At the State Department: New America’s Steve Clemons and Special Rep. to Muslim Communities Farah Pandith Discuss the Notion of “Muslim Community”

The State Department’s “Conversations with America” is, according to the Washington Note, designed to provide “an opportunity for [State Department officials] to discuss a range of issues, important issues with people within the United States and around the world.”

In a conversation at the State Department, Steve Clemons from the New America Foundation and the Washington Note sat down with the Special Representative fo Muslim Communities, Farah Pandith, for a dialogue on engagement with the Muslim community.

First and foremost, both Farah and Steve urged people to go beyond the notion of the “Muslim Community” (although her title doesn’t do so…) and see Muslims as a diverse group of people with different desires, cultural backgrounds and ideologies.

“I am extremely optimistic about what’s possible and the energy and passion of young people,” he said of the youth in engaging the Muslim community. While most see it as monolithic, the State Department has made it its goal to go beyond the cookie cutter image.

Farah noted that a vast majority of Muslims live outside of the Middle East and in Western countries, so the notion of the “Muslim World” vs. the “West” is an error in and of itself. She said Muslims are represented in most, if not all, forms of the federal government in the U.S.

One issue that has created this divide with the “Muslim World” so to speak is the issue of Israel and Palestine. Because some groups in the Middle East have strong feelings against Israel for one reason or another, they also associate those feelings with the United States although the U.S. doesn’t always agree or support Israel’s actions.

“People have high expectations of the President,” Steve said of Obama’s treatment of the Israel/Palestinian conflict.

Farah said this question comes up ALL the time: “It’s not just a Muslim question–it’s a human question. They’re watching carefully to see how negotiations are going. I think there’s no doubt that this is a priority to the President—there’s an envoy to the Middle East. But you cannot push fast something that’s taking time to develop.”

While the White House can create special envoys to address different Middle Eastern relationships, she said it’s also the responsibility of other organizations (Education, Health, Economic, etc) to build those bridges too. Clemons cited Tomorrow’s Youth Organization and the Cherie Blair Foundation as two examples.

Farah said the media should also do its part in representing Muslim groups that aren’t radical or show animosity towards the West.

“There are 1.4 billion Muslims, and a vast majority of them are not represented in mainstream media,” she said. She discussed a number of examples of Muslim groups working towards change in their communities, including a youth radio station that aims to push back against violent extremism.

Since 9/11, it’s true that certain Muslim communities felt isolated or targeted because of their beliefs, and those feelings reemerged when a Mosque was going to be built near Ground Zero in New York City. Clemons said because this tension still exists in some pockets of the country, it’s important for the U.S. to have an action program for Muslim communities in the U.S.

“I am more free as a Muslim here to talk about my faith in America than anywhere else,” Farah noted.

Farah noted an initiative that would fit into the communications, government and nongovernmental efforts to rethink engagement with Muslims in America. She said the State Department is developing a timeline of engagement with Muslims that details different initiatives and speeches promoting Muslim equality by past presidents and officials.

Farah noted that despite the common perception that Muslims have not condemned acts of violence against the U.S., many groups have spoken widely against religious extremism.

“Muslims are trying very hard to push away from those narratives,” she said.

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