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Obama envoy discusses American-Muslim relations

Farah Pandith, first special representative to Muslim communities, encouraged students to help improve relations between them and other religious groups.
Farah Pandith, first special representative to Muslim communities, encouraged students to help improve relations between them and other religious groups.

The Obama administration wants to engage with Muslims around the world by building and sustaining connections within Islamic communities, said Farah Pandith, first special representative to Muslim communities for the State Department.

Pandith, who reports directly to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, gave a speech titled “Muslim Engagement in the 21st Century” to a packed audience in the Sanford School of Public Policy last night to convey the “new, important” challenges facing the United States’ relationship with the world’s Muslim community. The government especially wants to reach out to Muslims under the age of 30 in order to fulfill its long-term goal of improving relations, she noted.

Pandith explained that the way in which the Obama administration engages with Muslims differs slightly from the way in which the Bush administration did. The current administration is looking to engage with Muslims at a closer level than its predecessor, she said.

“This is a unique spot in time,” Pandith said. “Therefore, it is vital that we think creatively about what is happening at the grassroots level in Muslim countries. We especially need to understand that what is happening around the world differs from city to city.”

She also encouraged students to be involved in changing the social dynamic between Muslims and other religious groups for the better, stressing that since 9/11 many Muslims have felt stigmatized.

The State Department wants to interact with those who feel discriminated against and go beyond the counter-terrorism aspect of foreign relations, Pandith said. She said she is especially concerned about the “us-versus-them” mentality that many believe the United States has with Muslim countries and noted that the State Department hopes that by engaging with young Muslims it can serve as an outlet to hear their concerns.

“We understand that we are at war with al Qaeda, but at the same time that is not the only way we should engage with the Muslim community,” Pandith said “There is a false idea that we are somehow at war with Muslims.”

Pandith said that the way in which young Muslims develop will affect the United States. Indeed, Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world and claims nearly a fourth of the world’s people.

“The narratives that are affecting young [Muslims] as they form their identities should be of concern to us,” said Pandith. “There are not enough voices to facilitate talk between different young people. We hope to encourage innovation and discussion to help young Muslims make a better world.”

After speaking for about 15 minutes, Pandith spent 45 minutes taking questions from professors, students and faculty members within the audience.

Sophomore Chris Carroll said he attended the speech because the country’s relationship with Muslims is an important component of U.S. foreign policy.

“I liked the speech and thought Farah was a very impressive diplomat,” he said, “But she was very bureaucratic in her statements. I would have liked to have heard her talk more about how she cements the relationships that she forms with the people she meets around the world.”