State Department Office Reaches Out To Muslims

A new division opened in the State Department this year: the office of the Special Representative to Muslim Communities. Farah Pandith's mission is to reach out to the world's 1.2 billion Muslims. She tells Steve Inskeep the office will influence how Muslims perceive the United States.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. We'll talk next with the latest American official to reach out to the Muslim world. Her name is Farah Pandith. She is an American Muslim, born in India. Now, she is President Obama's Special Representative to Muslim Communities. We dropped by her office at the State Department. Surveys show deep disapproval of the United States in the Muslim world, though the numbers have improved since President Obama took office. Farah Pandith says she is thinking about the next generation of Muslims around the world.

Ms. FARAH PANDITH (Special Representative to Muslim Communities): A Muslim that lives in Sao Paulo is as Muslim as a Muslim in Berlin or a Muslim in Cairo. And understanding the nuances and the differences that go across the globe and talking about Muslims around the world in a manner that actually represents them, as opposed to suggesting that everybody is the same, that isn't what we're doing here. So I'm looking at a very broad approach. I'm focusing on the youth demographic for sure, trying to find opportunities that have not existing before.

INSKEEP: Why the youth demographic?

Ms. PANDITH: Because they're the future leaders. We do not want to get to know Muslims in a time of crisis. We want to get to know Muslims in the time of non-crisis. And as you build those relationships over decades, there will be an opportunity for trust and dialogue that exists. And so it's very important that we look at this demographic.

INSKEEP: You worked in the Bush administration.

Ms. PANDITH: I did.

INSKEEP: Which engaged a number of high profile people to reach out to the world in general, and the Muslim world in particular. President Bush himself was criticized for some of his statements, but also made a number of very definite statements that American wars abroad were not wars against Islam, for example, stood up in public appearances after 9/11 with Muslim clerics. Some kind of effort was made to no measurable result. What was missing in that effort?

Ms. PANDITH: You know, it's not my role to comment on the last administration. We're taking a look at lessons learned in terms of communicating with, again, the younger generation. The president, going out of the gate, the tone and the way in which he talked about the dignity of Islam, the fact that he respected Muslims as being part of the fabric of America, what the secretary has said over and over again about building things for the common good, all of these things have already shifted the tone. And we're not even a year out.

INSKEEP: I respect your desire not to criticize the past administration, but you must have some clear sense, I suppose, of where you're starting from and what has worked and not worked in the past. What�

Ms. PANDITH: But I think it's important to understand that it's apples and oranges. We're in a completely different frame. The framework has changed. The tenor of what people are telling me, on the planet, has changed.

INSKEEP: You don't get any questions, for example, hypothetically, why is the United States such a blind supporter of Israel?

Ms. PANDITH: I get a lot of - you know, listen, I - for the last two years, I worked in the Europe bureau, and my mandate was to work with Muslim communities across Western Europe and talk to a wide range of folks in a time when there was a lot of angst out there and a lot of anger.

And I've gotten a lot of questions, including personal questions, about why an American Muslim would want to be involved and taking part in the U.S. government. I've gotten personal questions about my own faith. I've gotten questions about what it means to be an American Muslim.

INSKEEP: Do people question your faith and your beliefs because they perceive the United States as, essentially, attacking Muslims in various places in the world?

Ms. PANDITH: They've asked questions about my growing up and where I learned about Islam. And I happily talk about the fact that I learned about Islam in America, going to a mosque in Quincy, Massachusetts. And they don't know that there are mosques in every state in America. They often don't know that Islam is very diverse in the United States. They ask questions about - can you pray freely?

So when they ask me questions, it's not to sort of question how Muslim are you. It's more to say: Can you be a Muslim in America? And there is no other way to talk about that than to actually get into discussion and to give a chance to say that, you know, there is no conflict with being both American and being Muslim.

INSKEEP: Is your job complicated by the fact that there are two ongoing wars in predominantly Muslim countries? And the new administration, although it's changed policies in both places, is still fighting those wars?

Ms. PANDITH: There is complexity that happens because of political things that are going on. Whether it's the war or it's, of course, Fort Hood that recently is on everybody's mind. But the idea that any country on Earth is - especially ours - is going after a particular foreign policy based on a religion is not correct. but it is my job to really capture this moment in time to work with communities who want to make a difference for our planet, who are interested in partnering with the United States, and others.

INSKEEP: Let me say something that I'm sure you have heard from any number of foreign policy experts, former diplomats and others, and it was said of the Bush administration as well. The statement that is made is that until the United States dramatically changes some of its policies in the world, there will not be a higher opinion of the United States in the Muslim world. Do you believe that?

Ms. PANDITH: I believe that the next generation is engaging in ways it has never engage - they have never engaged before. Will there still be difficulty out there because of foreign policy issues? Of course there will be. But this is not an effort to change quickly how popular we are. This is truly to build partnerships that did not exist before for a long-term win at the end.

INSKEEP: Farah Pandith, thanks very much.

Ms. PANDITH: Thank you so much.

INSKEEP: She's President Obama's special representative to Muslim communities.

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