Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Farah Pandith

I had the privilege of a private meeting with Farah Pandith, Special Representative to Muslim Communities for the United States Department of State yesterday. It is an amazing work that she is doing and I applaud her efforts in engaging particularly youths through the new media. Youths themselves must be the agents of change for a better world ahead. For those who are not familiar with her, this is a short introduction:

"I was born in India and grew up in Massachusetts. I did all my education in Massachusetts. I went to Milton Academy, I went to Smith College, and I went to the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. I have had experience working in both the public and private sector. I was vice president of international business for a company outside of – in Boston and had a chance to really think about the international marketplace, so to speak, from a lot of different perspectives. And I think that’s important when you think about the way in which we’re looking at this role: How do you harness the different sectors and how do you think about things in a creative way?

This unique perspective has allowed me to think about what’s possible. And I have worked since 19 – excuse me, since 2003 in three different sectors, three different parts of the United States Government. I was in the U.S. Agency for International Development. I was at the National Security Council at the White House. And for the last two years, I’ve been at the Department of State working in the Europe Bureau.

The role that was created for me in the Europe Bureau was the first of its kind in U.S. history. And it was an opportunity for me to engage with our embassies with Muslims across Western Europe, and I did that for two years. And I’m mentioning it because I think it’s very important when we think about how we’re doing things globally now.

A strong part of thinking about engagement is to understand the nuances that are taking place in different regions. And while I did have a European portfolio, I did have an opportunity over the course of the last couple of years to work with our embassies in South Asia and Africa and in the Middle East. And what that brings to the table, I think, is an opportunity to think about the grassroots level, to think about what mainstream Muslims are thinking and doing and how they want to figure out ways to create dialogue. And that is where this leads us.

This new role is a historic role, and it’s the Secretary’s vision for engagement through our embassies overseas. I had the opportunity to brief her at the end of January on the work we had done in Europe. And in that briefing, she completely got it. She understood the nuances. She understood the need for our country to build relationships with Muslims overseas in Europe in that context.

She is somebody who has been doing engagement for a very long time. This is not just new to her. After all, when she was First Lady, she was the person who created the Iftar at the White House. So this is a long-term interest of hers, and it’s something that she got when we talked.

What she asked me to do is to leverage my experience in Europe and in other parts of the world, to think about how we could have the Department work on Muslim engagement in a way that is out of the box, that is innovative, that is dynamic, that works with embassies so that we’re getting to know the next generation of thinkers. And in this role, I’ll be doing that.

So the Office of the Special Representative to Muslim Communities is a way for us at the State Department to execute her vision. And certainly on the heels of Cairo, when we heard the President talk about the need and his commitment to engage with Muslims, this is our effort to work on that important agenda.

So that’s the history behind this. That’s a little bit about me. And I know that through the questions we have today, you’re going to ask far, far deeper questions than that. But I do want to say I hope that this is one of many briefings that we have. And you’re just getting to know me now, and I look forward to an opportunity to get to know you over the months and years ahead..."

In a speech at a conference sponsored by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy on April 28, 2010, she spoke about what has changed and what remains to be done. Watch excerpts of her speech.

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