WASHINGTON -- U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has administered the oath of office to the State Department's first ever Special Representative to Muslim Communities, declaring that the appointment "could not have come at a more opportune time."
"As President Obama said in Cairo and Ankara, our nation seeks a new beginning with Muslims around the world: a relationship based on mutual interest and mutual respect,” Clinton said. “It's a relationship that requires us to listen, share ideas, and find areas of common ground in order to expand a peaceful, prosperous future."
The new position was created in part to provide an alternate narrative about the United States than many Muslims hear. At the ceremony on September 15, Clinton said it sprang from the Obama administration's desire to be "fully engaged" with the Muslim world, parts of which she said are dominated by "propaganda, stereotypes, and inaccurate generalizations" about America.
The new envoy, Farah Pandith, will focus on the things all people have in common, Clinton said -- describing them as "what we all hope for our children, the kind of questions that are asked around every breakfast, lunch, and dinner table in the world about whether we're going to have a peaceful, prosperous and stable world."
Clinton noted that there are over 1.4 billion Muslims – a greater number than the population of China or India.
“The challenges of poverty, hunger, climate change, corruption are not unique to any part of the world, to any people, and certainly not to any faith,” Clinton said. “But they do require all of us, whoever we might be, to find an active role in forging solutions that will fulfill our obligations as people of faith -- to those who are the least, the last, and the lost among us to -- in order to reach out and create that common bond."
Pandith is a Muslim American who was born in Kashmir, India, and immigrated to the United States with her parents when she was an infant.
When she was nominated in July she described her background as a mix of private and public sector experience, which she said will allow her to think creatively about how to find out what Muslims "on a grassroots levels are doing and how best to engage them."
"I think it's nuance, I think it's respect, I think it's listening, I think it's being creative,” Pandith said. “And I think it's creating many different types of initiatives to be able to do that."
Her appointment reflects Washington's desire to improve not just the image of the United States within the Muslim world, but to actively listen and respond to the concerns of Muslims in Europe, Africa, and Asia.
Start Of A New Era?
U.S. President Barack Obama's speech in Cairo in June set the tone for what he hopes will be a new era of U.S. relations with Muslims. His words were welcomed by Muslims who say their main problem with the United States was a foreign policy under former President George W. Bush that seemed designed against them -- from the invasion of Iraq, to the indefinite detentions at Guantanamo Bay, to the humiliation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
Pandith says she plans to build on established avenues within the State Department for dialogue between the U.S. and foreign communities, including cultural exchanges and town hall meetings.
Most of all, Pandith said she plans to listen to what is needed and be the agent of response. She said she her approach will aim not to exclude any groups that make up the vast and diverse Muslim world.
"There is no one bullet that's going to fix everything, there is not one program that's going to be the magic program to engage with Muslims,” Pandith said. Instead, she said that what’s needed is listening, understanding the situation on the ground, and “finding opportunities to work with our embassies, to get to know what others are saying, and thinking, and dreaming, and believing."
This is not a new role for Pandith, who was hired in early 2007 to be former President George W. Bush's senior advisor for Muslim engagement in the European and Eurasian region. She has also worked for the National Security Council, and with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), in Kabul.
Her work will take her around the world, but her first stop in every country she visits will be the U.S. Embassy, which will serve as the local facilitator for Pandith's ideas. Her outreach efforts will cross generations and include rural and urban centers.
She said she is especially eager to hear from younger Muslims. "What I'm doing is working with embassies to find ways that we can approach a younger generation as well, in terms of listening to how they want to engage,” she said. “It's very important to understand that it isn't just one thing from Washington that's going to be shoved into everybody's faces."
Hearts And Minds
The chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, Akbar Ahmed, met Pandith at the White House in 2007 during a Ramadan dinner and says she impressed him as a "competent diplomat" with the right background for her new post.
Ahmed has advised General David Petraeus and Ambassador Richard Holbrooke on Islam and foreign policy. He said there must be concrete changes on the ground in the Muslim world for the United States to win the hearts and minds of people who, for many years, have regarded America with suspicion at best and hostility at worst.
"It's all very well to talk about listening and understanding and dignity and rebuilding bridges, but when you come down to brass tacks, when the Palestinians…or the Kashmiris in South Asia say, or the Chechens say, or the Pakistanis say that nothing very much has changed, then there will be frustration and mounting despair and anger," Ahmed said.
If Pandith can take what she hears in Muslim communities and translate it into concrete responses, Ahmed says she'll be supplying the crucial part of the equation that was missing in the Bush administration's failed outreach efforts.
"Obama does not have all that very much time. He is hitting the ground running, he is in the saddle, the crises are mounting in Afghanistan and Pakistan; these are Muslim countries,” Ahmed said.
“The Palestinian situation is on the boil again, and there really is no time for listening,” he continued. “There is time now to understand the problems -- which Farah obviously understands, coming from that background -- and begin to come up with proposals that somehow bring down the temperature, somehow give people hope, somehow engage people in the Muslim world."