Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 29 November 2020

Farah Pandith is giving young US Muslims a voice

Farah Pandith says there should be immediate and specific outreach to young Muslims who feel marginalised.
Injured runners and spectators lie on the pavement near the Boston Marathon finish line following an explosion on April 15. Ken McGagh / MetroWest Daily News
Injured runners and spectators lie on the pavement near the Boston Marathon finish line following an explosion on April 15. Ken McGagh / MetroWest Daily News

"There is no us and them, there is only we," says Farah Pandith, who will mark four years in her post as the special representative to Muslim communities in the United States later this month.

In a post created on the heels of President Barack Obama's pivotal speech in Cairo in June 2009, her remit has been to engage with young Muslims around the world via social media, youth forums and non-governmental organisations.

Yet her fourth anniversary brings with it the sombre warning that somewhere along the way, that message may be getting lost.

On April 15 this year, two explosions left three dead and 264 injured at the Boston Marathon in an alleged terror attack.

The reputed culprits, naturalised Chechen brothers Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, were brought to Massachusetts as children for a better life, attended high school and dorm parties - yet never quite fit in.

"I don't have a single American friend. I just don't understand them," Tamerlan complained in 2010. "There are no values anymore."

Eight thousand kilometres away, a British soldier strolling back to his barracks in Woolwich, south-east London, was hacked to death in broad daylight a fortnight ago in an apparently politically motivated assault. The man accused of his murder spoke calmly to passers-by in the following minutes, telling them: "We apologise women had to see this today, but in our lands our women have to see the same."

Yet both Michael Adebolajo, 28, and his co-accused Michael Adebowale, 22, were born and bred in London and had a typically British upbringing. They were said to have become radicalised after converting to Islam as teenagers.

So how did four men, all under 30, enjoying the perks of a western education and lifestyle on either side of the Atlantic, slip through the net? And how did the very sector of society of which Obama and Pandith talked in such earnest terms about feel so completely disconnected from the system in which they were raised?

As far-right demonstrators continue to clash with anti-fascist protesters on the streets of London, it might now be vital to look at the root causes of dissent, mobilised by western foreign policy, which triggered such extreme action and ignited fires that show no signs of burning out.


Like the Tsarnaev brothers, Pandith was brought to Boston, Massachusetts, as a child. The daughter of immigrants from Srinagar, Kashmir, she was a year old when her Muslim mother, Mehbooba Anwar, arrived in the US on July 4, 1969.

"She said the only thing I can give you is an education. I cannot give you a fortune," recalls Pandith, now 45.

"America has the most diverse group of Muslims anywhere in the world. Growing up in a state that prided itself on being a historic part of America was very much part of who we were. I learned very early on about our country, the importance of community and the important narrative of immigrants, but I also grew up going to a mosque in which I was praying side by side with people from all over the world."

The Boston bombings left her reeling, but the causes behind them, she says, are familiar ones: "As a Bostonian, as an American and as a Muslim, it has been a very tragic thing to watch in my own city but the themes we see happening around the world with youth are echoed in this particular instance.

"The job that I do as special rep around the world in listening to young people under the age of 30 makes me see things with a perspective that comes from youth - questions that they ask about identity, questions that they ask about their role in the world … it does not matter where in the world I have gone, these are the themes I have heard."

As much as the Tsarnaevs represent the American dream gone sour, Pandith, growing up in the same city, decades earlier, flourished in that same system.

She studied government and psychology at Smith College, where she was president of the student body, before going on to complete a masters at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in 1995.

It was a chance meeting with Barbara Bush, a fellow Smith graduate who was impressed after hearing her speak at the college, that led to her initial post in government with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Pandith was working at a Boston consultancy firm when the September 11 attacks happened and shortly afterwards, declared she wanted to do something to help her country.

"I came to the table to serve in government in 2003 because I felt very strongly that there must be something I could do to serve my nation," she says.

"I did not like the idea that a terrorist organisation was defining my country and my religion and I felt I wanted to make a difference.

"I was an American and I was a Muslim and there is no contradiction between the two."

She ended up back at USAID as chief of staff for the East Asia bureau, then as director for Middle East regional initiatives for the National Security Council under George W Bush, she worked on ways to counteract violent Islamic extremism and coordinated a communities outreach programme. Pandith went on to work in the State Department as an adviser on Muslims in western Europe.

In 2009, she was ready to leave government to write a book on violent extremist ideology when she was approached by Hillary Clinton, then the new US secretary of state, who asked if she could expand her role to include all Muslim communities worldwide.

"I was a political appointee in the Bush administration and then the Obama administration. That is extremely uncommon," says Pandith.

Now answering to John Kerry, Pandith's work is more vital than ever. Certainly there seems to be a hunger within US government to understand and identify rogue elements of extremism.

The creation of her post was, in essence, an attempt to tap into grassroots communities to gauge how they were thinking and feeling so that, Pandith says, they could be "first responders to extremist activity".


While it is noteworthy that Pandith has served under both Bush and Obama, it also loosely hints at the floundering of government policy and of a recognition that while something must be done to better understand Muslim communities, no one on high is really sure quite what.

Why, for example, is there no Catholic or Jewish tsar? (Obama did see fit, however, to appoint Hannah Rosenthal in November 2009 as a special envoy and the head of the office to monitor and combat anti-Semitism.)

And while one can only applaud the intention to hear marginalised voices within Muslim communities, one wonders who Pandith - profoundly articulate, savvy, attractive and well-educated - can really represent. In power suits and with an immaculate Clinton-like coiffure, she is certainly the face of new, modern Islam, one which is instantly recognisable to the West.

But as she says, Muslim communities around the world are so diverse, so impossible to lump together in one great monolith, that one wonders whether she can represent them all, let alone the key voices.

Would the disenfranchised youth of Britain and the US see her as speaking for them?

Pandith has just returned from speaking at the Oxford Union, where she was impressed by the level of debate. The matter of whether she could be preaching to the converted looms - that in targeting well-meaning community groups, intellectuals and liberals she is overlooking those caught between a conflict of culture, identity and religion.


Pandith is anxious not to give "the few" a platform for their ideologies: "What I have seen in a post-9/11 world is that the megaphone beating out an 'us and them' [message] is impactful all over the world, which is why we have to fill the marketplace with alternative narratives.

"You don't look to the acts of a few to demonstrate what the whole does. It's not only irresponsible but it's very ignorant.

"When these types of horrible events happen with those that would use Islam as a scapegoat for their demented, nefarious violent actions, we have seen conversations within communities globally that come from emotion, from despair and from a deep need to understand.

"I think too that we have seen in the aftermath of the Boston bombings a national conversation about the importance of our country, about the dignity of our people, how important it is for diversity to be front and centre.

"We have heard our own president talk about that fact that the actions of a few do not speak to the whole."


The trouble with combating an 'us and them' narrative is that those who are most vulnerable to it - those under 30 - are bombarded from all sides.

Former British extremist Maajid Nawaz, writing in Radical: My Journey from Islamist Extremism to a Democratic Awakening, says he was targeted at 15 when he underwent an identity crisis, despite enjoying a comfortable upbringing: "I didn't know if I was British or Pakistani, Muslim or agnostic and my disenfranchisement from mainstream society was complete."

Islamism, he says, is the politicisation of Islam by using political grievances to "alienate and then provide an alternative sense of belonging to vulnerable young Muslims. Preying on the grievances of disaffected young men is the bedrock of Islamism.

"Like all bigoted ideologies, it plays on the identity politics game, creating 'a them and us' … Spreading this sense of exclusive Muslim victimhood is crucial to the radicalisation process."

On the flip side, there are camps using violent episodes (like Boston and Woolwich) to galvanise support for their own anti-Islamic rhetoric and commandeering the notion of an 'us and them'.

In his Cairo speech, Obama said: "Islam is a part of America. America is not - and will never be - at war with Islam."

But the combative phraseology of conflict rears its ugly head time and again, from polemics by Frank Gaffney, who under the guise of his think-tank the Centre for Security Policy, warns of the "mortal peril" posed by mosques and cultural centres "determined to destroy western civilisation from within", to a growing band of those calling themselves counter-jihadists.

At the forefront of those warning of the dangers the US faces are organisations ranging from Act for America, which denounces Islam as a front for terrorism, to Quran-burning Florida preacher Terry Jones. Others wage their own battles through social media, books and films.

Such sentiment has spread insidiously. Two years ago Oklahoma engineered a ballot, with more than two dozen states following suit, calling for a ban on Sharia, only for the legislative measure to be challenged by the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled it unconstitutional last year.

Nevertheless, the voices persist. When in 2007 Keith Ellison, the first Muslim to be elected to Congress, was sworn in, he was criticised for using a Quran to do so. Ellison, prepared for his critics, astutely borrowed a Quran once owned by Thomas Jefferson from the rare books section of the Congress library.

And when Glenn Beck of CNN asked him to "prove you are not working with our enemies", he replied: "There is no one who is more patriotic than I am so I do not need to … prove my patriotic stripes."

Pandith says: "It is not a question of a tragic and horrifying event in Boston setting us back, it is big and small voices around the world that get highlighted in bizarre ways, that take off on social media but also in mainstream media.

"You have a preacher in Florida who wants to burn a Quran - he has 50 people in his church and yet that story continues around the world all these years later. People still think that is representative of America.

"The question we have to be asking is how do we empower those social networks to be first responders to extremist activity?"

Glenn Greenwald, writing in The Guardian, warned that the knee-jerk reactions of politicians in playing the terrorism card could be inflammatory.

British Prime Minister David Cameron was swift in blaming terrorism for the Woolwich murder but Greenwald writes: "The perpetrators of virtually every recent attempted and successful 'terrorist' attack against the West cited as their motive the continuous violence by western states against Muslim civilians …. highlighting this causation doesn't remotely justify the acts. But it should make it anything other than surprising."

The Woolwich incident has pushed parts of the English capital to boiling point. Faith Matters, an organisation monitoring anti-Islamic sentiment in the UK, has recorded nearly 200 incidents of Islamophobia since Lee Rigby was killed, including an attempted firebombing of a mosque in the north of England, while the far-right English Defence League has been gathering momentum and supporters.

EDL leader Tommy Robinson told the volatile crowd: "They've had their Arab Spring. This is time for the English Spring."

It has fallen upon community leaders, not politicians, to call for calm.

Pandith says hearing the voices from the sidelines is the most important chance for change and building resiliency among Muslim youth: "We are giving voices to all kinds of people.

"If you feel marginalised, if you feel you don't have a voice and the ways you want to tackle issues are not heard and you are not given an opportunity to do that, you feel frustrated.

"This is not just the government going the same old, same old, it is going deep and wide in getting to know different kinds of voices that talk about their generation. We are listening to all of them.

"We want to get to know these young people in a time of non-crisis and to work with them on things of common interest.

"Understanding directly from them in their own words the things that need to be done and where a government can help is far more powerful than sitting in an ivory tower and creating some sort of paper that says what we ought to do from the grass roots up.

"They will not always agree with our foreign policy, they will not always agree with how we are doing things, but they are active citizens on our planet and know they have a voice, they can be heard and a way to approach things that can be very powerful."


Tahira Yaqoob is a regular contributor to The Review.


Updated: June 8, 2013 04:00 AM

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