Engaging Muslims in the 21st Century

Special Representative to Muslim Communities U.S. Department of State

I will never forget walking into the Treaty Room on the seventh floor of the State Department on Sept. 15, 2009. It was not my first time in this room, but on that day, it was different. It was filled with dear friends – several from high school and college – family, close colleagues and mentors. They were standing shoulder-to-shoulder amid the cameras and protocol personnel. Many had wide grins, others had tears glistening in their eyes. My mother and brother were by my side as I raised my right hand. My mom held her Holy Qur’an – the one we had used in my home throughout my childhood – and smiled at me. I placed my left hand on the Holy Qur’an and I repeated the oath that all public servants – soldiers, civil servants, diplomats and elected officials – take when they commit to serving our nation. “I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same…”

Two weeks after President Barack Obama gave his historic speech in Cairo, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appointed me to be the first Special Representative to Muslim Communities. I was humbled to be asked, proud as ever to serve my nation and determined to do my best to advance the vision the president outlined on the steps of the U.S. Capitol at his inauguration, in Turkey and in Egypt on June 4, 2009. The speech in Cairo laid the foundation for the manner in which America, our entire government (domestic and foreign focused departments) would proceed into the future. The president called on us all – public servants, civil society and private citizens alike – to engage based on mutual interest, mutual respect and mutual responsibility.

And we have answered the call in new and innovative ways, including Partners for a New Beginning (PNB), the Global Entrepreneurship Program and new areas of science and technology cooperation. PNB, launched by Secretary Clinton, brings together private-sector leaders committed to building public-private partnerships in Muslim communities around the world to advance economic opportunity, science and technology, education and exchange to help advance the vision President Obama expressed in his Cairo speech. Science and Technology Cooperation Agreements help to facilitate meaningful bilateral scientific engagement and collaboration. The United States has signed 11 such agreements with Muslim-majority countries. The Global Entrepreneurship Program seeks to ensure that there is a coordinated, holistic approach to supporting entrepreneurs in-country by assembling domestic and international partners around six areas of activity essential to an entrepreneurial ecosystem. These programs are just a taste of the administration’s innovating new outreach programs in addition to its traditional diplomatic efforts. The Office of the Special Representative to Muslim Communities is also new.

My mandate at the U.S. Department of State is to work with our embassies around the world to create new opportunities to build stronger relationships, enhance our focus on new tools and innovative ideas, and increase our understanding and attention to the next generation of Muslims around the world.


This is a unique moment in history. How we choose to engage now will make a difference to generations to come. The success of our foreign policy hinges on dialogue and the narrative we create today. This means dialogue with all communities, some that have always had a seat at the table, others that have not.

Governments and their people are faced with enormous challenges, ones that constantly remind us of our interconnectedness. We know that the actions of one man in Florida can affect the lives of soldiers in Iraq and the perception of America in Indonesia. We recognize that none of these issues – justice, human rights, climate change, education, etc. – will be solved by one person, one group or one country, and similarly no person, group or country can be alienated as we find solutions. This is the new reality of the 21st century.

I have spent the past 14 months traveling to more than 30 countries, listening, engaging and seeking partners committed to building a better world. The U.S. government recognizes that in a world where Muslims make up nearly one-fourth of humanity, we must raise the voices of those who are taking positive actions to strengthen their communities. The president and secretary of state are committed to finding people of all faiths, races and backgrounds to be our intellectual partners and on-the-ground changemakers as we tackle a multitude of issues.

My job is to recognize the realities of the 21st century and shift our outlook to match this moment. Approximately 1.6 billion people on our planet are Muslim, and approximately 62 percent of Muslims are under the age of 30; more Muslims live outside the Middle East than in it. These are the facts that shape our work. I lead the efforts for grass-roots Muslim engagement around the world; I explore opportunities for the U.S. government to use its strength to be the convener, facilitator and intellectual partner with communities at the local level; I work to highlight the voices and positive actions of a rapidly growing world demographic; I build networks of people, across traditional boundaries, whose positive messages and actions can be magnified and amplified by connecting them with like-minded thinkers.

In this new era of engagement, dialogue and diplomacy cannot and should not be done solely by government representatives. It must include a keen understanding of and partnership with civil society at the grass-roots level. On my travels, I work with embassies to meet with community groups, non-governmental organizations, schools, entrepreneurs, journalists, bloggers and civil society leaders big and small. We seek out new faces and voices in every country I visit. There are stories to be told. Muslims around the world are diverse. They have different traditions, cultures and viewpoints. Islam is not a monolith. Mutual respect means treating Muslims and people of all faiths and backgrounds with dignity and building mutual respect among people of all faiths.

How we engage based on our understanding of this growing youth demographic will be one of the hallmarks of this century. This is especially true in Muslim communities. Nearly two-thirds of Muslims are young people, and by 2025, youth will make up approximately one-third of the world. Why do we care? Things are happening among the youth populations – big things! A young man in India has started a nonprofit that has impacted millions of people. A young Olympian in Suriname is giving back to her community through sports camps in Paramaribo slums. We must harness that energy of youth to solve the pressing challenges of today and tomorrow.

Simultaneously, young Muslims around the world are grappling with identity issues. Sound bites and images are shaping the conversation about the Muslim faith. Groups are defining Islam in the context of “us and them.” We need to create a narrative that brings forth all the positive actions taken by young Muslims in science, technology, arts, media, business, philanthropy and beyond. These new messages will help counteract negative messages and empower other young people.

In all my travels, the places, people and cultures are diverse, but there is one thing that is always the same: Young Muslims are trying to figure out where they fit in the 21st century. What does it mean to be modern and Muslim? What is the difference between culture and religion? These people need support and education as they navigate their identity. Young people are casting about looking for answers. Foreign ideologies are infiltrating communities around the world and are underscored by stories they hear on television or the Internet. We are partnering with, supporting and listening to young people as they mature. We are highlighting the stories of young “doers” who are taking action, solving problems and working together to develop their communities in creative ways. These are the people we must look to to change the narrative, to be the leaders among their peers and the next generation. If we do not seize this moment, this opportunity, to recognize and encourage this portion of society, we cannot expect to overcome some of humanity’s most pressing problems.

The time to connect is now. People around the world, in metropolitan cities and rural villages, are connecting with each other and with a world that seems to be shrinking by the minute. We live on a planet with 5.6 billion cell phones and a virtual nation – Facebook – that is larger than most countries on the planet. We are adding 21st century tools to our diplomatic toolbox. Through technology, we can connect an imam working for peace in Nigeria with a young community leader in Pakistan and amplify their message for the world to hear. We have seen the Internet’s power of bringing people together online to take action offline. In Egypt, women are using SMS and Twitter to report instances of harassment through a site called Harrasmap, which creates a digital map of Cairo to show hotspots and areas that might be dangerous for women to walk alone.

I am meeting with bloggers, online activists and viral campaigners to understand how they are successfully using the Internet to mobilize their peers for good. The reality is that more and more people, including Muslims, are using the Internet for education and connecting with other likeminded people. I am working to expand the online dialogue and increase the virtual presence of Muslims who want to connect with others to build a peaceful, just and prosperous future.

This Ramadan, just before the iftar that Secretary Clinton hosted at the State Department, we launched Generation Change: a group of 75 young American Muslim entrepreneurs, designers, poets, comedians, writers, philanthropists, filmmakers and politicians. These leaders – most of them under the age of 30 – came together to discuss major issues that face this generation of Muslims, including identity, education about Islam and foreign affairs. One young man named Imran Hafiz, co-author of The American Muslim Teenager’s Handbook, wrote me an e-mail after the iftar: “Within 15 minutes, I found myself sitting next to people whose works I had read, poetry I had heard, and films I had seen. . . . They have the power to facilitate change, the energy and resources of youth, and were finally given the opportunity for collaboration.” Their excitement was contagious – their ideas overflowed. This year, the State Department is taking this model – bringing together the best and the brightest – to every region of the world. All the active young people I met this past year and those I will meet going forward will be a part of Generation Change. These are the people who are making a positive impact in their communities, changing the narrative and the way we interact globally, and leading us to a more brilliant future.

It has been about a year since I stood in the Treaty Room and repeated the solemn oath to serve my country. In this year, we have begun what Secretary Clinton laid out in my swearing-in ceremony: We are finding ways to build common bonds, increase dialogue and advance positive action with one-fourth of humanity. In every corner of the world, there are young leaders who are doing incredible things to make the world, our world, a place primed for future generations. We must do all that we can to listen to their voices and build partnerships. This is the moment. We have much to look forward to! §

Farah Pandith serves as the Special Representative to Muslim Communities. Her office is responsible for executing Secretary Clinton’s vision for engagement with Muslims around the world on a peopleto- people and organizational level. She reports directly to the Secretary of State.

“To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”
president barack obama, inauguration speech, january 2009

“I’ve come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap and share common principles – principles of justice and progress, tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.”
president obama, cairo university, june 4, 2009

“Our nation seeks a new beginning with Muslims around the world. . . . It’s a relationship that requires us to listen, share ideas and find areas of common ground in order to expand a peaceful, prosperous future. . . . It is apparent, now more than ever, that we have to do more to promote dialogue and diplomacy.”
secretary of state hillary rodham clinton, sept. 15, 2009

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