“No matter where in the world I’ve been, no matter what country or community I’ve been [to], [I’ve found that] this generation is having a hard time navigating their identity. What does it mean to be modern and Muslim? What is the difference between culture and religion?” Pandith said. Her position was created following US President Barack Obama’s Cairo speech almost one-and-a-half years ago, in which he reached out to Muslims around the globe.
Pandith has become the first person to serve in this role executing US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's vision for engagement with the Muslim communities around the world.
We started our interview in November at the Halifax International Security Forum in Canada. She has been on the road since then and answered our remaining questions despite her hectic schedule.
How has your engagement with Muslim communities around the world been going?
This is an unprecedented moment in time. We have a president and a secretary of state that is committed to Muslim communities around the world – Muslims in Muslim majority countries as well as Muslims who live as minorities. We are thinking about how important it is to engage 1.6 billion Muslims, and we are working with our embassies in every part of the world to do that and work on building partnerships based on what the president said in Cairo: mutual interest and mutual respect. In the past 12 months, I've been to more than 30 countries around the world and I'm engaging on a people-to-people level. Everything I do is grassroots and community-based. Also, Secretary Clinton has asked me to focus on the youth demographic.
You have visited many Muslim communities around the world, as you said. What commonalities do you find? Are there shared aspirations between those people regardless of whether they live in Europe, Asia or the Middle East?
It's a really good question. We have to first remember how important it is to think about and respect differences that exist. Muslims are not a monolith; there are differences. That's an effort I am undertaking and I'm making sure that we are being sensitive to the culture, environment and history of the many different people that we are meeting around the world, and that we are not putting everybody into one box. That's first and foremost. But secondly, I just told you that I am focusing on young people under the age of 30.
Yes, could you explain why you are doing this?
The reason that I'm doing that is that most Muslims are under the age of 30. That generation has been raised in a very different context globally in the last 10 years. Your question is important: Are there things that you see in common? Yes. You see a generation that, despite their differences around the world, is really eager to take part in a global conversation. You see a generation that, unlike any generation before, is connected because of social media and the capacity of technology. So a young person who is in Surinam can go on Facebook and interface with somebody in Malaysia. These young people are eager to put their ideas on the table as equal partners in a global conversation and to work for the common good. I think that's a huge opportunity. As you think about how to activate these young people for the common good, you also see something very important, and that is that no matter where in the world I've been, no matter what country or community, I've found that this generation is having a hard time navigating their identity.
‘I was very moved by Turkey’s history, and the passion of its young people’
What are those questions that they ask themselves?
What does it mean to be modern and Muslim? What is the difference between culture and religion? This is important because the conversation, the narrative that is taking place globally has to take into account that young people are working through this navigation of their identity and it's important that we put positive voices into the narrative.
You mentioned how they take part in the global conversation by signing on to Facebook or using other tools made available by technology. On your business card, you have Facebook and Twitter addresses. Do you find yourself communicating with those young Muslim people around the world?
If Facebook were a nation, it would be one of the largest nations in the world. More and more people are able to engage with one another on the Internet. They find out what their peers are thinking, they get ideas from other people. We have to be in that space. It's so important to Secretary Clinton that she has a senior advisor for innovation who is focused on 21st century statecraft, the digital diplomacy. In many parts of the State Department, people are interfacing with Twitter and Facebook and other social media. We do it to be more transparent, to be more active, to listen to people. You asked me about my Twitter account and Facebook accounts. Yes, I absolutely interface with people. I get ideas. People ask me questions. When I go to a particular country, I tell them: “Hey, I'm going to Bangladesh. Who should I meet?” People tweet me back and tell me about interesting people and groups to see in that country.
As you know, more than 60 percent of Turkey's population is under the age of 30. When you were in Turkey in June you had meetings. What have you learned about today's young generation in Turkey?
I was very moved by Turkey's history, and the passion and energy of its young people. I had a meeting with young entrepreneurs. I was happy to meet with many of the social media and technology entrepreneurs. They are not only taking part in the global conversation, they are a sophisticated part of that conversation. Also about importance of identity, in Turkey and every other country I have been to, young people are thinking about identity and where they fit in.
‘On 9/11, a terrorist organization tried to define Islam’
You've traveled a lot and you continue to travel and have contacts with Muslims in different countries? Do you find that they feel alienated in the aftermath of 9/11?
I have traveled to over 30 countries and each one is unique. From Maldives to Mauritania everyone has different ideas and cultures. The one commonality in all the places I have visited is a search for identity, especially amongst young people. On 9/11, a terrorist organization tried to define Islam, but the definitions it used -- violence and "us versus them" -- is not what the majority of the 1.6 billion Muslims around the planet use to define themselves.
Do you now have a better understanding of what Muslim communities want than you did a year and a half ago when you were appointed?
The topic I have heard come up in every country is the issue of identity. What does it mean to be modern and Muslim? Young people are asking this question in person and online. Through my travels I try to connect people together. If I meet a social entrepreneur in Stockholm and I know someone with the same idea in Dhaka, I can connect them virtually and highlight the great work that they are doing.
Have you reported back yet to Hillary Clinton? What would you be able to share with us regarding those reports and what you will do next?
Secretary Clinton gets a report of each of my trips. One of the major initiatives that has come from my trips and that we launched in connection with Secretary Clinton's iftar in September is called Generation Change. We brought together young Muslims from across America who are doing amazing things to make positive change in their communities, and we are now working with our embassies to hold similar events around the world with some of the best young social entrepreneurs.