pandith spoke about the challenges she faces in her work, and how the U.S. needs to continue to engage with Muslims worldwide.

Tufts Now: When you’re going abroad and meeting with young people, what kind of reception do you receive?

Farah Pandith: The youths I meet are unbelievably interested in how the U.S. developed into the country it is. They are interested in the rights that we have, embodied in our Constitution. They ask questions all the time about the different ethnicities and heritages. They are very interested in my own personal journey, the access I’ve had to education and to service and that I haven’t been discriminated against.

How does the local culture impact your work?

There have been many times when I have gone into communities that have been very conservative. Oftentimes the men are in one part of the room, or the men and women are separated in two different rooms. Or they will meet me, but there’s a lot of distance between us physically. Sometimes, due to custom, I will not shake their hands. But people are always interested in talking about their perspective and wanting to be heard. I think it’s important that they are heard.

And as a female who happens to be in this job, I think there have been some really wonderful advantages for me. I am able to go into very conservative environments and speak with women who would not necessarily engage with a male U.S. government official.

Farah Pandith is sworn in by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Sept. 15, 2009. Photo: U.S. Department of State

We tend to think only of the Middle East when we think of Muslim communities, but is it more than that?

We have to understand what’s happening in the spaces around the headlines. We cannot just be consumed with what country seems to be important at the moment. There is a whole host of demographics that tells a story: 62 percent of the 1.6 billion Muslims on the planet are under the age of 30, and they are digital natives. We must understand what’s happening on the ground, whether you’re talking about Guyana, Brunei, the Maldives, Ireland or Canada. You have to understand what’s taking place within the generation we’re speaking about.

You’ve been in this position for four years, and other government positions before that. What has changed in terms of America’s relationship with Muslim communities during that time?

I have worked in Muslim communities in many different kinds of ways and many different capacities for 10 years now, and there has definitely been a change around how we can build bridges and partnerships and alliances and develop new programs.

Now, nothing happens in a vacuum. The way in which American and foreign media understand and talk about issues regarding Muslim communities has significantly changed, and world events make a difference in how these young people think about themselves and how the world thinks of them. The toolkits they have, their social media access, have changed; this is a demographic of digital natives. They also understand clearly that one voice can make a difference.

The world is shifting; youth are shifting now. I often talk about a “youthquake” taking place in the world—the voices of young people are shaking things up. You are seeing more and more youth speaking out on behalf of their communities, pushing back against extremist narratives, online and offline in ways that are organic, absolutely credible and show the flavor of what this generation is made of.

What was it like growing up Muslim in the U.S.?

Growing up in Milton and going to Milton Academy K to 12, I was very proud of my cultural heritage and background. My grandfather, many cousins, aunts and uncles all lived in northern India in Kashmir. I used to travel there every summer to visit. But I was never treated any differently when I was in school—ever. I never thought about my identity as something singularly difficult or different, and I was never discriminated against. I feel very fortunate to have had an amazing education at Milton, but also to have had an incredible group of friends around me from backgrounds that were not like mine, who did not care what my religion was or the fact that I didn’t eat pork or didn’t drink alcohol.

What is your motivation to work with Muslim communities? Is it that you grew up Muslim in a non-Muslim culture?

I had studied international security issues at Fletcher. Samuel Huntington’s article about the clash of civilizations [between the Islamic world and the West] came out in the early 1990s, and everybody was talking about it at Fletcher. It was on my mind, and I remember when 9/11 happened, I really felt a call to action, and felt surely there was something I could do with my background to serve my nation, and I didn’t really care what it was. I just knew I wanted to serve.

What do you find to be the most effective way to communicate your message?

My job was not created to go around the world “winning hearts and minds.” My job is to listen and engage with youth around the world so we can find spaces where we can work on things together and do so with mutual respect. We try and build platforms that are connected, and we believe that you build strong communities by doing that, developing a positive counter-narrative through the relationships we’ve made. We can see the momentum of people pushing back against extremist ideology.

When you were at Fletcher, which professors did you work with?

There were wonderful professors across the board at Fletcher, of course, but there were three who really made a difference for me. The first is Dick Schultz—he was phenomenally important for me. We talked about issues around extremism and low-intensity conflict that come back to my work today. He encouraged me to think about what I wanted to do. The summer between the first and second year of Fletcher, the national security program gave me two grants to go do research in Kashmir, in the midst of an insurgency. That was very much because of his support and his helping me understand why that would be important to study and understand.

Leila Fawaz and Andy Hess were also incredibly important for me. Dr. Fawaz, because she helped me see things in a very tactile way; her personality and the way in which she brought students together to talk about these issues meant she was a joy to be around. And Dr. Hess has the amazing ability to make the past come alive, and to connect it to the present. I think all three of those teachers are responsible for the insights and understanding I have as I think about the jobs I’ve been doing since I graduated from Fletcher.

You were class president at Milton Academy and student body president at Smith College. Do you still have political ambitions?

Life is long, and there are many chapters in terms of service. I think anybody who cares about their community and believes that there are things that can be done should mobilize and work on them together. I don’t know what my future holds, but I appreciate the question. I am not someone who sits back and lets others do things. When I feel like I can make a difference, I try my best to do that.

Taylor McNeil can be reached at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu.