Tell Me More: How to Combat Extremism

Former State Department Special Representative to Muslim Communities Farah Pandith, F95, talks about her new book “How We Win” in a Tufts podcast
Farah Pandith standing outside The Fletcher School. The former State Department Special Representative to Muslim Communities, Pandith talks about her new book “How We Win” in a Tufts podcast
“We need to come together as societies and understand once and for all that there is a way forward that will provide a solution to the rise in the appeal of this kind of [hate-filled] ideology,” said Farah Pandith. Photo: Anna Miller
July 24, 2019

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Tell Me More is a Tufts University podcast featuring brief conversations with the thinkers, artists, makers, and shapers of our world. Listen and learn something new every episode. Subscribe on Apple PodcastsGoogle Play MusicSpotifyStitcher, and SoundCloud.

TRANSCRIPT

HOST: Welcome to Tell Me More, a podcast series featuring distinguished visitors to Tufts University who share their ideas, discuss their work, and shed light on important topics of the day.

As an American Muslim, Farah Pandith refuses to let terrorists—like those behind the September 11 attacks—redefine her country or her religion. In her role as the U.S. State Department’s first-ever Special Representative to Muslim Communities, she traveled the globe to find common ground with other Muslims, particularly young people, and developed strategies to combat the radical ideology of terrorist recruiters.

In this episode of Tell Me More, Pandith—an alumna of Tufts’ Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy—talks with Bhaskar Chakravorti, dean of global business at The Fletcher School, about the fight against extremism—and the role we all must play to ensure a more peaceful future. Let’s listen in.

BHASKAR CHAKRAVORTI: Tell us a little bit about what got you to write this book.

FARAH PANDITH: This effort to write a book about what I experienced around the world in nearly 100 countries was a complicated endeavor because there was a lot to talk about in terms of what I had seen and the conversations with tens of thousands of Muslim youth. In the position of Special Representative to Muslim Communities, I was traveling and experiencing something really profound in a post-9/11 world. And I wanted to be able to convey to the reader the things that I had seen. But I also wanted to talk about a very optimistic approach that we can take for this really serious threat.

The concept of this book really came from a position of there is a lot of knowledge that I was privileged enough to see, there is an opportunity in this moment of time where people are sort of thinking that there’s nothing we can do, and also, very importantly, I felt that it was important that we talk about the solutions in a way that people could practically understand that fighting extremism isn’t only a role for government, that it is something that the private sector and regular citizens themselves should be conscious of, and that, in order to win, all three sectors have to be able to do this together.

CHAKRAVORTI: I’d love to learn a little bit more about both what you learned in your extensive travels, and some of the recommendations that you have in the book. And I’m assuming many of the recommendations are going to focus on the “how.” But I’d like to kick this off with the two other words in your title, the “we.” Who are the “we”? And “win.” What does “winning” mean to you in this context?

PANDITH: Such an important question because, often, we don’t actually think about the “we.” So, let’s talk about the “we.” This book is obviously written by a former American diplomat. So, my perspective in serving in government comes from how the United States reacted in a post-9/11 world to the ideology of us-versus-them, the terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda or now ISIS, chose in order to recruit young people.

But the “we” that I discovered as I traveled around the world is really all of us, all of humanity. Because obviously the ideology of us-versus-them isn’t part of one country. It doesn’t exist in one region of the world. It is, unfortunately, an us-versus-them ideology that spans the entire planet.

And so for us to understand what must happen to decrease the appeal of the ideology—and that’s what winning means—it is never, unfortunately, going to be a moment in time when all of humanity doesn’t hate. There are no elements of hate in our world. There will be bad actors, there will be bad activities, but we can dramatically reduce the appeal of the us-versus-them ideology if all of us—all sectors of society across the world—work together.

CHAKRAVORTI: Is there an enemy? Is that an opponent in this, shall we say, clash, the way at least it’s being portrayed, between Islam or the Muslim world, the Muslim communities and those who feel somehow that they are on a collision course with that world?

PANDITH: When 9/11 happened, Bhaskar, you and I know that the world as we know it changed forever, right?

CHAKRAVORTI: Mm-hmm.

PANDITH: The idea that a foreign terrorist organization could come to our soil and destroy the status quo in such a dramatic fashion wasn’t even conceivable. But we asked some of the wrong questions after 9/11. We tried to figure out who were the bad guys, who was the enemy we were going after. And we rightly looked at al-Qaeda, because they took responsibility for these horrible actions.

And we said, “We are going to go after this terrorist organization, we’re going to pull them down, we’re going to make sure that they are incapable of doing this kind of thing again.” We went after their finances. We went after territory. We went after destroying their cells. We went after destroying their leader Osama bin Ladin. We were doing all of this very strategic thinking around how to decimate al-Qaeda.

But the enemy that we’re dealing with in today’s world is many groups that use the name of Islam for their nefarious ends, and includes the so-called Islamic State. It includes Shabaab, it includes the Taliban and a whole bunch of other organizations. But, the us-versus-them also, unfortunately, now include on an international level the rise of white supremacists.

So we can learn from not looking at the full picture in the last twenty years, and understand that there are many bad actors. It’s not just one enemy. There are many bad actors. The kind of bad actors that I talk about in my book are specific to terrorist organizations that use the name of Islam.

However, some of the lessons and some of the solutions on how to puncture their ability to recruit new recruits to their armies can be lessons that we learn and use for other kinds of movements and other kinds of groups that are luring in young people to their armies.

CHAKRAVORTI: I think, in many ways, this is an extremely profound point, Farah, that you made, which is that one could interpret, How We Win—the book, the title and its content—as directed at one set of issues, which is violent extremism coming from Islam. But the same set of issues can be directed at violent extremism coming from other quarters, white supremacy, for instance.

PANDITH: We have to take stock of the world we’re looking at right now and understand that the rise of hate, as I talked about, is global. And so, whether you’re talking about Charleston or Christchurch, whether you’re talking about Boston or Bali, there is a movement globally for bad actors to recruit people to their armies around the narrative of us versus them. And we’ve got to be conscious of that.

And we’ve got to make a choice as humans, as citizens of this planet—what kind of world do we want to live in? There isn’t a hate that’s better than another hate. Hate is hate, no matter who the victim is. And we need to come together as societies and understand once and for all that there is a way forward that will provide a solution to the rise in the appeal of this kind of ideology.

And it can only happen if we’re conscious of the fact that we have a role to play. And if we demand that all of society make the best effort that they can to work on this problem and this global challenge.

CHAKRAVORTI: Could you comment a little bit on both your professional and personal lenses that you put against the observations that are here in the book?

PANDITH: I had the luxury of right out of college serving the United States, the U.S. Agency for International Development. I had three years before I came to The Fletcher School working in government. I had a wonderful time. It was an extraordinary experience. I left The Fletcher School and went into the private sector, and I was here in the Boston area, doing international business consulting. And when 9/11 happened, I had a profound, as many people did, this feeling that we needed to do something, that there was far more that, even as an individual actor, I could do.

For me, as an American, as a Muslim, as somebody who grew up in this country in the 1970s and 1980s, never experiencing any kind of feeling of otherness, and knowing that this terrorist organization that called itself the arbiters of Islam, was trying to define not just my country, America, but it was also trying to define my religion. I felt a visceral reaction that it was not OK for me to sit on the sidelines and allow that to happen.

And so, the spark that brought me back into government was truly about service. But what I saw happening in Washington at that time was really important to me because I was watching our country have conversations about how to deal with this awful threat. First, how do we protect ourselves as a nation and how do you stand that up? But also, what do we now do with what President Bush described as the battle of ideas?

And that component around the battle of ideas is where I found myself at the National Security Council, working with exceptional colleagues who were trying to figure out how do we build the antibodies in the system so that a group like al-Qaeda can’t recruit youth. How do we begin to do that? And professionally, I was right at that policy table as we were developing the way in which we are going to formulate that system to be able to do this. It’s called countering violent extremism.

CHAKRAVORTI: Let’s pick on one very intriguing element that you draw our attention to. One always thinks about violent extremism, in the Muslim world, being originated by sheiks, whether they are in Saudi Arabia or they are in the mountains of Afghanistan or in Syria. But you also refer to another sheik: sheik Google. What’s sheik Google?

PANDITH: The key part about a sheik is that for those people that go to a sheik, you believe that that person is the authentic source of knowledge. So most of the time, it’s the guy with the longest beard and the highest hat, the person that seems to know more than you can possibly know because certainly they have a scholarship, they have an understanding. You gravitate towards that source for answers that you may be having about a particular theological question or a cultural question sometimes. And it really pivots from elders in the community also that really have knowledge of how people have done things before.

But do you move that into the modern era, and you look at a phenomenon that happened that shocked me when I was special representative, and that phenomenon was that for the young people that grew up post 9/11, consistently, whether Muslims were growing up as minorities in a country like in Belgium or in Italy or Norway, or they were growing up in Muslim-majority countries like an Indonesia or a Morocco or a Pakistan, we were seeing the same phenomenon across the demographic: millennial Muslims were having a crisis of identity consistently. They were asking questions like, “What does it mean to be modern and Muslim? What’s the difference between culture and religion?”

And they were not going to the sources for answers that you would imagine them to go to: their parents, their grandparents, a sheik and a local community, their imam, anyone that you would imagine had that authenticity or that knowledge. Instead, they were doing what millennials do; they were going to the source on the Internet because that is the sheik, if you will, that they believed in. So the first question they were asking of Google was what they would ask a sheik, “How can I be a better Muslim? How I learn more about Islam?” I mean they were asking those normal questions that you would perhaps see being asked in more traditional ways in the local community.

Now, when I look at the post-9/11 world and what I write about in this book is that sheik Google for these millennials and now Generation Z was not just sort of the Google, but it was also all the social media platforms that could answer these questions. The bad guys also know that those are the platforms that kids are going to get answers to questions. The bad guys had answers in those platforms delivered in a way that made sense for them.

So whether it was a meme, whether it was a hashtag, whether it was a video, whether it was a particular piece of content that was designed to appear in the form that made sense for these young people. And that’s what sheik Google is all about. It’s an authentic source of information delivered in a way that is user-friendly for the pure group that we’re talking about.

CHAKRAVORTI: Absolutely. Now we are living in a reality where it’s not just the bad guys putting the narrative into a dumb pipe, but the pipe itself is reinforcing a narrative based on the user activity and the data that it is analyzing, so the algorithmic power of sheik Google or sheik Facebook or sheik WhatsApp is enormous.

Here you’re kind of signaling that it’s a distributed intelligence that is creating the problem, and a distributed intelligence is necessary to counter it. Now you have an intriguing term in your book called “open power,” which in many ways encapsulates what I think is the core of the solution that you’re proposing. So let’s go to that. Open power, Farah, what is that?

PANDITH: One of the problems we had in designing the antibodies and that needed to be put into the system to confront this us-versus-them ideology, is that government was doing exactly what government does. It was looking at solutions from the top-down and not from the bottom-up. The experiment with countering violent extremism allowed us to open up the aperture just a little bit for government, and to say we can’t put an American flag on everything and fix this particular problem.

We need to be flexible enough to open the possibility that the NGOs and the grassroots and the civil society that have ideas could actually do things in a way that’s more credible than we are, and enforce more creativity in the way in which we design the different kinds of programs. We need to be flexible enough to allow that to happen, because actually, we all have a common goal.

There are global problems that require us to change the way we even think about what solutions are, and even that concept of what power is. When you say power to someone, you always talk about power over. This is power with. Open power is the ability for us to say we can be more flexible to get to the solutions that we want to get to if we work together. That means offering attention and offering status and getting insight from people that we don’t always put around that same table as equals. Let’s open up our aperture, let us be more flexible. Let’s work with a whole bunch of people, historians, anthropologists, behavioral psych people. Let’s look at ethnographers. Let’s look at this the way we would with design thinking to say, if we could do anything, how would you deploy a lot of different kinds of solutions to get to the goal that we’re going after?

So open power is, I believe, the right kind of approach that we need to take for this kind of problem. It is asking government to think differently about how we actually win, and winning with is perfectly fine if it means that we’re not going to allow a group like the so-called Islamic State to recruit more recruits.

CHAKRAVORTI: I love the notion. I think it’s very nuanced, it’s subtle. It’s taking a system view of a very complex set of issues. How do we actually act on it? And Part B perhaps, kind of bring us to a conclusion, is what are some of the mistakes that we are likely to make, and how do we avoid them?

PANDITH: Let’s start with the last part of that question because we have unfortunately made a lot of mistakes over and over again. We’re making the same mistakes. The most serious right now is that, once again, governments continue to talk about the need to confront the ideology, yet they do not build out what that actually means with either resources or innovation or any kind of new formula to actually get at this.

So it’s just a lot of talking points that we go on and on and on. We’ve built a bureaucracy around this issue of ideology, when we’re actually not doing what it is we need to be doing, which is scaling the things that we have tested across the world.

Over twenty years of testing, research, and analysis, we know that it takes many, many different kinds of touch points within a community, at a local level, to make sure that there is behavioral change for the adolescents and young adults who are the ones who are being preyed upon by extremist groups.

What can we do to stop that connection between the bad guys’ narratives and the appeal of that ideology by these young people who, by the way—let’s remind ourselves the armies that the bad guys are trying to build with young people who have not yet come to maturity for the most part. A human brain does not get developed until the age of twenty-four. We are not using behavioral scientists to help us understand how to disrupt the way the bad guys are going after these young adults. We ought to be bringing all of those kinds of lessons into the game.

So today in 2019, as we look at the global threat that we are facing of a rise of hate and extremism, we have to do three really important things.

First, we have to commit ourselves to doing all that we can do as government, as private sector, and as citizens to make the appeal of this ideology less appealing. That means that, in a very small way, individual actions within how people talk about the other, what happens in schools, how we talk about hate, how we educate parents about how the bad guys pray upon folks, how we think about companies making a difference within communities to work with NGOs that are actually in need of their cultural data and how they understand behavior, what I call the cultural listening skills—those people that really understand how humans behave. We have so much data there that we’re not using in a way to actually fight hate. We have to deploy everything that we can.

And then the third—and a really vital part of this—is the stuff that people get very uncomfortable about. And that is to look within ourselves about what it is we stand for. We are not asking difficult questions about what we choose to do. We keep suggesting that this idea of hate is something out there and it’s somebody else’s thing.

But each human on this planet can choose to act a particular way. And those independent nano-interventions that we make in a day-to-day fashion can in fact make a huge difference in the way in which the ethos of a community feels, even if that community is very small. I’m writing this book because I believe in what’s possible for each human being and I want people to understand that it comes from a position of optimism and hope in all of us.

CHAKRAVORTI: Great. We’re looking for tons of that optimism. Thank you, Farah.

PANDITH: Thank you so much.

HOST: Thanks for listening to this episode of Tell Me More. Please subscribe and rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts—and to be the first to hear about new episodes, please follow Tufts University on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

We’d also welcome your thoughts on the series. You can reach us at tellmemore@tufts.edu. That’s T-U-F-T-S dot E-D-U. Tell Me More is produced by Steffan Hacker, Anna Miller, Dave Nuscher, and Katie McLeod Strollo. Anna Miller edited this episode and Heather Stephenson wrote the introduction. Web production and editing support provided by Taylor McNeil. Our theme music is sourced from De Wolfe Music. And my name is Patrick Collins. Until next time—be well.

Recommended links: Twitter / Facebook / “Muslim Millennials and the Lure of ‘Sheikh Google’”