Farah Pundith: US soft power ambassador

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Ayesha Alam

Jumada' al-Ula' 20, 1434 2013-04-01

News & Analysis

by Ayesha Alam (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 42, No. 2, Jumada' al-Ula', 1434)

The west in general and the US in particular use mercenary Muslims to justify their criminally aggressive policies. Farah Pundith is the latest recruit in this policy of pacification of Muslims.

When Barack Obama delivered his June 2009 Cairo address, he captured the Muslim world’s cherished fantasy of America, nourished since the post-WWII days when many turned to the rising US as an alternative to colonial brutality and exploitation. “Islam is a part of America,” he declared. Obama pointed to the prosperous lifestyles of the US Muslim community as advertisement of the American dream, and assured the audience that “just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire.”

As most political observers would admit, Obama’s Cairo speech has a disappointing legacy — Guantanamo and Pentagon rendition prisons remain open for business, drone strikes are spreading terror across Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, while Pentagon Inc. is harvesting violence across the Levant and North Africa through trained militias. However, Obama can point to one outcome in response to the charges of do-nothing-ism hurled at him by progressive critics and Republican foes. Soon after the 2009 speech, the US State Department appointed the poised and charismatic Farah Pandith as US Department of State Special Representative to Muslim Communities.

Pandith, a Muslim American of Kashmiri descent, is part of Obama’s initiative of Facebook public relations. Most visibly, Pandith spearheads Generation Change, a social networking facility that links up Muslim youth leaders in North America with their counterparts in Muslim countries. The Facebook page for Generation Change seems more centered around Pandith herself, promoting her prolific YouTube profile though the many interviews and speeches she has given in her new position. Pandith reported directly to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from 2009 to 2012 (when Clinton left office). The Boston Globe appropriately captioned her appearance as “Pearls, Politics, and Power” — the description also captures her swearing-in snapshot, where she is clad in a rose pink jacket and pearls, leaning in toward Hillary with a bright smile.

Pandith is a graduate of the elite liberal women’s school, Smith College, where she was elected student body president. After that, she attended Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Diplomacy — she became known as networker par excellence, a former professor noting that he was not surprised about her success in government. “Farah is the hub of the wheel,” says John Marshall, her copresident at Milton and now a Rockefeller Foundation fellow working with the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority. “Wherever she’s been she introduces friends to each other.”

Farah also wins glowing praise from Muslim American activists and political aspirants, the ilk usually found at Capitol Hill events hoping to lionize with the US political elite. Her Generation Change Facebook page shows her effortless win in the local popularity contest — “Keep on making us proud!” writes one admirer. It is not surprising, as Pandith is very much the poster child for the ISNA, ICNA, MSA, IIIT-groomed diaspora generations who strive to sublimate their shame over their ties with failed, stagnant or tyrannical countries by trying to integrate into the American narrative of boundless progress. Obama’s Cairo statements are articles of gospel faith that they wish to see fully implemented. “The United States has been one of the greatest sources of progress that the world has ever known,” as Obama declared before the poverty-stricken masses of Egypt in 2009.

Of course, Obama’s declaration in Cairo that the United States is not “a self-interested empire” was a harder sell to the Arab street than to American Muslim elites. First and second generation American Muslims find themselves most easily persuaded to ignore this “boundless progress” as bankrolled by US neoliberalism and empire — the transnational networks of war and economic violence that continue to grease the global machine of resource and capital extraction to US and European shores. With the sole exception of Palestine (the emotional hot-button issue), they are prone to see the Muslim world’s problems as the symptom of the Muslims’ own laziness and historical apathy — the “cure” is usually to implement the American system that will convert their backwardness into futurity and progress.

Even so, there is no denying the disenchantment, fear, and disorientation caused by the post-9/11 policies of the United States — a significant cost for the workings of the US empire. In 2011, it became clear that there was a real and tangible consequence to the erosion of US popularity in the Muslim East, courtesy of US political support for dictators, gung-ho devotion to Israel, and draconian post-9/11 national security policies. This was spotlighted by the Arab Spring, which graphically underlined the possibility of the Muslim East breaking away from the US orbit and (gasp!) entering into affiliations with diabolic foes like Russia, China and Iran.

Perhaps there are no words for the breathless terror experienced in US political corridors during those days of suspension — when the masses seethed outside of dictator’s palaces in Algeria, Egypt, Bahrain, Oman, Jordan et al., and it seemed possible for US colonies to move the way of Iran, establish political states and effectively end US hegemony in the Muslim East. At any rate, the Arab Spring proved the importance of culturally engaging with youth (and especially young elites) who will shape the direction of their countries in a decade or so.

Enter Obama’s new brand of cultural ambassadors. “Young Muslims — members of the Y and Z generations — have grown up in a world where, since 2001, they have been confronted by the burden of constant media attention on Islam and Muslims,” Farah Pandith noted in a speech. “This generation is asking questions about identity and belonging in new ways, very publicly. The answers they get will impact the way we react to changing demographics and public discourse.”

Under Hillary Clinton, Pandith’s mandate has been to socially align Muslim youth — inside the United States and around the world — to the platform of US exceptionalism. A Fletchers profile entitled “America’s Face for Muslims” describes how “Pandith enjoys meeting young people and finding ways to use the strength of the United States government to be ‘the convener, facilitator, and intellectual partner’ with the grassroots.” She tirelessly markets herself to “Muslims under 30,” not only because “they make up the majority of the Muslim world,” as she noted in one interview — but because the United States seeks political influence and cultural currency with seething, discontented youth in North Africa who unseated Ben Ali and Mubarak, but who are as yet completely confused over their personal identity or the direction their societies should take.

Farah Pandith positions herself as a listener and cultural translator — someone who can present Muslim issues and problems in American and European power corridors, and US initiatives to Muslims across the world. “I’m not painting a picture of America as a perfect place,” she said, “We’re not telling European countries how to do it,” she adds. “They’re coming to grips with the idea of balancing identities, and it’s useful for them to use another Western Muslim experience.”

Not that this is just PR-cosmetics. Pandith carries the rank and privileges of an ambassador, highlighting that what she is involved with is cultural diplomacy to young Muslims of power, know-how, and influence, who will be positioned to make decisions for their communities and societies. In order to do so, Pandith acts as a political therapist of sorts — she is the counter to the “demonizing Islam” industry in US political culture that has hysterically painted Islam, Shari‘ah, the veil or any other symbol as an existential threat to US civilization. Pandith has talked about “the youth-quake” in the global Muslim community, highlighting how important it is for the US to access and culture them in line with US foreign policy objectives. She smoothly denies that Islamophobia has any role to play in US policy — “It is not because they are Muslim-majority countries that we have policies,” she says.

“When you have a population in Western Europe that is 20 million strong in Muslims, how are we Americans thinking about what’s taking place in Europe?” Pandith asks. “How are we Americans thinking about what’s taking place in Europe in terms of demographics and how are we getting to know that next generation and the generation after it? Are we building bridges of dialogue?” “The goal is not for everyone to love America,” she says in another interview. “There is a narrative suggesting they cannot be Western and Muslim. How do you push back against that?”

Pandith’s boundless vitality and confidence in multiculturalism has a transformational effect — she is like the storyteller of fairy tales that lull post-9/11 psychological wounds in the global Muslim community. Like the grandmother in the Grimm Brothers fairy tales, she provides uneasy, confused, and unsettled young Muslims the confidence that it will all work out, that it will all be all right. “It would be important to put it in terms of relationship building, so that there is no ‘us and them,’” she declared in an interview given to The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs. “And that’s something the President has talked a lot about — that there this is no ‘us and them,’ there is just a ‘we.’”

Multiculturalism has always been a seductive myth. Who can argue that slogans of “us vs. them,” and “Islam vs. the rest,” are ethically wrong? What could possibly be wrong with listening, understanding, and reaching out to global Muslims and promoting their inclusion in public discourse? Not to discount the energy and charm with which she dispenses the balm of understanding, what Pandith doesn’t currently promote are her affiliations with the Bush regime that institutionalized Islamophobia in US public discourse.

In an interview given when still serving as senior adviser to the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, Pandith recounted how she got her start in politics. Pandith delivered her convocation speech on diversity when newly elected as Smith’s student body president, an event at which Barbara Bush was also present. The former first lady was thoroughly impressed; she asked for a copy of Farah’s speech and opened doors for her first job as confidential assistant to the administrator of USAID. Pandith went on to serve on the National Security Council under G.W. Bush’s administration — which, by the way, coined the phrases “axis of evil” and “you are either for us or against us.” Pandith worked on countering “radicalism” within US and European Muslim communities, an aspect of her job that has carried over in her State Department appointments.

Here is the $100 million question: should the role of a cultural ambassador fit so easily with the political machine of war, empire, and violence? The question is a valid one, as Farah also served on the National Security Council during the George W. Bush years, under right-wing security czar and Israelophile, Elliot Abrams. Her portfolio in the NSC targeted “Muslim engagement” toward “countering violent extremism” and participation on The Broader Middle East North Africa Initiative, which was designed to counter China’s growing economic and political influence over North Africa. Through Generation Change, Pandith is also enabling US corporations to penetrate Africa and the Muslim world — economic imperialism has always been a much more lucrative option than direct occupation in the US and European playbook.

Needless to say, Bush’s National Security Council presided over a rather somber track record — the systematic destruction of civil liberties, the growth of domestic surveillance programs, and the stratospheric expansion of the terrorism industry. For instance, Elliot Abrams is one of Bush’s cadre of right-wing neocons who pushed for the war on Iraq, Israel’s political exceptionalism, and the draconian expansion of government at the expense of civil liberties. He is also currently one of Washington’s most avid champions for war against Iran.

What are the implications for cultural outreach to the Muslim world given one’s associations with the neocon cabal responsible for incinerating Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan? How do cultural ambassadors and interfaith leaders square with the moral imperative to speak out against the cases of state oppression a la Bradley Manning, Aafia Siddiqui, and countless others? Can someone understand the problems of minorities while working hand-in-glove with institutions responsible for ongoing abuses of power?

Pandith’s association with Bush-era politicians or with the Obama government is neither “incidental” nor can it be considered a multicultural reward story about the benefits of working within the system — it is intrinsically a part of how power works. The politics of charm — presiding over drawing rooms with Muslim youth leaders, writers, and activists, or delivering speeches at interfaith events — is an inseparable part of Pentagon Inc. war craft. The logic is a symbolic one — power always advertises itself, as a counter-tonic to the incredible violence that it leashes inside and outside borders. Pandith serves as a tempting advertisement for the rewards of accommodating US national security — she enjoys the power, privileges and access that Muslim American lobbyists can only dream of.

Power has always depended on its ability to shape the dreams and fantasies of the masses, turning them toward its objectives. Power also justifies itself — when asked in an early interview whether she would run for political office Pandith answered, “Of course.” Pandith continues to advertise “the American dream” to impoverished masses in Africa, Asia and the Muslim East, opening the door for US business penetration in their countries. Her words are also the balm delivered to help a global audience forget about illegal drone attacks, renegade mercenaries, carnage, racial profiling, political support for violent militias, etc. — the global industry of death upon which US power depends. But in the final sum, the work of cultural ambassadors cannot be separated from the tarnished work of mercenaries, hit-men, or mechanical robots of war. Cultural understanding is a blind enterprise without justice.

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