Nizwa - Farah A Pandith, an American Muslim born in Srinagar, India, is the United States’ first Special Representative to Muslim Communities. Since her appointment in June 2009, Pandith has been involved in executing US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s vision for engagement with Muslims around the world.
In her first visit to the sultanate last week, Pandith interacted with students and women’s group with an aim to offer a fresh perspective to the Omani youth on the global dialogue on Islam and, in the process, to dispel some of the misconceptions about the status of Muslims in the US.
Speaking exclusively to Muscat Daily , the Amercian diplomat touched upon questions related to Muslim identity around the world. Excerpts:
Do you believe in destiny? You arrived from India to the US on July 4, 1969 as a one year old. What would be the odds then for you to end up as the top American Muslim diplomat?
One can never know what your future is. I think you have to live your life with the principles that you have grown up with. I come from a family that is religious and is focused on doing the best that you can and living your life to its best potential.
If you work as hard as you can to do what you believe in and are passionate about, only then can you see what your true destiny is. I believe in God so it is His wish and not mine.
Do you ever reflect on the symbolism of the day of your arrival in the US?
I like to think of it as a great coincidence.
How do you look back upon your country of birth, India?
I’m very proud of my heritage - to be born in a nation that is another very rich and very historic part of this planet and I feel very grateful for it. I’m also grateful for the way I was raised in America by a mother who raised me to be proud of my heritage but to invest in my new country by being part of my community and understanding how important education was.
She raised me to have values that many would, in fact, consider to be quite Indian but they are human values: the tradition of family, the importance of faith, the importance of giving back to your community are things that were very important to my mother.
She believed very strongly that everybody deserves dignity. These values helped me to be a part of America and feel like an American right from the very beginning.
Is there a contradiction in being an American and a Muslim?
There is absolutely no contradiction between being a proud American and a proud Muslim. Our country was founded on the principle of freedom of expression. As an extension, freedom of religion has come to become one of the most treasured American values.
From the time of our founding fathers all the way to President Barack Obama, they have talked about Islam and Muslims with great respect. Islam is part of America and it has added to the rich history of our country.
President Obama has said very clearly that American-Muslims are a part of the fabric of America. He has talked about the fact that there is no ‘us’ and ‘them’. There’s only ‘we’. So there’s no contradiction.
In your interactions with the Muslim communities world over, do you face questions about the Muslim identity?
The question of Muslim identity is in fact a central data point. Whether I’m talking to a Muslim in Zanzibar or in Brazil or Malaysia, young people are having a very hard time navigating through their identity.
They ask questions such as what’s the difference between culture and religion; how can I be both modern and Muslim; and many similar issues.
I consider myself very fortunate because I’ve been able to travel around the world on behalf of the US government talking to young Muslims under the age of 30. My interactions have made me convinced that one has to respect the diversity of Muslim communities all over the world.
How do you reconcile the conflicting views over religion, ethnicity, place of origin and adopted homeland? What has been your own experience in the US?
I want to stress a couple of things about Americans who happen to be Muslims.
Firstly, we are the most diverse group of Muslims anywhere in the world. We come from all over the world and our mosques exist in every part of America, in every state. People from all faiths live side by side in the US.
So, you will see synagogues, mosques, churches and temples spread next to each other and you see communities intermingling as well. That is a very important value and a very special piece of American history.
Secondly, American Muslims are given equal rights under the law and we are able to dress any way we want. All faith groups, including Islam, have the right to follow their own customs and cultures.
That’s part and parcel of who we are as Americans. There’s pride in where you and your forefathers came from but there’s also pride in being part of a country that has so many rich cultures coexisting together.
Earlier in you capacity as the senior advisor on Muslim engagement in the European and Eurasian region at the State Department, what broad differences did you notice between the Muslim communities in the US and Europe?
You often read of particular cases of certain [European] countries that have banned one thing or another [in terms of religious code] and that takes over the conversation.
One has to understand that the Muslim experience in Europe goes beyond just a local law, as important as that might be. There’s a much deeper, more nuanced and multi-faceted experience taking place among Muslims across Europe. The shape of the conversations change depending on where we are and to which generation are we talking to.
There are some very profound differences when we talk about the experience of Muslims in Europe and America. American Muslims are among the most highly educated faith groups in America.
That is an important data point which is very different from Europe. Secondly, American Muslims are very high earners. So I don’t like to compare America and Europe because the experience, the heritage and the narrative are so different.
How do you deal with communities and individuals who may not have a favourable view of the United States ?
It is important to understand that if you read headlines and look at things only through soundbytes, you are never going to get an honest approach… whether it’s the environment, human rights or foreign policy.
I think the way you break down stereotypes is to have an open and honest conversation. So, I’m always happy to listen. My job is to listen. If they have doubts about America, I’m happy to speak about the experience of my country and what it means. No one ever loves every particular thing about a particular country so there are times in which there are challenging conversations about foreign policy or about issues where there is difference of opinions.
What do you make out of this constant 'Clash of Civilisations' debate which at times leads to the 'Islam vs the rest of the world' theory?
First of all I absolutely reject the idea of Samuel Huntington’s piece ‘The Clash of Civilisations’ that was written in 1993. Muslims are part of the West. There are 44mn Muslims living in western Europe alone, not to speak of their numbers in New Zealand, Australia, Canada and United States of America.
So it is very disrespectful to consider the West and not to consider the Muslims to be a part of it. So you see a lot of misperception and a lot of misunderstanding around the world.
President Obama in his landmark Cairo address on June 4, 2009 had stressed that he sought ‘a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition’.
America is interested in engaging with Muslims, because it’s important for us to get to know one-fourth of humanity. We cannot solve world problems alone. We must engage the amazing minds, the energy and the passion of young Muslims around the world to get to common interests so that we can fix the common problems.