x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Envoy Pandith pledges to be a good listener

The woman charged with building bridges to the Muslim world is seen as a skilled networker, not prone to lecturing or talking down to others.

WASHINGTON // The special envoy appointed to lead the Obama administration's effort to reach out to the Muslim world said this week that her approach would be based on a simple diplomatic tool: listening. "There is no one bullet that is going to fix everything; there is not one programme that is going to be the magic programme to engage with Muslims. It's really listening. It's really understanding what's taking place on the ground," Farah Pandith, who was appointed last week to be the first special representative to Muslim communities, said in a briefing with reporters. "It's finding opportunities through our embassies to get to know what others are saying and thinking and dreaming and believing."

In what amounted to her official introduction, Ms Pandith struck rhetorical tones similar to those favoured by her new boss, Barack Obama, who has sought to distance himself from unilateral policies of the Bush administration. The very appointment of a high-level state department official focused on communicating with Muslims, many analysts said, indicates a new commitment to dialogue. But Ms Pandith, 41, does not represent a clean break from the Bush years. She served three years on George W Bush's National Security Council, where she was responsible for "co-ordinating US policy on Muslim world outreach", according to a description of her responsibilities released by the state department.

And while many Middle East analysts have praised her appointment, some have been more cautious, citing her connections to an unpopular administration. Mustapha Tlili, who worked with Ms Pandith at a conference on Muslim youth in 2007, said her experience under Mr Bush remains a "question mark". "My hope is that she brings to the new function a different discourse than the one she used during the Bush administration," he said, nevertheless describing Ms Pandith as "well-equipped" for her new post.

But Peter Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington and a critic of Mr Bush's policies, said he believed Ms Pandith was one of the few from the Bush administration who could talk "with" people rather than "talk at them". "She is someone who brings a level of sophistication but also respect for other people's opinions," said Mr Singer, who worked with Ms Pandith in his role as director of Brookings' project on US policy towards the Islamic world. "She is going to stand up for her own beliefs, but she doesn't do it in this kind of arrogant, cocksure manner that defined the last eight years."

Ms Pandith, a Muslim, was born in Kashmir Province. She emigrated to the US as a child and was raised by her parents in New England. She was president of her class in high school and at Smith College in Massachusetts. In the 1990s, Ms Pandith worked for the US Agency for International Development. She returned to the agency in 2004 for a two-month stint in Kabul. In 2007, she was tapped by the state department to lead US outreach to Muslims in Europe.

Some of those who know Ms Pandith describe her as a skilled networker who never appears to be lecturing or talking down to others. Andrew Hess, her former professor at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, said he was impressed with her ability to engage with students from different cultures. "She liked to talk about and discuss the issues that divided the students and work in some way to bridge them," he said. "I am not surprised that she has gone as far forward as she has in Washington."

The decision to appoint a woman for the post meshes with the administration's broader goal of promoting women's rights in Muslim countries. Mr Obama has sought to bolster the status of Muslim women, most recently by praising the "courageous women" protesting in the streets of Tehran. Daisy Khan, the executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement in New York, said the appointment "clearly indicates that a Muslim woman has the same entitlement as her male counterparts".

"She will be a role model for others who aspire to be in key political positions," said Ms Khan, who has worked with Ms Pandith. In her briefing on Wednesday, Ms Pandith described her new position as "historic". But it remains to be seen how effectively she can carry out a job with enormous responsibilities and no precedent in Washington. Some have wondered whether a job description that calls for improving relations with the world's 1.2 billion Muslims is too ambitious.

Ms Pandith did not specify how she planned to enhance dialogue with Muslims and skirted key foreign policy questions, such as whether continued support for Israel could harm perceptions of the US in the Arab world. She referred such matters to George Mitchell, the special envoy to the Middle East, and said her role was to focus on dialogue, not politics. The job requires a "nuanced" approach, she said, noting that she plans to focus the outreach on young Muslims. New initiatives could include anything from town hall-style meetings to community projects, all co-ordinated through various US embassies abroad. "We have to be able to build bridges of dialogue. It's critically important."

sstanek@thenational.ae