A Voice For Understanding

The first US special representative to Muslim communities, Farah Pandith ’90 has worked to build relationships with Muslims everywhere and break down cultural barriers and stereotypes

by Linda Kramer Jenning ’72


Farah Pandith ’90 had just finished her prayers on the sand floor of the Chinguetti Mosque in Mauritania last April when the imam Farah Pandith ’90 is the first US special representative to Muslim communities. approached and offered to take her to the top of the minaret. She began to follow him up the stairs of the mosque’s square towerthat has soared over the Sahara Desert for seven centuries, not realizing that with every step she took, she got closer to making history for women.
Pandith had come to the oasis city of Chinguetti, a medieval trading center and UNESCO World Heritage site, as the Department of State’s first special representative to Muslim communities. After meeting with local citizens and faith leaders, she then went to see the historic mosque. Its tower, capped by four pedestals each with a stone ostrich egg, is considered the second-oldest minaret in continuous use anywhere in the Muslim world. Only after Pandith had finished admiring the view and come back down, did the imam tell her that she was the first woman in history to have been allowed to ascend the minaret’s ancient stairs and stand at the top.
“I said, ‘What do you mean ‘in history’?” recalls Pandith. “When he said we’re going to record this in the ancient archive, which has documents dating back thousands of years, it kind of really hit home: Wow. I felt profoundly humble. It was a very special moment for me.”
Pandith shared the story while sitting in her office during one of the rare weeks when she is not on the road. Since Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appointed her to the newly created position of special representative to Muslim communities, Pandith has visited 26 countries. Her mission takes her beyond embassy walls to meet with Muslims of all ages and backgrounds to listen to their views and look for grassroots initiatives the United States might help support. “There are 1.6 billion Muslims on the planet. That is one fourth of the world’s population,” says Pandith, adding that the majority live outside the Middle East. “What we do today is going to make a difference to what we reap tomorrow. We have to build bridges at a time of non crisis so we have relationships in a time of crisis.”
“It is apparent now more than ever that we have to do more to promote dialogue and diplomacy,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at Pandith’s swearing-in ceremony on September 21, 2009. “Farah will play a key role in that process for us. . . . We have established this new office of the special representative to make sure that we are fully engaged.”
For Pandith, that means doing a lot of traveling and a lot of listening. Her job is not necessarily to make everyone like America but to advance the goal of “mutual interest and mutual respect” President Obama outlined in his 2009 Cairo speech. She embraces her portfolio with visible enthusiasm, talking rapid fire about the young Muslims she has met in different countries and her appreciation of the identity struggles they face and the need to overcome hurtful stereotypes that she, too, has encountered as a practicing Muslim. “I think about the challenges the world has right now as we talk about issues of diversity, integration, and assimilation, as we talk about fear of the other, which is happening all over the planet,” she says. “Even though you may be different, you must respect the other. That’s who we are, that’s what our nation stands for.”
A focus on understanding and celebrating diversity has been a constant thread in the journey that led Pandith to her role on the world stage—and she says that journey is about Smith and how a girl who came to this country as an immigrant from India learned that she could make a difference.
Pandith arrived in Boston with her family from Kashmir on July 4, 1969. Her mother, Mehbooba Anwar, from a conservative Muslim family, overcame many obstacles to become a doctor, and then followed her husband to the United States. They later divorced and she raised her son and daughter as a single parent. “She was my role model,” says Pandith. “She said the only thing I can give you is an education. I cannot give you a fortune.”
Growing up in Milton, outside of Boston, there were few Muslims, and most of Pandith’s friends were Catholic and Jewish. She jokes about how many bar mitzvahs and masses she attended and says her friends always respected her traditions, like not drinking alcohol or eating pork. When she graduated from Milton Academy and arrived at Smith in the mid-80s, she continued to reach out across cultures. “She didn’t want to be put in that slot as the Muslim woman on campus,” says Alison Radecki ’89. “She’s got this great ability to bring people together. She has a positive aura. Like our group in Gillett, we looked at the differences to learn; we didn’t look at the differences to exclude. She can always find the common ground. That’s one of her strongest suits and that will help her succeed in what she’s doing.”
Radecki recalls long evenings fueled by pizza and falafel as she and Pandith talked about their family backgrounds, their different religions, and their classes. Like many intense Smithies, they also enjoyed the occasional practical joke. “She would steal my clothes. Once she stole my underwear and froze it,” says Radecki.
Pandith, who double-majored in government and psychology, ran successfully for student senate her first year and remained in elected office throughout all four years. She could not have anticipated how that leadership would be tested when she took the helm of the student government association at one of the most challenging periods on campus.
In the spring of 1989, a note was found on the door of a woman of color in Chapin House. The racist screed sparked campus-wide outrage in the midst of a series of racial incidents on East Coast campuses that included a cross burning on the front lawn of Amherst College. Mary Maples Dunn, then president of Smith, closed the school down for the first time in college history to have a full day of discussion about what had happened. Pandith spoke at the gathering in John M. Greene Hall. “It was my trial by fire,” recalls Pandith. “We ended up out of that horrible event pulling together as a community and deciding that we needed to do something to build a positive future for Smith.” The result was the creation of a special day to celebrate diversity named after Otelia Cromwell, the first woman of African American descent to graduate from Smith. The annual celebration, now in its twenty-second year, will be held on October 26, 2010.
“You could tell right away that Farah had leadership handwritten large in her desires and personality and capacity,” says Provost Susan Bourque, who had Pandith in her government classes. “She was someone who wanted to instill in others, and in other women in particular, their own belief in their own agency—that even though one might see discrimination or structures of subordination, that there were ways for women to exercise control over their own lives and improve their own lives and those of the next generation.”
Pandith’s next test of leadership came the following fall when as SGA president she was called on to speak at Convocation. The campus atmosphere remained fragile after the racial incidents of the year before, and Pandith decided to focus her speech on celebrating how diversity makes the community stronger. Sitting near her on stage, Pandith recalls, was then First Lady Barbara Pierce Bush ’47, who had been invited to talk. “Mrs. Bush leaned over to me after the speech and she said, ‘I really liked that speech.’ The next day the White House called and said we’re wondering if we can have a copy of it.” Pandith promptly faxed one.
Barbara Bush would go on to quote from Pandith’s speech regularly over the coming years, including at her well-publicized commencement address to Wellesley in 1990. Nearing her own graduation that year, Pandith wrote the first lady seeking career counsel and was invited to the White House to meet with Bush’s chief of staff. It also was the beginning of a correspondence (handwritten, of course) between the two Smithies that continues to this day.
“I remember my resume right out of Smith,” says Pandith. “It was four pages of head of this organization, head of that organization. I looked back at that and Smith gave me the chance to lead. Smith is critical because it gave me the capacity to learn from others, to build teams, to understand how to effect change, to listen to diverse opinions.”
Pandith quickly put those skills to use, landing her first job (with a lead from Mrs. Bush’s office) at the United States Agency for International Development. She went on to the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy where her studies focused on Islamic civilizations. “I was fascinated about the impact of Islamic civilizations on the modern world and foreign policy,” she says. After finishing her master’s degree in 1995, she became vice president for international business at ML Strategies, a Boston consulting firm. She was working there on September 11, 2001.
“When 9/11 happened, I went to my boss,” Pandith recalls. “I said, ‘I am Muslim and I am American, and I’m not going to have some guy living in a cave in Afghanistan define my religion. Surely there is something I can do to help our nation at this moment in time.”’
She ended up back at the United States Agency for International Development, this time as chief of staff for the East Asian bureau and then carving out a role in the White House under President George W. Bush, focusing on Muslim engagement for the National Security Council. That led Ambassador Dan Fried to bring her over to the State Department, where he created a new position for her as senior adviser on Muslims in Western Europe. “There are 25 million Muslims in Western Europe,” says Pandith. “I went to fifty-five cities in seventeen months and understood the complexity and nuances of those communities and tried to build relationships.”
She has been confronted by other American Muslims who ask how she can work for the government and she often faces the stereotypes of Islam. Nonetheless, she says, “the vast majority of people are respectful. I’ve been watching these issues in a post-9/11world, and I’m seeing a lot more push back from others not to paint everybody with the same brush and to be respectful and be distinctive, to hear the other perspective.”
She planned to leave the government in 2009 to write a book on violent extremist ideology and what more could be done worldwide to deal with these issues. But when she briefed new Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about her work in Europe, Clinton asked her to stay on and expand her portfolio to work with all Muslim communities overseas. At that initial briefing, Pandith also talked to Clinton about the power of women’s education. The secretary turned to her and said, “You’re a Smithie!” Recalls Pandith, “She put her hand up and gave me a high five.”
“Secretary Clinton smartly recognized what a great asset she is, which I think says a lot about us women college graduates,” says Julianna Smoot ’89, who worked with Pandith on student government at Smith. Smoot, who was President Obama’s campaign finance director (see SAQ, Fall 2008) and now is White House social secretary, noted how unusual it is for an appointee from a previous administration to be kept on by the new one. “There is nobody better than Farah to do this job,” Smoot says.
Philippe Reines, senior adviser to the secretary and deputy assistant secretary of state, adds that Clinton “holds Farah in the highest regard.”
“She brings years of experience to the job and is playing a key role on one of our most important priorities, exactly as the secretary hoped for,” Reines says.
Pandith’s job has no road map since she is the first to do it, and she doesn’t underestimate the challenges of being a representative to Muslim communities around the world at a time when they have a highly negative view of the United States. A 2007 Pew Forum report found that solid majorities in eleven predominantly Muslim countries surveyed believed the United States could become a military threat to their country some day. In congressional testimony last March, Pew Research Center President Andrew Kohut said, “It is clear that America’s image problems in much of the Muslim world are of an enduring nature. A likely cure seems far off.”
Comments like this don’t seem to deter Pandith. She considers it her responsibility to get to know what Muslims in other countries are saying, thinking, dreaming, and believing and then find ways for the United States to act as a facilitator, convener, and intellectual partner. “By supporting efforts by Muslims themselves to expand their connectivity, get their stories highlighted globally and illustrate positive actions, we can change a perceived narrative of ‘us’ and ‘them,’” says Pandith. She meets with students and activists, faith leaders, NGOs and foundations, and, as she puts it, “everybody in between.” Conversations can range from simple information sharing to discussions about Websites or starting a new business.
Ideas generated from these conversations are recorded on a whiteboard that takes up one wall in Pandith’s office. “If you look at that,” she says, pointing to a spider web of scribbles covering the board, “each one of those little areas is a project that came directly from people that we’ll be seeding over the course of the next year.” She declined to elaborate because the ideas are still too preliminary, but she said a big component will be using online space and working with youth.
When not hopscotching among Muslim communities around the world, Pandith relishes gathering friends at her home to cook her mother’s Indian recipes for them. She also continues to make time for Smith, speaking to overseas alumnae while on a trip to Turkey in June and working with President Carol Christ and leaders of the other Seven Sisters to expand their role in connecting with young women globally.
“The journey to get here started with Smith,” Pandith says, gesturing around her State Department office, where a couple of camel saddles decorate a corner. “I feel as though I couldn’t have a better job in the world than something I’m so passionate about at this moment in our nation’s history.”
Fall ’10 SAQ