State Department’s ‘Conversations with America’

July 12, 2010 By Eric Peckham

On Friday morning, the State Department hosted a discussion on the Obama Administration’s outreach to Muslim communities across the world between Steven Clemons of the New America Foundation and Farah Pandith, the Department’s Special Representative on the issue. The conversation shed light on the important role that the government’s face-to-face engagement plays in promoting “mutual respect and mutual understanding” abroad. As Special Representative Pandith expressed, her work centers around educating people abroad, as well as in the US, on the great diversity of cultures and beliefs within the amorphous “Muslim world.” Treating the well over one billion Muslims in the world as a single entity creates a mentality where “there’s an us and there’s a them” as two separate and incompatible groups, leading to greatly mistaken views that the small minority of extremists on both “sides” who get media attention represent the whole, Pandith said.

It’s this diversity within Islam that Pandith says people need to be more aware of, for it not only creates more educated policies in the West and reduces intolerance, but it also provides Muslim communities with examples of how other Muslims are approaching societal issues and retaining their religion within different cultures. She went on to emphasize that this public diplomacy and the development projects that accompany it are essential to combating terrorism and oppression, which military action can only weaken temporarily, saying that we need “a dual-track situation where we’re working on hard core foreign policy issues, but we’re also working to increase the opportunity in terms of economic aid, in terms of development, in terms of innovation and entrepreneurship being used as tools…”.