Farah Pandith has been the first-ever Special Representative to Muslim Communities for the U.S. Department of State since June 2009. Her office is responsible for executing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s vision for engagement with Muslims around the world on a people-to-people and organizational level. During her visit to Georgia in late-October, Tabula interviewed Farah Pandith on U.S. policy toward Islam and recent violence by Muslims against the United States.
The United States is withdrawing its troops from the hotspots of the Middle East. Is the pullout from the region inevitable for the U.S.? And how do you see future relations between the Arab world and America?
It is very clear that President Obama, from the first moment when he became the president, has made the great effort to engage with Muslims around the world. On the steps of the Capitol in his inauguration address, he talked about wanting to build bridges around the world. So, in the last three-and-a-half years of this administration, the President has asked each part of his government to do more than we have ever done before to find ways to engage with the next generation of Muslims in new and interesting ways.
In his Cairo speech in June 2009, he spoke about finding new platforms of common interest. He talked about entrepreneurship and science and technology; he talked about education and a wide range of other things. So, our interest in engaging with Muslims around the world is long term; it is not just short term. Muslims make up one fourth of the planet. And, in order for us to engage and solve world problems, we have to be able to build partnerships and dialogue with one fourth of humanity.
Recent violent responses to an anti-Muslim film invoked the old Kiplingesque concept of incommensurability between East and West and “clash of the civilizations.” How do you respond to those critics who believe that Islam simply is not part of the West?
I think it is very important to look at the article that was written in 1993 by Sam Huntington in Foreign Affairs and I completely reject the idea of “us and them,” the idea that the West or the so-called West, is at war with Islam. There are forty-four million Muslims that live in Western Europe, not to speak about the Muslims living in Australia and New Zealand and in Canada and in America.
We understand the importance of giving dignity to all voices and all religions. And it is very clear that, certainly in the United States as we look at it, Muslims who live in the United States and around our country are part of the fabric of the United States. President Obama has said that there is no “us-versus-them,” there is just – “we.”
We celebrate diversity and we understand the importance of Muslims that are part of our nation. I’ve had the great privilege of being able to travel around the world as Special Representative to Muslim Communities. And, in this job, Secretary Clinton has asked me to engage on a grassroots level with Muslims all over the world – Muslims and Muslim majorities in countries and Muslims that live as minorities. I have spent a lot of time in Europe and in other parts of the world in which Muslims are minorities, and they are very much part of the way in which those countries build themselves up as stronger and multifaceted societies.
So it is important to look very critically at the values of diversity to reject the idea that Sam Huntington has put out there. Al Qaeda would want you to believe that there is an “us” and a “them.” And we do not believe that there is an “us” and a “them.” We believe that there is a “we.”
A few weeks ago, Newsweek grabbed attention when it controversially proclaimed “MUSLIM RAGE” on its front page. From your perspective, how real is the phenomenon of Muslim rage?
I have had the great privilege of talking to young Muslims under the age of thirty for the last three-and-a-half years in this job. I’ve been in more than seventy countries around the world. Secretary Clinton has asked me to travel and speak to the youth demographics, because when you look at the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, one-fourth of humanity, sixty-two percent are under the age of thirty. These young people are looking forward; they are not looking backwards. They want their voices to be heard.
Our President and our Secretary of State are engaged in listening to what these young people have to say. And while there may be moments when there is a disconnect in terms of foreign policy or things are not always connected, the vast majority of voices of the young people that I have heard around the world are interested in solving problems together, to looking forward. These young people are digital natives and, because they are digital natives, they have grown up understanding that within the one-hundred-forty characters on Twitter their voice can be heard. They understand that divisions among sect and race, class and gender and ethnicity are breaking down.
The gradually diminishing role of youth and street which played the central part in the revolutions and the Salafi revival made some analysts talk about unintended consequences of Arab Spring and the presence of Arab Winter. What is your take on such attitude?
I think that these sound bites are not useful over the long term. We are watching with great interest an unprecedented series of events taking place in the Middle East. We hope democracy prevails, the will of the people prevails, and we will find peaceful engagement of societies across that region and around the world.
Open criticism of religion and blasphemy are essential parts of free and democratic societies, but it’s quite difficult for many Arabs to get along with Western social and political achievements. What do you think, is blasphemy an indispensable human right or should the West somehow compromise with freedom of speech?
President Obama talked about mutual respect in his speech in Cairo, and Secretary Clinton and others have talked about that phrase – mutual respect. You may have a disagreement on a particular thing, but you have the ability in a free and open society to be able to condemn what you don’t like. In America, we believe very strongly in freedom of expression. It’s in our Constitution and Americans are very proud of that right. We hope that people will be respectful of each other, [to recognize] that there is no need to be disgusting and criticize other people’s religion. We defend the right to be able to speak out. So too do we hope that people condemn when things are said that are disgusting and offensive.
You have mentioned a film that was made by an individual in the United States, but I can talk to you about the things I have seen all over the world in which other religions and other ethnicities and other people and societies are made fun of, are mocked, are insulted on a daily basis. It’s a greater issue at hand here; that is, the global phenomenon of an increase of negativity, increase of ridicule, increase of mockery on issues that are sensitive. I think it’s important to have an open conversation. It’s important to put forward societies that allow people to have differences of opinion. I think it’s important for people to build coalitions and condemn when things are done in a way that you don’t like. Violence is not the answer. We feel very strongly that we promote open debate, and we condemn when we have to, and we reject all forms of violence.
This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 119, published 22 October 2012.