Eliminating the US-Muslim World Trust Deficit

By Huma Yusuf

Gathered around a table with Karachi-based bloggers one evening last week, Farah Pandith, the US Special Representative to Muslim Communities, asked, “Can’t a person do more than one thing at a time?”

The question was raised as a way to get around the fact that most conversations about America’s relations with Muslims around the world are held hostage by contentious issues arising in the context of the so-called “war against terror.” She was trying to make the point that even while governments wrangle about drone attacks and the actions of the private military company Blackwater, Americans and Muslims around the world can begin to engage on a grassroots level.

Pandith’s optimism about people-to-people relations strengthening ties between the United States and global Muslim communities is a cornerstone of US President Barack Obama’s foreign policy. Indeed, Pandith’s very position is a testament to the US government’s commitment to reaching out to the Muslim world. She is the first special envoy to Muslim communities ever appointed.

But over a year into Obama’s term in office, relations between the United States and Muslims the world over remain strained. The reasons for strain are several: the Afghan troop surge; the spread of Al-Qaeda into Yemen; the Transportation Security Administration’s heightened security requirements for US-bound travellers from many Muslim-majority countries, etc.

On campuses, on streets and online, young Muslims are increasingly complaining that Obama can talk the talk, but balks when it’s time to walk the walk.

That’s where Pandith enters the picture. Talking to Dawn.com, she argued that Americans and Muslims can connect beyond the ambit of security issues and, more importantly, that they can engage at a people-to-people, rather than political level. She imagines an increasing number of collaborations between Americans and Muslims in the fields of education, science and technology, and through entrepreneurial initiatives.

In Pandith’s opinion, the United States can help build networks of like-minded people across the Muslim world. The US government can act as a “convener, facilitator and intellectual partner,” she said, and help forge partnerships on the basis of common ideas and common goals.

“We want to mobilise people from the grassroots up. We are telling our embassies to connect deep and wide within their communities.”

Pandith’s goal of grassroots engagement relies heavily on harnessing the power of social media to traverse boundaries – geographic, social and cultural. That’s why she met with bloggers during her trip to Karachi. By being attentive to blogs and social networks, Pandith also hopes to better understand the needs and aspirations of different Muslim communities.

She emphasises the need to understand the circumstances of each Muslim community separately. She points out that since 11 September 2001, hundreds of studies examining how Muslims think and identifying what they want have been commissioned and circulated in the United States.

“But when did we ask Muslims themselves what they think and what they want?” she asked.

If social media holds the key to better understanding, entrepreneurship, in the opinion of the Obama Administration, is the concrete way to establish long-term partnerships between Americans and Muslims. This spring, about 150 entrepreneurs from Muslim communities have been invited to a two-day Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship in Washington, DC. The summit is an initial attempt to deepen ties between business leaders and social entrepreneurs in the United States and the Muslim world.

But for real engagement – particularly of a long-term, entrepreneurial variety – to work, the Obama administration has to overcome the trust deficit that currently exists in Muslim communities with regard to the United States. To truly succeed, Pandith’s vision of frequent people-to-people interactions and collaborations will have to unfold in an environment in which the United States is seen as a superpower that genuinely respects Muslims.

Ultimately, grassroots mobilisation of Muslim communities will have to be accompanied by grand gestures from the top as well so that Muslims, especially young ones, become confident that engagement is an administrative priority, not just a talking point.

For instance, in Cairo last year, Obama stated that he rejected “the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal.” At the time, the comment was understood to be an implicit rejection of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s initiative to ban the burqa – a garment that fully covers a woman’s body, head and face – in France. Now that the ban is about to be implemented, Obama has been silent.

“The US government has to respect the decisions of a sovereign country,” explained Pandith. That may be true. But it is on these sorts of hot-button issues that Muslim communities would welcome American engagement. After that, people-to-people interaction may just flourish organically.

Huma Yusuf is a freelance journalist based in Karachi, Pakistan.

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