To resolve conflicts between the United States and the global Muslim community, communication issues need to be solved both domestically and internationally, said Obama official Farah Pandith Wednesday.
Pandith, special representative to the Muslim communities for the U.S. State Department, came to Duke to discuss her work engaging with Muslim groups around the world. The event highlighted the post-9/11 attitude toward global Muslim communities, her outreach program and its role within United States foreign policy. The American media's portrayal of Muslim-American relationships as an “us vs. them” narrative, she said, has heightened tensions between the two groups since 2001
“The U.S. Government must break down this us. vs. them narrative to solve world problems together," Pandith said. "The only way to do this is to increase the dialogue.”
About 20 people attended the discussion—led by Peter Feaver, professor of political science and director of the American Grand Strategy program—which took place in the Allen Board Room.
Pandith began her career in government in 2003 as an appointee of former President George W. Bush in the U.S. Agency for International Aid and then moved to the National Security Council. Under President Barack Obama's administration, she first served in the State Department as a senior advisor.
“We as the United States government need to engage with humanity,” Pandith said, describing the significance of her role in the State Department. “We must solve world problems together, and we can not solve problems if we are not connected.”
Pandith emphasized the importance of her current post, established in 2009 by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, by citing the demographics of the worldwide Muslim population, which comprises one-fourth of the planet.
In the wake of 9/11, the current generation became the only one in history to see Muslim affairs appear frequently and prominently in most major media outlets, she said, making her role all the more relevant in the global context.
In an effort to increase the level of engagement with foreign Muslim communities, Pandith has traveled to more than 80 countries and spoken to thousands of young activists to gauge foreign opinions of U.S. foreign policy and the desires of each group.
Feaver asked Pandith about the progress that has been made concerning global dialogue with the Islamic community since Obama's groundbreaking 2009 speech in Cairo.
”The needle has moved forward in the way we talk to Muslims," she said. "A Muslim to me in Suriname is as important to me as a Muslim in Indonesia.”
One of the most striking changes in U.S. foreign policy since the 1800s is the shift from acting as strong-arm superpower in developing nations to acting as an “intellectual partner” in Middle Eastern countries and other Muslim majority states, she said.
“The United States government cannot keep giving money to make something go." Pandith said. "The only way we’ll see change is if organic communities and civil societies stand up and say ‘I’m not going to let this happen in my backyard.’”
One of the programs Pandith instituted in the name of community-based empowerment is Generation Change, which brought 70 young leaders from Islamic communities around the world to work together. Since its inception, it has grown to 30 chapters globally.
But despite the progress made by programs like these, there remain domestic and international obstacles that hinder progress toward diplomatic solutions with Muslim communities, such as mistrust in government.
"I can go down the street and find a person that still believes 9/11 was a government conspiracy,” Pandith added. “Still, nefarious voices in the world continue to spin what our government does to go in a specific direction.”
First year Eric Qi said he found the dialogue engage and educational.
"It was an amazing discussion with a brilliant person," first year Eric Qi said. "I really enjoyed her candidness and passion when talking about the necessity of changing the "us-them" mentality that dominates current thinking."
Pandith noted that in the decade she has worked with Muslim communities, she has seen a rise in grassroots movements around the world, which marks a success in creating dialogue.
“The question now is how do we move them up further,” she said.