By Nilofar Suhrawardy, MMNS India Correspondent
NEW DELHI: Farah Pandith, United Statesâ€™ first Special Representative to Muslim Communities, was here on a four-day visit to apparently â€œwin overâ€ the Indian Muslims and improve President Barack Obama administrationâ€™s image among them. Farah has come and gone (Feb 16-19), leaving many questions unanswered about the role such visits can really play in improving United Statesâ€™ image among the Indian Muslims. Asserting that her visit was â€œnot a popularity contest,â€ Farah said that it was an â€œeffort to engage with people and strike partnerships to find a common ground of interest for the common good of all.â€
Farah, an American of Indian origin, was born in Kashmir. It was her first visit to India as an US Special Representative, a new position created by Obama administration to improve Washingtonâ€™s image in the Muslim world and also to actively â€œlisten and respondâ€ to their concerns in Europe, Africa and Asia. Sworn to this position last year on September 15, Farah has visited 12 other countries, including Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Iraq and Kuwait. Her visits are a part of Obama administrations to reach out to Muslims dominated by â€œpropaganda, stereotypes and inaccurate generalizationsâ€ about Washington. This is the message Farah conveyed during her addresses in New Delhi at Jamia Millia Islamia University and India Islamic Cultural Center (IICC).
Farah played her part in displaying her consciousness about her religious identity as a Muslim and also in fulfilling the responsibility assigned to her in reaching out to Muslims across the world. She kept her head bowed as a cleric recited from the holy Quran at the function held at IICC. Farah began her brief address with the traditional Muslim greeting: â€œAsalaam Alaikum.â€ It was President Obamaâ€™s â€œvision to build partnerships with Muslim communities across the globe on the basis of mutual interest and mutual respect,â€ she said. â€œI repeat that it is based on mutual interest and respect and I extend my hand of friendship and partnership with you,â€ she asserted.
Highlighting the significance of her position, Farah said: â€œNever before America had an envoy for Muslim communities. This is the first time an envoy for the Muslims was appointed. My job is to work with our embassies worldwide to engage with the Muslim communities and focus strongly on the new generation.â€ â€œSecretary (Hillary) Clinton has asked me to engage with Muslim communities around the world at the grassroots level, and to build and extend partnerships through the US embassies in both Muslim-majority and Muslim-minority countries. I have to look at out-of-the-box ways to engage, based on mutual respect. That is my job, my mandate,â€ she said.
â€œWith one-fourth of the worldâ€™s population that is Muslim, of course our country (United States) wants to do as much as we can to build partnerships across the board,â€ Farah stated. â€œWe can and we want to extend the partnership in a very strong way that will allow us to develop long-term relationship with Muslims all over the world,â€ she said.
Drawing attention to Islam being practiced in United States and the diversity there, Farah pointed to having learned reading holy Quran at a mosque there. She also tried convincing the audience that she was â€œthis was not an effort to increase popularity of America by a few percentage points.â€ Nevertheless, while interacting with Indian Muslim leaders, she pointed to Obama administration being serious about working closely with Islamic world. This, she said, was marked by appointment of Indian born Rashid Hussain as envoy for the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC). Obamaâ€™s advisory council for faith also includes Eboo Patel, an Indian-American Muslim from Chicago.
The US government can act as a â€œconvener, facilitator and intellectual partnerâ€ and help forge partnerships on basis of common ideas and common goals, the benefits of which will be useful not only for Muslims, but everyone, Farah said. Elaborating on her mission to reach out to the young generation, she pointed out that 45 percent of the world population is under the age of 30. â€œI will focus more on the young generation in Muslim world and I want to understand the diversity of Islam in different countries and communities as well,â€ she said.
Though Farah expressed that she was â€œinterested in talking to the Facebook generation, the youth,â€ she evaded questions posed at Jamia University on United Statesâ€™ foreign policy on issues that have bothered Muslims across the world. To a question regarding Israel-Palestine, she said: â€œThat is not my job. I am not George Mitchell (US Mideast envoy).â€ On Washingtonâ€™s policy regarding West Asia and Pakistan, Farah replied: â€œI am not Richard Holbrooke (US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan). Itâ€™s not my job to work on Kashmir or Pakistan.â€
Irrespective of whether Farah succeeds in improving image of Obama administration among the Muslims, her own identity has certainly played some part in compelling the world to revise the stereotyped image they have of Muslim women. The Obama administration is apparently hopeful that Farahâ€™s image as a â€œmodern Muslimâ€ will help win over the young generation. Suggesting this, Farah said: â€œThis generation is having to navigate through that and understand what it means to be modern and Muslim and also is really searching for a way to be connected.â€