Creating opportunities for Muslim engagement: An interview with Farah Pandith

It’s almost been a year since Farah Pandith was appointed Special Representative to Muslim Communities by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. The office, housed in the US State Department plays an important role in creating opportunities for people across varying opinions to engage in crucial dialogue. We sat down with Pandith to discuss the role she sees her office playing in connecting the Muslim community with each other and a broader audience, both aboard as well as in the US.

What is your office doing to develop US-Muslim engagement?

Farah Pandith: Our new strategy of engagement recognizes that our office has an opportunity to complement traditional programming with innovation centered around civil society. The secretary has asked me to work with our embassies around the world to engage with the next generation of Muslims by taking the grassroots ideas of civil society organizations that have their finger on the pulse of what is happening on the ground and moving these ideas forward. This relationship between the US government and civil societies in Muslim countries across the globe will be based on a foundation of mutual interest and mutual respect and will bring people to the table that do not typically connect.

What role does the American Muslim community play in that?

The American Muslim community, individuals as well as organizations and companies, have an interest in what goes on overseas so it is important for our office to understand the community’s perspective and priorities. In addition, I use the American Muslim community for counsel. I have “wisdom sessions” where I bring smart people around a subject to get their feedback on what I’ve been doing and on other partners I want to bring to the table. I speak to many types of people, whether it is Rami Nashashibi, Eboo Patel or Shaykh Hamza Yusuf.

Tell me about reaching out to the Facebook generation.

Right now our Facebook platform is used to share information on where I’ve gone and what I’ve done. I want people to be able to read speeches and get the names of groups and connect in that way. I would like to see as many forums as possible to share the real deal about what is going on. Share ideas with me. If you know I am going on a trip, ask me to do a blog. We’d be thrilled to be able to help connect. If I’m meeting with people who ask to learn more about life in America for Muslim women, I would be thrilled to share Altmuslimah’s name.

It seems like you are trying to connect youth, new media and women’s rights.

I would describe it a little bit differently. I’m definitely connected with the next generation – so the youth demographic is essential. The next piece is really the networks – the building of networks of like-minded thinkers. New media is a tool that you use for both connecting youth and building networks. When I look at the issue of women and girls, we work very closely with Melanne’s Verveer’s office. She is the Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues and her work hits countries that have very significant Muslim populations. That is an important point I want to raise in terms of the ways we’re approaching engagement. It’s unbelievably important to us that we are diversifying how we’re looking at Islam – that a Muslim in São Paolo is as important to us as is a Muslim in Cairo, as is a Muslim in Jakarta, as is a Muslim in New Delhi. We cannot engage in just one region of the world.

How do you feel your position compares to that of the newly appointed US envoy to the Muslim world, Rashad Hussein?

He is going to be working with the Organization of the Islamic Conference [an association of 56 Islamic states promoting Muslim solidarity in economic, social and political affairs]. He will be working on a government to government level with countries that are part of the OIC. I am working on a people to people level, collaborating with civil societies and communities through our embassies. So they are two very different positions and are compatible which each other.

You recently visited Pakistan and spoke about a series of solutions: social entrepreneurship, innovation, and capacity building. Do you believe that these ideas reconcile well with the daily issues that Pakistanis face of corruption, food and security?

I was in Islamabad, Karachi, and Lahore, and the majority of my time was spent with civil society. There are some serious things going on in Pakistan today that Pakistanis in civil society have to deal with; you named several of them and there are many more. The idea that we only can do one thing at one time is quite limiting. Just because issues haven’t been solved in every capacity doesn’t mean you ignore the other things that can be happening simultaneously. So I do believe that you can do more to bring up social entrepreneurship, invest in microfinance loans, and bringing young Pakistanis into the global conversation on relevant issues. It is all concurrent.

See Part 2 of this interview.


Special thanks to Nouf Bazaz, Adam Sitte and Zehra Rizavi for transcribing and editing this interview.  Asma T. Uddin is Editor-in-Chief of Altmuslimah. Sarah Jawaid is Associate Editor of Altmuslimah.


Photo Credit: US Embassy


  • asifsheikh says:

    Here are some thoughts from a Pakistani blogger who met Farah Pandit:

    It has been wonderful to see american muslims getting certain positions in this administration to carry out outreach efforts and real communication with personalities in the muslim world. I personally am not sure whether we’re ready to help out here. Our need for acceptance in America’s political apparatus compromises our judgments on what solutions muslim countries require.

  • Saadia says:

    Interesting interview.

    I would make a content correction to the last question posed: It should be clear that many people around the world face problems of “corruption, food, and security” and doing so does not indicate what country they are in. To indicate that would be a logical fallacy.

    Moreover, although there is a lot of ethnic and religious diversity with “Dar al Islam” (The House of Islam), sometimes people are more familiar with some areas than others.

    Another potential source of confusion is indicating that while religious experts within the OIC deal with government officials only, Farah would have more leeway to be an everyday woman and correspond with people in civic society. Its a sort of duality.

    While it is a good point that a lot of Muslims are everyday people, the truth is that there are people of faith who deal with both civic society and officials when they travel. I have met a few in D.C.

  • sarahjay says:

    Thanks for the comments

    @ Saadia
    In regards to the content correction, the question posed about Pakistan was in response to the blog post asifsheikh linked. We were specifically addressing a comment made by a Pakistani blogger about Pandith’s visit with young Pakistani journalists.

  • Saadia says:

    These are just adjustments I would suggest to make the article a little easier to understand.

    Otherwise, it seems like Farah is doing good work and its good that Hillary Clinton is encouraging engagement with civic society.

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