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A New Beginning

A New BeginningAs U.S. Special Representative to Muslim Communities, Fletcher graduate Farah Pandith is working to improve relations between the U.S. and the Muslim world.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [03.24.10] On June 4, 2009, President Barack Obama stood before the people of Cairo, Egypt, to discuss his plan for "a new beginning" for America's relationship with Muslims-not just in the Middle East, but around the world. Leading the charge of that new beginning is Fletcher School graduate Farah Pandith (F'95).

Two weeks after the president's speech, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton appointed Pandith on June 23 as the first Special Representative to Muslim Communities, with the goal of building a solid relationship with the world's Muslim population that is "based on mutual interest and respect."

"The office was established to consolidate this approach here at the State Department and work with our embassies globally on engaging with Muslims," Pandith says. "Everything that I'm doing is community-oriented. It's grassroots, on a people-to-people level."

Working with partners on the ground all over the world, Pandith's office has talked with students and NGOs, as well as community and faith-based leaders, to learn about the problems they are facing and what they can do together to solve them.

"We're looking very specifically at the next generation-45 percent of the world's population is under the age of 30," she says. "We're thinking about ways in which we can engage, especially using tools of new media. We really want to be in spaces where we're connecting to young people, so that we can help move their ideas from a local level onto an international stage."

Prior to this position, Pandith acted as the senior advisor to the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs and also served as the director for Middle East regional initiatives for the National Security Council. According to Pandith, being a part of The Fletcher School community in the early 1990s was an important growth experience.

"I was exposed to issues I never would have been exposed to before, I had a student body that was diverse and very charged with passion and energy so that the classroom discussions were very robust and really exciting," she says. "It helped me to be a better leader, it helped me to be a more innovative thinker, and most importantly, it allowed me, even today, to draw on a network of exceptional professionals around the world that all share that common experience."

Pandith says her office is reaching out to Muslims in both countries where they form the majority of the population and where they are a minority. Since September, she has traveled to 15 such countries around the world, from Kazakhstan to Malaysia to Iraq, where there has been great interest about forming more positive relationships with America and Americans.

"It's important to say that this is not a quick win, this is not a popularity contest. We're engaging in something that is long-term that requires us to be patient and to invest in relationship building," she says. "You don't build relationships overnight, it takes time, and that is a challenge."

Story by Kaitlin Provencher, Web Communications.
Photos by Matthew Herbert.


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