Top US Official engages with Turkish Australians
The United States engaging at a grassroots level with Muslim communities around the world was the subject of a presentation by a top US official last night at the Affinity Centre in Auburn.
Ms Farah Pandith is the Special Representative to Muslim Communities for the United States Department of State, the first role of its kind in any administration in America’s history. Tasked with travelling the world to engage with Muslim communities, the creation of her historic role seems to have been directly inspired by President Barack Obama’s experience in the effectiveness of grassroots community liaison.
Ms Pandith was joined by Ms Kathy Topley from the Public Affairs Office of the US Consulate of Sydney, as well as Public Diplomacy Consul Alexi Kral, and was hosted by the Affinity Intercultural Foundation.
Affinity Intercultural Foundation President Mr Mehmet Saral said that, “When the US Consul-General of Sydney approached us to see if we could host Ms Pandith in Sydney, we didn’t need to think too much after seeing her credentials. She really is playing an important role in the Obama administration’s drive to improve US-Muslim relations.” The event was chaired by Mr Osman Karolia, Principal at the Iqra Grammar College and Affinity’s Public Relations Executive.
Other attendees, which comprised a wide cross section of the Muslim community posed challenging and confronting questions after the presentation. The respected audience members included Dr Zachariah Matthews, the Director of Just Media Advocacy; Ms Aziza Abdel -Halim, the President of the Muslim Women’s National Network Australia; Dr Mehdi Ilhan, Lecturer in Turkish Language & Culture at the Australian National University; Kuranda Seyit, Director of Forum of Australia’s Islamic Relations; Ms Silma Ihram, Director of Diversity Skills Training; Shk Fedaa Majzoub & Dr Ibrahim Abu Muhammad from the the National Imams Council of Australia; Mr Mehmet Ozalp, Executive Director of Islamic Sciences & Research Academy (ISRA).
The range of topics addressed by Ms Pandith as they related to Muslims ran the gamut from entrepreneurship to freedom of speech and she provided informed answers to complex questions. The key themes of the night included engaging in conversations with Muslims around the world and the ways in which young Muslims may feel empowered.
For much of the presentation, Ms Pandith drew from her personal history as a Muslim living in America. Ms Pandith was born in India and immigrated to Massachusetts when she was young. She has lent her personal experiences growing up to her responsibilities in her role in the Department of State.
Ms Pandith pointed to important developments in the relationship between the United States and its own population of Muslims, such as the election of Congressman Keith Ellison, who was sworn in using Thomas Jefferson’s copy of the Quran. Jefferson, of course, was one of the Founding Fathers of America and the country’s third president.
During the question and answer session of the evening, she highlighted the stark contrast by describing what it was like for her in pre and post 9/11 America. Before the September 11 attacks, nobody she knew “cared that she was a Muslim – for ordinary Americans, Islam barely registered as a blip on their radar”. Ms Pandith attributes this in large part to freedom of religion in the United States.
Throughout her presentation, Ms Pandith returned to a few recurring themes, one of which was initiating a dialogue with individual Muslims in the world. She particularly highlighted the need to engage in discussion with the Muslim youth from all over the world. This is essential as the challenge and issue that one person is facing in one part of the world is not much different from a similar circumstance of another young Muslim in another region of the world, only expressed differently. On reconciling the objectives of her role with the chaos in America’s military engagements in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Libya, she said that these conversations need to begin with young Muslims, who are taking to Facebook, Twitter, blogs and other digital means to air their grievances.
This dovetailed into a second recurring theme of the evening: young Muslims empowering themselves by identifying, in their own individual way, with their religion and culture. She referred to Muslim youths as “generation change,” and emphasised the critical nature of their role in shaping Islam’s future, both domestically in the United States, and abroad.
On the question of how Ms Pandith’s role might be perceived as problematic for a government traditionally known to be secular, and how the Obama administration might be perceived by representatives of other faiths as a result, Ms Pandith’s answer was doled out in two parts. First, she delineated the marked difference between engaging with communities of a particular faith – the precept of her role – and espousing theology as a representative of the United States government. Second, she believed that if the situation today between Americans and Muslims was different and not so pressing, there would be no need for her role, and she expressed a desire for the day when that might come true.
Ms Pandith also answered the question of why Quran burnings were allowed in the United States. She stated that freedom of expression, as understood in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, allows for political acts of this nature. She compared it to the burning of the American flag, which has been ruled by the Supreme Court as acceptable political speech in the landmark 1989 case Texas v Johnson.
Ms. Pandith will continue her tour by next travelling to Melbourne for a presentation hosted by the US Consulate there before heading back to her homeland for more engagements.
Sertan Saral, Today’s Zaman Print Edition