MS. BENTON: Good Morning. Welcome to the State Department. I’m Cheryl Benton, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Department’s Bureau of Public Affairs. I want to thank you for joining us for the third installment of Conversations with America – a series of video discussions that the Department recently launched that will enable you to watch and participate in a live discussion between a top State Department official and the leader of an NGO.
The State Department’s blog, DipNote, has received many questions and comments on today’s topic from around the world. We have selected some of those questions for discussion during this broadcast. Today’s discussion will focus on the United States engagement with Muslim communities all across the world. We recently commemorated the first anniversary of President Obama’s historic speech on this subject in Cairo, Egypt. In that speech, the President initiated a new engagement between the United States and Muslims, one that is based on mutual interest and mutual respect and on the universal human values that we all share.
Before we begin though, I will briefly introduce you to our guests. Farah Pandith is the Special Representative to Muslim Communities appointed by the Secretary of State. Farah is responsible for executing the Secretary’s vision for engagement with Muslims around the world on both a people-to-people and organizational level. This is the first time in the history that the State Department has had such a position.
The special representative’s background makes her particularly well-suited for this role. She has very broad professional experiences. She has worked in the private sector as a vice president of a consulting firm. Farah has served on many not-for-profit boards where the work of the organization directly impacts the grassroots. Farah has been a trustee at prestigious academic institutions, and she has worked in various parts of our government in senior level roles. She’s been with the United States Agency for International Development, the National Security Council at the White House, and here at the Department of State. Her understanding of government and the private sector and how they can be leveraged in support of U.S.-Muslim engagement makes her well-suited – actually, it makes her particularly suited for this important assignment.
Steven Clemons is our other guest. He is the director of the American Strategy Program at the New American Foundation. Steven is the publisher of the popular political blog, The Washington Note. And he is a long-term public policy expert and entrepreneur here in Washington, D.C. Steven has served as executive vice president of the Economic Strategy Institute; he’s been the senior policy advisor on economic and international affairs to Senator Jeff Bingaman; and he was the very first executive director of the Nixon Center. Mr. Clemons writes frequently and prolifically on matters of foreign policy, defense, and international economic policy. His work has appeared in many of the major leading op-ed pages, journals, and magazines around the world. Today, Mr. Clemons will explore, with Farah, her work in leading the State Department’s engagement with Muslims all across the globe.
Before we get started, our guests will tell you a little more about themselves and their work.
MR. CLEMONS: Well, first of all, Cheryl, thank you so much. And I think the first thing I’d like to say is I’m a big Farah Pandith fan and we’ve been friends for a long time. And I’m just so pleased to see the structural support in the U.S. Government for this effort to reach out to communities that, in my view, haven’t been affirmed in the way they should have been. And so what’s been happening here is very important.
But generally, what I do, I’m a writer. I’m a provocateur. I try to get people engaged in a civil way, in a polite way, to discuss serious issues. It doesn’t mean that I want people to be less passionate, but try to get people to exchange notions. We try and do this in the blog. I try and do it through a think tank, the New America Foundation, which is a centrist think tank here in Washington. Eleven years ago, it started with four people and now we’re about 140 staff, and across all these policy areas, whether it’s healthcare or foreign policy, trade issues, dealing with, essentially, everything from South Asia to North Africa and everything else in between. We have big projects in that, and I think part of what we try and do is bring to act as a convener, if you will, of people from a broad cross-section of our civil society here and show how it’s done. And what we love to do, and which I think we’re going to talk about today, is show how that can be replicated in other parts of the world. So – but most of all, today I’m a Farah fan.
MS. BENTON: Good, terrific. Thanks, Steven. Special Representative Pandith, can you tell us a little about what you do?
MS. PANDITH: Sure, I’m happy to. And I really want to say thank you very much for that very kind introduction. Steven and I, as he said, have been friends for a while, but I think you heard him talk about the role of a convener. And I want to start with that. I think what we’re doing here at the State Department is doing something a little bit more innovative with regard to engagement with Muslims. And when we think about the opportunities that we have building off of the President’s vision that he laid out in Cairo, how do we partner with 1.4 billion Muslims around the world? And what we’re doing is working with our embassies around the world, globally – this is a global mandate – Muslims in Muslim-majority countries, and Muslims who represent minorities – and trying to find ways that we can actually act as that convener and that facilitator, and really the intellectual partner with the ideas that we’re hearing on the ground.
My mandate, from the Secretary, is to work, as you said, on a people-to-people level. So what I’m focusing on is what’s happening at the grassroots, what’s happening at the local level. Why does that matter? It matters because the nuances and the texture of things that are happening on the community level impact what happens on a larger level. So what we’re trying to do is get to know what’s happening at the grassroots. We’re trying to be that connector. We’re trying to building networks around the world of likeminded thinkers. We’re really focused, frankly, on the next generation because that’s the generation that we can build partnerships with over the long term. In fact, in most Muslim communities around the world, the percentage of those under the age of 30 is really, really high. So we want to really look at what’s happening with that demographic.
MS. BENTON: Good. Very exciting. Thank you so much. Well, I think we’re ready to get started. Steven, will you like to begin the discussion?
MR. CLEMONS: Well, in starting the discussion, I suppose what I would pose to Farah, since I wasn’t prepared to start – (laughter) – on live TV, is as we all – well, I guess what I could say and to put into the special representative’s (inaudible), when I look at the challenges around the world that the United States has today, one of my biggest concerns is a doubt about America’s ability to achieve the things it says it’s going to do. And it is one of the reasons why I am such a fan of what Farah is doing, because she’s connecting people. And there’s a much greater sense, if you will, that the burdens that are out there for the world are very big ones; that it’s going to take partnerships, a different approach to stakeholders. The U.S. alone can’t solve everything. And so this shift to trying to bring other stakeholders into the game of listening, I think that that’s the biggest issue in the Cairo speech, and some of President Obama’s other commentary is really this is a listening president, and that’s a stage in the process. Another stage in the process is building capacity and bringing people into networks. And then dealing with global grassroots, Farah, is tough to do unless you’re able to sort of replicate habits and begin getting an echo effect so that when you begin working with one group you get recurring patterns of constructive behavior. So I’d love to hear how you think about that challenge, because it’s really an enormous one.
MS. PANDITH: Well, I’m happy you framed it that way. And I think – you talked about sort of the long term. It’s over time. You don’t turn a switch and make everything better overnight. I think the President was really clear that he has priorities in this Administration, and he put some of the largest challenges our planet is facing front and center when he – in the Cairo speech. He talked about foreign policy issues that are on the minds of many. But at the same time, he also talked about what we must do to build robust communities around the world. And this idea of building things for the common good and using the tools that are out there.
Now, I can say all of this, and one of the things that is so important as we think about how you engage the grassroots is, yes, we have to listen. We have to hear what it is that they’re experiencing. Their expertise is better than somebody in Washington saying what must be. So that’s the first point.
The second thing is, how do you change the narrative so that everything that you’re talking about with Muslims is not negative? And that’s what we’re doing here. We’re going out and hearing from people who are doing innovative and creative things. We’re lifting up their voices so that they can be role models for others. We’re connecting them to others in the world who can actually help them with their ideas and actually help them move their ideas forward. That may sound like small things, but it’s huge when you think about the impact of two smart people, ten smart people, working on a project together. And it is going to take a really strong effort over the long term to continue to do this. But that’s what we’re doing here. This is historic; we’re looking at it in a new way. So I think we have to be very realistic. But I am also extremely optimistic about what’s possible, because when I see the energy and the passion of young people and I think about what they want to do to build a stronger world, I know that what we have to do as a government, along with partnerships with the private sector and with the NGO field, we have to do more and we can.
MR. CLEMONS: Farah, how do we deal the diversity? When – I guess over the last year or so I’ve been in Indonesia; in Malaysia; Libya; Damascus, Syria; Jordan. When you go to these places and you – even Saudi Arabia – and you get inside, scratch beneath the surface as much as somebody like I can, the diversity within the Muslim community, whether you’re in the non-Arab world, Arab world, North African world – is so strikingly dramatic. It’s something, I think, my folks – I try to bring it to my readers when I can. But how do you deal with that diversity? Because there’s a huge diversity out there, and I think sometimes when people see the brand “special representative to the Muslim communities,” it sounds like a monolithic entity, and I’m sure you agree it’s not.
MS. PANDITH: Yeah, no, of course not. It absolutely isn’t. And when you think about how the President changed the lexicon in the Cairo speech – he never called it the Muslim world, he called Muslim communities around the world or Muslims around the world – to actually go to the issue that you’re talking about. I think the first thing you have to do is recognize that there is a diversity of Islam. And frankly, that happens on many levels. When you think about how people talk about Muslims, the vast majority of Muslims on the planet live outside of the Middle East. Who are these people? How do they live? What’s the difference between culture and religion? What is happening on the ground? What’s the history?
And so the way we talk about it, the fact that you can bring examples in from other parts of the world. When I – I mean, I’ve traveled a lot in the last nine months since I was sworn in – 25 countries I think we’re at. Everything from Brazil to Malaysia, from Nigeria to Norway. I mean, I’ve been everywhere. And it’s great because you can speak to that issue of diversity.
How – it is one of the most critical things that we have to talk about because if you don’t – if you only look at Muslims as the same, you are putting them as separate, you’re making them distinct. There’s an us and there’s a them. They’re all the same. It’s (inaudible) all one. They’re not all one. And even within a country they’re not all one. A Madrid is not a Barcelona. When you look at what’s happening in the generations, in those two cities, it could be two totally different countries. If we’re going to engage, we need to give respect to the differences within the countries, the differences of the regions, and the differences of a historical background within the generations. That takes time. That goes back to the listening piece.
So how do we talk about the diversity of Islam? We talk about it by the places that we go to engage. And as I said, that’s happening globally. We talk about it in terms of the language and the lexicon, Muslim communities around the world. We don’t say “the Muslim world” if we can help it. We try very hard to bring in – when you are talking about the roles that you do at the New America Foundation in terms of acting of as a convener, when you’re bringing Muslims to the table, it’s not only Muslims from South Asia or only Muslims from the Arab world that you think, wow, would a Muslim from Sao Paolo actually be interesting in this conversation or a Muslim from Hyderabad? Would that be an interesting mix? It’s what we all must do to think about that diversity. And on the very senior levels of how we think about policy that we think about those nuances, because the President talked about mutual respect and mutual understanding. That means you really need to understand what’s happening within these – the societies. So everything that we do is going towards that end.
The first country that I visited as special representative was Nigeria. And I picked that very specifically because I wanted to talk about Africa and I wanted to talk about Islam in Africa, which is such a rich – has such a rich heritage and such a rich history and legacy. When you look and you think about the mosques that are in Nigeria that go back thousands of years, and I think about a recent trip that I just went on to Mali. I was in Timbuktu and I saw a 7th century Qur’an, handwritten Qur’an. That helps me understand what those generations of young Muslims are thinking about in terms of their own history, the crossroads of Arab Islam and African Islam.
Similarly, when I was in Kazakhstan, how do we think about the Silk Road, how do we think about how Islam was affected there? That shapes the contours of our conversation and it’s critical.
MR. CLEMONS: Let me – I’d be interested in Cheryl’s views, too. Let me ask just a question, a little uncomfortable question and ask you: Do you think the U.S. Government is setting the kind of example it should in this very message? Just a week ago, I was speaking in New York. I was on a panel with a couple of former Bush administration officials, Cofer Black and Fran Townsend, his counterterrorism advisor whom I think you know well, but also a gentleman whose name I can’t quite – Arif. But he’s a senior-level Muslim American in the Department of Homeland Security –
MS. PANDITH: Arif Alikhan, yes.
MR. CLEMONS: Yes, terrific guy. But – and they made a big deal of him being a high-ranking Muslim American in the administration at the assistant secretary level. And my comment was, that’s not good enough. We should have – we should deal with this as an ordinary occurrence that we ought not to be noticing so much, that in fact we need to find more talent in our own country and affirm that and bring that into senior positions in the U.S. Government as Muslim Americans and constructive co-stewards of what we’re doing. And so just to ask you, how are we doing in that from your own perspective –
MS. PANDITH: Do you know –
MR. CLEMONS: -- despite the fact that you’re one of the beneficiaries of this?
MS. PANDITH: Well, no, I’ll tell you what, I think it’s a very important question and I think it’s a broader question, though. How are we, as Americans, thinking about what it means to be American in 2010?
MR. CLEMONS: Yes.
MS. PANDITH: Are we – is there gender equality? Are we seeing men and women in senior levels? Are we seeing different races? Are we seeing different ethnicities? Are we seeing different religions? So it’s not just about Islam. It absolutely isn’t about are you Muslim, are you not Muslim. It’s about does the senior leadership in our country reflect who lives in our country. And that goes to who’s being elected on the Hill. That goes to how we think about working in civil – as a civil servant, as a Foreign Service officer, as a political appointee. I am seeing a huge change in young American Muslims who want to serve in government. And it’s really actually quite exciting.
You’re seeing a lot of new staffers on the Hill whose parents – they come from countries that maybe working in the government wasn’t necessarily a very prestigious thing. They are living here and they say, “Well, I want my child to be the next assistant secretary, or the next President of the United States, or the next congressman.” And how do you do that? You intern on the Hill. You learn more about public policy. You do all those kinds of things. And so you’re seeing, if you look at Muslims in the graduate schools that are out there in the public policy programs, you’re seeing more and more American Muslims that are part of this. There isn’t a part of government that there aren’t Muslims represented; absolutely not. And you’re seeing many more in senior-level positions.
MR. CLEMONS: That’s great to hear.
MS. PANDITH: And so that is very encouraging to me. But I also think – again, I want to just go back to the larger point. As we look around and we see who’s represented, are we – are there enough women? Are there enough people of color? Are there enough people who come from non-east coast or non-west coast, but from the middle of our country? I mean, all the things that we know represent America.
MR. CLEMONS: Just on that topic, I just came back from the Aspen Ideas Festival last night. For folks who want to learn more about that, it’s www.aifestival.org. It’s sponsored by the Atlantic Monthly magazine and the Aspen Institute. And we had the surgeon general out there. It’s a very big compilation of people. But the Atlantic released what they call their “Big Ideas Issue” and the cover of the issue was called “The End of Men.” (Laughter.) Hanna Rosin, who wrote the piece, had basically done a very interesting empirical study looking at the fact that throughout society now, women are in much more dominant positions than the guys. I’m not sure – but it’s a sort of an interesting snapshot.
MS. PANDITH: Well, you’re talking to a Smithie. So this is –
MR. CLEMONS: Yes, so there you go. (Laughter.)
MS. PANDITH: So this is really a –
MR. CLEMONS: Let me actually throw one other issue out there, kind of a provocative one. I was looking through the DipNote questions –
MS. PANDITH: Sure.
MR. CLEMONS: -- and there’s just no doubt – and when I go around the world, I’m sure the same thing is, too. While many people may be worried about the education of their children or the quality of their water or the quality of their own government – there are lots of issues – one thing that inevitably comes up is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What are we doing? I think a lot of people have very high expectations of the President. They wonder will he be able to deliver on results. They wonder if we’re on one side and really not the other. How do you deal with that? Because I know you have to.
I know that I think – I used to listen to Senator Hagel and Hagel would come in and say we can’t approach this challenge with a false choice acting as if you can’t be both a friend of Israel and having that. But we also can’t sell short the interests of the Arab states that are our allies and friends, nor can we short-shrift their grievances in a lot of ways. And so I tend to do that, but I realize that most of the other world doesn’t necessarily think in those terms. I’m trying to get more – but how do you approach that question when you’re – when it’s –
MS. PANDITH: Well, it’s a very serious question and it’s a very real question. And I get asked that in every single environment I’m in. There hasn’t been a country I’ve gone to or a forum that I’ve talked in in which that question hasn’t come up. It’s on the minds of everyone. And it isn’t just a Muslim question, it’s a human question. People want to see peace in the Middle East. And they’re very – they’re watching very carefully to see how negotiations are going. Many people understand very clearly that much more – that the President has made it a priority. They understand that he’s talked about a two-state solution, but they want to see action on the ground in a more robust way. I can – I understand that.
MR. CLEMONS: And is that because they feel that it’s not just about the Palestinians, it’s also about what their level of weight and consequentialness in the world is?
MS. PANDITH: Well, I think it’s many things and I would hate to say everybody thinks of that issue in one way. I’ve heard it from a lot of different perspectives on why it’s a priority. And I think there is no doubt that it’s a priority for this President. There’s no doubt. We have an envoy to the Middle East and he’s working very diligently on a two-state solution. And we are all watching the news in eager anticipation. But I also know that you cannot push fast something that is taking time to sort of develop. And when I talk to young people, especially who are looking at their future, and they are thinking about that issue, they want to see a resolution there and they want to see it fast and they – it’s sort of an angst-ridden thing because they look at that as a critical foreign policy piece. But they also look at other – I mean you didn’t bring up the other issues, but certainly, Iraq is on the minds of everyone.
MR. CLEMONS: Sure.
MS. PANDITH: Of course, Afghanistan is. Of course, Pakistan is. But when we talk about things that are happening in places in the world in which there are Muslim-majority populations, it is of concern to many of the people that I talk to. And when – so when you ask how do you respond to it, I mean, we have to talk about it. You can’t not talk about the issue. You have to say, here’s what our government is doing. Here is what the Secretary has been saying. Here’s what the President has said. And here’s what the envoy for the Middle East has said or what the special representative for Afghanistan-Pakistan has said. We talk about these issues. But I also talk about things that you can do simultaneously. And while the President has said these are critical things that he’s working on – I mean, he appointed George Mitchell and Richard Holbrooke the very first week he became President. I mean, front and center of his Presidency moving forward.
MR. CLEMONS: So these are defining challenges here.
MS. PANDITH: Absolutely. At the same time that he did that, he has also – we are also capable of working on other things at the same time. And we must do a dual-track situation where we’re working on hardcore foreign policy issues, but we’re also working to increase the opportunities in terms of economic aid, in terms of development, in terms of innovation and entrepreneurship being used as tools, and thinking about ways we can do partnership and build ideas together and initiatives together. So we’re doing two things at the same time. And I think we can.
MR. CLEMONS: This may sound a little off here, but I think it’s important. We have another mutual friend, Hani Masri --
MS. PANDITH: Yes.
MR. CLEMONS: -- who in Nablus, in Palestine, has funded something called the Tomorrow’s Youth Organization. And this is an organization committed to helping to train and provide services for women as they come out of college and school. Some of them have come out of the camps and the Cherie Blair Foundation –
MS. PANDITH: Yes.
MR. CLEMONS: I interviewed Cherie Blair about this – is also a helping part of this and a partnership with what’s going on. And what the really interesting story for me as well – this is a very tiny microcosm – is what I would call your more stereotypical, less tolerant activists –I won’t call them terrorists, but the folks in that part of the society that would normally – I think we would often sort of see as the antithesis of what we’re trying to do for women, provide opportunity – I say “we” – Hani Masri and the other partners, but I’m impressed with it – is they’ve been acquiescing and sometimes supporting, and that’s really powerful when you can begin see – begin to see the least tolerant parts of some of these societies begin to soften.
And have you had any experience with that in some of your work? Because there is sort of a battle going on, if you will, between those that are either pragmatic Muslims or maybe devout Muslims but tolerant, but there’s a kind of minority out there which is sometimes very intolerant activism that seems very uncomfortable with either modernity or change or the kinds of broader human rights agenda, if you will. And I’m – so I’m impressed with what TYO has done and I’m wondering if you’ve seen other things like this.
MS. PANDITH: Well, certainly I have – I agree with you. I mean, Hani Masri is doing an amazing job and the Cherie Blair Foundation is working very closely with him, and she’s doing really wonderful work on the ground. So I completely agree with you.
Let’s think about 1.4 billion Muslims --
MR. CLEMONS: Right.
MS. PANDITH: -- which are in all shapes and sizes around the world. The vast, vast, vast majority of them are not represented in the media and are not represented in mainstream. We don’t hear about them. We don’t hear the great stories that are going on.
MR. CLEMONS: What should we do about that?
MS. PANDITH: We need to do more of this. We need to do more to up – to lift up, rather, the voices of examples of people that we see around the world doing great stuff. I mean, the President called out Naif al-Mutawa at the President’s Entrepreneurship Summit.
MR. CLEMONS: Sure.
MS. PANDITH: When he did that, everybody said, well, who is this guy? What are the 99 – who are the 99 superheroes? What is that comic book series? Okay, all of a sudden, you’re getting interest in another amazing innovator, a social entrepreneur who has done remarkable things in the last seven years. There are hundreds and thousands of Naif al-Mutawas in this world. What are we doing to talk about them?
So to answer your question, yeah, a lot more we can do. We can talk about who these people are. I talk a lot in the speeches that I give about people that I’ve met, things that I’ve seen them do, the young person who is building a website in Norway about what it means to be Norwegian and to be Muslim in 2010. I talk about the bloggers that I meet in India who are tired of Muslims being defined as terrorists –
MR. CLEMONS: Right.
MS. PANDITH: And they’re getting out there and talking about what’s happening in India with 160 million Muslims in India, all of whom, by the way, are not terrorists – excuse me.
MR. CLEMONS: Yeah.
MS. PANDITH: So they’re changing the discourse. I talk about Luqman Ali in Luton, UK, who has a community theater company that actually builds off of Islamic history and inserts that into community theater so that kids are learning about their heritage. I talk about initiatives like the radio station in Chinguetti, Mauritania, where they’re looking at the next generation of young people and saying, “I want to make sure that they’re getting the kinds of messaging that they should learn about how to be stronger empowered people.” And so it’s a youth-to-youth radio station and they push back against violent extremism and they talk about what it means to be –
MR. CLEMONS: And you’re helping to get these folks to connect as well.
MS. PANDITH: I’m – well, yes. But I’m also talking about them, because they’re doing their own things and they’re doing it in amazing ways. But if they’re only doing it in isolation and nobody else hears about them –
MR. CLEMONS: Sure.
MS. PANDITH: -- they’re sort of quietly doing their thing. Let’s lift that up. There’s – so there’s a lot more that we must do to actually change that narrative, and that’s a lot that we’re trying to do in this position. When I think about this generation, the Facebook generation, which for me getting to know somebody on Skype across the world is sort of a little bit awkward because I’m 42 and I’m, like, wait, what? But for the 16-year-old and the 21-year-old who it’s a normal thing –
MR. CLEMONS: Absolutely.
MS. PANDITH: -- to meet that person across a screen, we have an amazing opportunity here to be able to say you need to meet this person, you guys are doing the same thing. It’s that matchmaking that happens. What can happen because of that matchmaking? Anything.
MR. CLEMONS: Right.
MS. PANDITH: And so that’s what I want to see us do more of for sure.
MR. CLEMONS: I think it sounds great.
MS. BENTON: Good. This is fascinating, but I did want to bring in our viewers –
MR. CLEMONS: Yes, absolutely.
MS. PANDITH: Sure.
MS. BENTON: -- who have submitted questions.
MR. CLEMONS: Nice to see you, viewers. (Laughter.)
MS. BENTON: But I wanted to say I think the critical thing that both of you are talking about is the fact that under this Administration and under this Secretary of State, the paradigm has shifted.
MS. PANDITH: Yeah.
MR. CLEMONS: Oh, hugely.
MS. BENTON: It has changed.
MS. PANDITH: Absolutely.
MS. BENTON: And the President laid down the gauntlet in his Cairo speech and opened the doors to a new level of engagement. So I think that’s one of the ways it has begun. So that leads me to Francis’s question from Tennessee.
MR. CLEMONS: Yes.
MS. BENTON: Francis asked, “What is the purpose of this dialogue with the Muslim world? It should be in line with the Christian communities of the world, not just exclusively Muslim? This makes for many Americans a very uncomfortable atmosphere.” What do you say?
MS. PANDITH: Well, no I think it’s a great question and I get asked that question, actually, a lot. Why do you have a special representative to Muslim communities? Do you have one to Christian communities? Do you have one to Hindu communities? I mean, I can understand why people are talking about it.
We are in a very special moment in time that has been defined over the last 10 years in a very important way for our country. We need to do more to engage and build dialogue. And what this President has said is that it is a priority for us to engage with Muslims around the world. Secretary Clinton said in my swearing-in one-fourth of the world’s population is Muslim; why wouldn't be engaging with them? And so we want to do this in a more robust way. It is not to say that we are not engaging with other faith communities. The President has done a lot with interfaith. He has done a lot with talking with Americans of all faiths at the White House and through the commission that actually just recently put out a report.
But overseas, we are trying to build bridges that have been broken and also want to restore opportunities for dialogue. We want to see where we can be more useful in partnering and building initiatives. And that requires us to put a special effort right at this moment in time to develop new relationships. So that’s why we’re doing this.
MS. BENTON: Good deal.
MR. CLEMONS: I agree with everything Farah just shared. I think it’s very important for America to begin seeing itself as a multi-faith nation. Some do, but I would argue that even today most don’t. Most see America as a Christian nation, and I think that’s wrong. I’ve grown up with Buddhists, with Jews, with Muslims, with Hindus, with a broad cross-section. I’ve had that – it’s a very enriching experience and I hope most Americans reach out for it.
And I worry a little bit – is it, Francis? – when people approach this in a zero-sum way. Now, part of the zero-sum reality is that because of the unfortunate incidents of 9/11 and the decision by a few to create outcomes for many, that many Muslims around the world began to feel as if they were being targeted or blamed or looked at suspiciously. That has to end because, one, that breeds distance; that doesn't breed people coming together and begin working together on other issues.
So I am completely comfortable saying we need an action program to some degree with Muslim communities inside the United States and outside the United States, because we need to make sure they feel very connected to this great civic experiment in this country. This is what America is great at is mixing and melding people from many different backgrounds. And so I think one ought not to be there.
But yes, I’m all for Christian inclusion and there are great efforts around the world in a dialogue of civilizations, which is really a dialogue among these different countries. In London, King Abdullah in Saudi Arabia has also been helping with this, and the Pope has been in part of this. So there are lots of players. And I think while it’s important, it’s also important to figure out how do we build structural bridges that I think have been pretty weak.
MS. BENTON: That’s very good. And I think this next question that comes in from Arelis from Florida feeds right into what you were saying. How can we as part of the West culture participate with our government in changing the perception about us from the Muslim communities? Should we as regular citizens be part of any program to open up to the Muslim world and allow them to learn about the qualities we care about as a country?
MS. PANDITH: That’s such a great proactive question and I really love it. From Florida, that’s really great. I would say a couple things. One is we all can do so much more in our down time to reach out to the other, so to speak – people you don’t know. And it’s not just a faith thing. It’s people you don’t know. And that’s community – that’s building community and it’s talking about diversity and it’s talking about things that this country stands for.
When we talk about the West, Muslims are part of the West. There are 30 million Muslims in Western Europe. There are millions of Muslims in America. When you think about – so it’s not a zero-sum game, as you said. It’s not us versus them. It sort of debunks the entire Samuel Huntington theory of the clash of civilizations. It’s not the West versus the East. It’s not America versus Islam.
The President has talked very clearly, about the fact that Islam is part of America – I can understand that people would like to do more, and when you ask them how, it’s even in the smallest way. I remember very distinctly, right after 9/11, there were synagogues that were opening up their doors to Muslims to come in during the month of Ramadan to break their fast. Mosques were opening up their doors to actually have people learn about Islam. Churches were doing interfaith community meetings so that people could learn about each other. A lot of that was going on after 9/11. And actually, in our country today, a lot is going on for people to communicate more. So to the gentleman who asked the question from Florida, look around your local community, see what hasn’t been done, fill the black holes.
MR. CLEMONS: I think that’s absolutely right. I think that they’re in many of the schools around the United States – schools, retirement homes, interestingly, local chapters of world affairs councils. You’d be surprised how rich the speaking program is of people bringing in folks that are – that that diversity is probably embedded in the community, and as I tell everybody, an event is just a room, maybe a few drinks, and some chairs and people. So people can be proactive in helping to invite (inaudible). I was – I’m sort if a family research buff, and I was looking at some of the roots of my own family that came through Kentucky and was looking at them, and in the1830s in Clark County, Kentucky – it’s kind of a rural area – there was a gentleman there from the Middle East who was living there who was a trader in things like olive oil and whatever, way before his time. But he was a celebrity in Clark County, Kentucky, which was about as fundamental – my great grandfather was a fundamentalist Christian minister.
MS. PANDITH: I thought you looked like Davy Crockett. (Laughter.)
MR. CLEMONS: I got a lot of that in my blood – good and bad. But it is interesting to see that this has been – there you’ve got – have these moments in American history. It’s not something that is really all that new. We just need to sort of open the doors.
MS. PANDITH: If I could just spend a moment on this. Because one of the things that I think has been really interesting is, is people have been unpacking what Islam is in America. When did they get here? How did they get here? What’s the story of Islam? And a lot of people have written about where it came from with the slaves, how – who were the first Muslims, where were the first mosques. What we’re trying to do here at the Department is to do more to actually develop the diplomatic timeline of engagement with Muslims, and presidential record of what’s been happening. Because it’s now a scramble to sort of figure out – well, when did we first do this? I mean, do people know about President Eisenhower and the amazing speech he gave more than 50 years ago here in Washington, D.C. when he laid the founding stone for the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C.? It’s an incredible speech.
MR. CLEMONS: I didn’t know that. I’ll run it on the Washington Note, though.
MS. PANDITH: You should definitely. It’s an amazing speech because it talks about what this country is about and the freedom of faith in our country, the ability for us to be able to practice – anybody, to practice their religion freely. I often talk about the fact that I am more free as a Muslim to practice my faith in America than any other place in the world. And that’s –
MS. BENTON: (Inaudible.)
MS. PANDITH: -- that’s an incredible thing for our nation.
MS. BENTON: Good, thanks. We’re going to go into another question. And I see we have up Norman, but I actually wanted to go to Jay from Virginia with his question which I think gets right to what we’re talking about now: How do you plan to address the view that Muslim communities worldwide tend to be viewed by non-Muslim peoples as monolithic? And how do you address the diversity of worldwide Muslim communities? So I think that fits right into what we were –
MR. CLEMONS: Sure.
MS. BENTON: -- where we’re at right now.
MR. CLEMONS: It’s a great question. I would just jump on it. Farah lives and breathes this in all of her tremendous work. I follow Farah on Twitter, Facebook, and you get snapshots of the differences in the Muslim community. I’ll share one other note from the Aspen Ideas Festival. One of the speakers there was Yousef al-Otaiba, who’s the ambassador for the UAE, who was talking in his case about the very different role of women in the UAE compared to other Arab Muslim states in the region. And there, they can drive. In fact, there are a lot of sometimes Saudi families that go to the UAE so that (inaudible.) But at the same time, he wasn’t necessarily disparaging of other societies. He was essentially reflecting on one element of diversity that’s sort of a favorite topic of Americans.
But when you go into Pakistan or Indonesia, Malaysia, they’re – I have found that there is no easy frame to look at any of these societies and how they’ve organized them. It’s so culturally rich and different, and that means that the answer is not approaching the fact that we need to connect with these – it’s basically listening and opening and keeping a very porous, flexible way in which we do this. But I do think that Americans – and I was born in Kansas, my mother lives in Oklahoma. I visit as often as I can. But lots of – I’ve been trying in those rural communities to help open people a little bit to this and to realize that there is such a diverse world out there and it’s not a cookie-cutter approach to the Muslim challenge, if you will.
MS. PANDITH: Right. And – but again, it goes to what we were talking about earlier. I mean, I think if you believe that all Muslims are the same and they are living on their own little planet and they’re distinct and they’re sort of – it’s out there – you again, you create that us and them. But if you begin to think about how culture and tradition and history impacts how Muslims are living in other parts of the world, you see what he’s talking about in terms of the UAE versus Saudi – both in the same region, not to speak of a Muslim living in the UK and a Muslim living in Malaysia. It really is so – it has been really eye-opening for me too, to see even within generations how young people are interpreting their culture in different ways, even in the way they dress, in the way they think about their role and their identity.
The singular question that is asked across the world in every conversation that I’ve had is, help us talk about this issue of identity. What does it mean to be modern and Muslim? What is the difference between culture and religion? And that identity piece goes to this because they want to learn more about what is a Muslim in another part of the world – how are they dealing with this issue. We’re not all doing the same thing. And I think we have to be able to broaden the spectrum and talk about that diversity. I’m leaving very shortly for a trip to Central Asia where I will have a chance to take a look at the rich heritage there and speak to young Muslims in that –
MR. CLEMONS: In the ‘stans.
MS. PANDITH: In the ‘stans, so to speak. And I’m looking – I’m really looking forward to it. It’s going to be a very powerful experience for me, I’m sure, as was my visits to Africa and to Southeast Asia. In each place that I go, whether it’s the Philippines or it’s Pakistan – things are happening within those countries that tell me clearly how rich that diversity is.
MS. BENTON: Good. I think we have time for this one last question, and I think it’s important because it speaks to all the myths that we’ve been debunking here right now. And this comes from Norman from Ohio: Why is there no response from any part of the Muslim community to terrorist attacks by Muslims?
MS. PANDITH: Well, I think it’s a fair question, but I think I would urge Norman to actually take a broad look at how he’s asking it, because there’s been a lot of response from Muslims themselves and it comes in many forms. You see Muslim-majority countries that have responded to acts of terrorism in very loud ways. You have seen individual efforts by people who are very important influencers who have issued statements against the act – the use of violence in the name of Islam. You’ve seen religious scholars talk about it from a religious perspective and issue statements that sort of show you where it’s not permissible in Islam. You’ve seen NGOs work very hard on youth campaigns and other campaigns around the world to say we as Muslims do not support the use of violence in any way, shape, or form.
You have seen cross-cultural responses – so Muslims and non-Muslims working together to push back against any kind of violence. Whether you’re talking about an NGO like Sisters Against Violent Extremism, SAVE, which was started in Vienna and is a really powerful organization with women pushing back against violent extremism, or you’re talking about more active scholars like a gentleman that I met in Nigeria who has a whole curriculum program out there to speak out against violent extremism, and he’s teaching the next generation how to do that in a more eloquent way and a louder way. You’re seeing – you talked about Twitter and Facebook. You’re seeing all kinds of social platforms being used to push back against violent extremism and any kind of sort of negative component attached to Islam.
The narrative has to change by the conversations that we are having, and not to put everything in one big bucket just because, obviously, somebody maybe of one faith that does something bad does not mean that everybody of that faith is in that same bucket. So how do you unpack that? How do you talk about it? Muslims are trying very hard to push away any kind of narrative that would suggest that. And I think Norman is asking a really, really important question, and I urge him to actually help us in the effort to sort of talk more specifically about the work that has been done out there.
MR. CLEMONS: I would just say very quickly, and in response, I agree with everything Farah just put on the table. But when there were violent incidents in the United States or there was the effort to ignite a car bomb in Times Square, when we had that horrific incident in the military and others – in those cases, all of the leading Muslim organizations –
MS. PANDITH: Correct.
MR. CLEMONS: -- in the United States came out and expressed outrage and their concern about that. So one of the problems I have – and I think it’s something Farah has already addressed – is that we have portals through which we look at these questions. And sometimes those portals don’t provide a lot of bandwidth. They provide what’s convenient, what may push a number of viewers. But sometimes, getting a hold of what’s really happening in the world means we need to reach a little bit beyond the normal portals through which – I think a lot of people watching this show today are already doing that.
But there are a lot of other sources out there that are easily reachable on the internet to sort of diversify and broaden the number of inputs that we get so that we get a fair perspective. Because I think if people did that, that they would see that there is overwhelming, absolutely overwhelming attitudes in Muslim communities around the world opposed to this kind of violence. And there are huge efforts that are not run by the U.S. Government or are part of a propaganda machine, outside the country, inside the country, to show how important de-radicalization is. And I remember – I mean, this is under a different Secretary and President – but I remember when Jim Glassman was Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy here at the State Department. He said my job is not to get everyone to love America; my job is to help inspire those young activists around the world to choose debate or other forms of protest in expressing what they want rather than violence. And that was our side. But frankly, I saw that echoed throughout – I have to say the Muslim communities, Muslim world, Arab world. Many other countries around the world have done this. And it’s not that hard to find those views out there, and I think they’re overwhelming.
MS. PANDITH: I agree. Yeah.
MS. BENTON: Absolutely outstanding. I think this is going to conclude our session here, but it’s been fascinating –
MR. CLEMONS: Well, it was a really cool, Cheryl.
MS. BENTON: (Laughter.) It’s been fascinating. Look for upcoming conversations. They’ll be coming on, on – we’ll be talking about START, ending global hunger and global AIDS. We hope that the series will continue to inform citizens about the Administration’s efforts to address the challenges of the 21st century.
Thank you all for joining us. Thank you, Steven. Thank you, Farah.
The transcript – please look for the transcript. It will be available shortly on state.gov. We look forward to engaging you with you again very, very soon. Thank you, again.
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