New Opportunities for Diplomacy at the State Dept.

January 24, 2014

This week, Secretary of State John Kerry announced the departure of Farah Pandith, the State Department’s Special Representative to Muslim Communities. Pandith leaves after almost five years of service in that role. In 2009, then-Secretary Hillary Clinton appointed Pandith to “be responsible for executing a vision for engagement with Muslims around the world based on a people-to-people and organizational level.”

Pandith was a pioneer in this position and we look forward to her successor who will take her department to new heights. As such, the appointment should represent a culture shift within the State Department; engaging Muslim communities abroad should not be a one-office priority only.

The challenges American foreign policy-makers are facing today are unique and require a nuanced understanding of the social, political, economic and religious environment of Muslim communities around the world. From the democracy pangs as a result of the Arab Spring to the ramifications to America’s image from the war on terror, the Special Representative must show the same energy and involvement that Kerry has shown since taking his position.

In the spirit of equal-opportunity diplomacy, the representative needs to be more forward-thinking and willing to listen to all groups -- including those who may disagree with our foreign policies. This approach has been exemplified in Kerry’s engagement with Iran on its nuclear program. As our country continues to move away from heavy-handed military options and more toward people-to-people diplomacy, the State Department and specifically the Special Representative should reflect that approach.

Now is the time when our diplomatic efforts need to show more creativity in engaging relationship-building. This type of engagement should be more sophisticated in understanding the needs of those communities in order to more effectively work toward peace-building in tumultuous regions.

In order for the next representative to be effective, he/she must have credibility within American Muslim communities and partner with them in order to have their support and rely on them for assistance. And within the people-to-people exchange, American Muslims should engage in healthy policy discourse with Muslims abroad.

The Special Representative should be given more of a mandate to deal with substantive policy issues around the world. The position should be results-oriented; having a Special Representative for optics is a waste of valuable resources. The State Department has done a good job in shifting the culture of diplomacy to accepting faith-based communities, as seen through the appointment of Dr. Shaun Casey, the Special Advisor for the Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives. With the new appointment approaching, this office should work in tandem with the rest of the State Department to further our diplomatic goals. 

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