Farah Pandith is a world-leading expert and pioneer in countering violent extremism and author of How We Win: How Cutting-Edge Entrepreneurs, Political Visionaries, Enlightened Business Leaders, and Social Media Mavens Can Defeat the Extremist Threat (2019). She served as a political appointee under three presidents on the National Security Council, at the U.S. Department of State, and the U.S. Agency for International Development, and most recently as the first-ever special representative to Muslim communities. She was a senior fellow with the Future of Diplomacy Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School from 2016 to 2023 and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. In fall 2020, the Muhammad Ali Center named Pandith the first-ever Muhammad Ali Global Peace Laureate.
Islam has been part of America from the very beginning. As many as 30% of enslaved people arriving between 1730 and 1806 were Muslim. Yet many Americans in recent years have only seen Islam as a religion apart, hostile to American ideals, and the driving force behind nefarious global actions.
Several fear-inducing events underscored this impression—the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, televised “death to America” chants, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole among them.
These very public incidents clouded the ability of many non-Muslim Americans to remove perceptions that Islam equals violence, blotting out a willingness to see the diversity of Islam or have any interest at all in American Muslims. Even with these challenging optics, government had no real reason to create a “Muslim engagement strategy.” The attacks on September 11, 2001 changed all that, demanding that the United States counter the “us versus them” narratives of Al-Qaeda.
Now, in a far different world, the rationale to “engage” is not about 9/11; it is about the future we want to have. The Biden administration has the opportunity to bring a fresh approach to Muslim engagement, building on the strong but often overlooked work of the Bush and Obama administrations. The Biden policy must be designed for long term U.S. interests that embrace the significant demographic changes underway with Millennials, Gen Zs, and Gen Alphas around the world.
Now, in a far different world, the rationale to 'engage' is not about 9/11; it is about the future we want to have.
The key is how the new administration defines and maximizes “Muslim engagement,” recognizing that American foreign and domestic policy and rhetoric determine how Muslims everywhere perceive the United States.
Further, it is critical that America not define our bilateral relationships with Muslim-majority nations as “Muslim engagement” any more than we describe bilateral relations with Italy as “Christian engagement.”
“Engagement” with one billion Muslim youth means a nuanced, bespoke strategy that is part of something far broader than previous administrations.
'Engagement' with one billion Muslim youth means a nuanced, bespoke strategy that is part of something far broader than previous administrations.
The path forward must elevate and expand people-to-people connections, mutual-interest alliances, youth networks, and listening opportunities that achieved considerable success in the Bush and Obama years. The urgency is this: A quarter of the global population is Muslim. It’s vital for America to have strong, vibrant, respectful, and trusting relationships with them worldwide, including those at home. America needs to know them. Building bridges beyond government relations will offer the United States the best opportunity to do that.
9/11 and the Aftermath
Before the attacks, American foreign policy with Muslim-majority nations and coalitions was largely based on our geo-strategic needs. The attacks demanded new attention beyond just hard power to crush terrorist organizations’ ability to recruit Muslim youth into their fractured worldview. This meant developing new types of coalitions and partnerships—and aggressive attention to civil society engagement.
Bush, like Carter and Regan before him, implicitly understood that America had to separate the idea of “Islam, the religion” from those who used it for nefarious purposes and to take substantive measures to reject the idea that American Muslims were not part of America. Through symbolic actions and innovative diplomacy—like visiting American mosques, placing a Quran in White House library, and creating an Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) envoy—Bush worked jointly on the domestic and international fronts to debunk Al-Qaeda’s propaganda.
Yet, because of American military action in Iraq and Afghanistan and decades of contentious U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, the idea persisted that America was “at war” with Muslims.
Yet, because of American military action in Iraq and Afghanistan and decades of contentious U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, the idea persisted that America was 'at war' with Muslims.
I was part of the outreach in the Bush administration as senior advisor to Assistant Secretary Ambassador Dan Fried, and surprisingly, while I found widespread anger at U.S. foreign policy, my experience revealed something else: Youth wanted to find opportunities to engage. This was a critical lesson.
Obama dramatically expanded soft-power attention to civil society engagement through what he called “mutual interest and mutual respect.” While terrorists continued to use Islam as their battle cry, Obama set out to engage influencers and organizations to reject it. In his historic Cairo speech, he extended his hand directly to Muslim communities, putting a sharp focus on the nearly one billion Muslims under 30 years old from Sao Paulo to Surabaya. He kept the OIC envoy role, created a new special representative to Muslim communities role (I was that person), and launched the Global Entrepreneurship Summit.
Through a variety of post-9/11 programs involving partnerships with U.S. government and non-profit organizations and, sometimes, the private sector, American diplomacy included listening to Muslims in new ways: hearing their concerns, acknowledging their fears, finding ways to support their ideas. Special attention was paid to youth as the future influencers. Alliances formed. Collaborations began. New programs connected Muslims to like-minded thinkers in entrepreneurship, social activism, and technology. Using U.S. grants and non-economic NGO support, Muslim communities began taking on challenges to reduce poverty, teach literacy, support women, and combat climate change.
There was criticism about creating a special “Muslim engagement strategy” during the Obama and Bush years, some of it justified. But let’s get real: Were these presidents supposed to sit back and let terrorists define our nation and make us the bogeyman to Muslims?
Were these presidents supposed to sit back and let terrorists define our nation and make us the bogeyman to Muslims?
U.S. engagement between 2001 and 2016 resulted in some important achievements at home and abroad including: more Muslims entering public service; new presidential attention to American Muslim history; heightened attention to discrimination; support for new grassroots NGOs; creation of new public sector alliances with civil society; policy action that helps Muslims living as minorities; and encouraging youth to create global networks. All these efforts fostered “copycat” efforts by other nations and lifted up unknown voices onto a global stage.
Taken together, engagement strategies by Bush and Obama far outpaced what prior presidents achieved because they focused on a post-9/11 world. But the landscape was changing in the final Obama years. ISIS was on the rise; attacks in the homeland increased; and the media was saturated with stories about Muslims, terrorism, ongoing wars, and fear. Another critical lesson: Americans themselves were beginning to thrive on hate and the power of Sheikh Google.
Then Came Trump
President Trump’s approach toward Muslims has been catastrophic. Upending work over the previous 16 years, he deliberately resurrected the “us versus them” framework with actions like the Muslim ban, stoking new fears of Muslims, and advancing the notion that American values are not compatible with Islam. He repeatedly used ugly language when speaking about Islam and Muslims and singled out American Muslim leaders, ridiculing their heritages and ethnicities. He said, “I think Islam hates us” and allowed his administration officials to question whether Islam was, in fact, a religion.
By feeding the fires of white supremacists, he helped create a less safe environment for American Muslims, giving terrorists the opportunity to say, “I told you so.”
So what does all of this mean for the Biden administration in the twentieth anniversary year of 9/11?
A fresh start means establishing a Generation Plan of Common Cause, a comprehensive global youth connection strategy. It means opening a wider vision for soft power and engagement with the world’s youth, and within it, a curated understanding of Muslims. It means challenging the rhetorical hate legacy of 9/11 and recognizing the emotional backlash it unleashed on young Muslims. It means looking at global youth and asking: What does America need to do to bring you into the conversation to solve common challenges like protecting the environment, access to education, racial equity, mental health, and fighting hate and extremism?
It all starts with connecting actions at home to efforts abroad. There is no separation of the two.
For Muslims at home, Biden must make sure they’re represented in government, speaking about Islam with dignity, and finding ways to make Muslims’ nuanced experiences a routine part of American life. For Muslims abroad, the administration must break out of old molds like notions that Saudi Arabia speaks for all Muslims and Muslims in the Middle East are more authentic or important than those who live outside it. As diplomatic efforts involve more grassroots partners, American soft power can become more creative to absorb the dynamic interests of youth.
Generation Plan of Common Cause depends on bringing more ideas, diversity, and innovation to problem solving. The strategic engagement of youth—with Muslims within it—must include:
- Building Stronger Bridges: Design a broad strategy to engage across sectors such as science, education, culture, and art with the vast global population of Muslims to collaborate on ideas and to learn from their perspectives.
- Refocusing Diplomatic Efforts: Scale up current public diplomacy programs, increase financial and personnel resources in our embassies, and deploy cultural listening capacity through partnerships and collaborations. Create a deputy assistant secretary for youth engagement in each State Department bureau and a senior director at the Domestic Policy Council for youth engagement in America.
- Debunking Hate: Intensify the fight against those who benefit from divisive rhetoric. This is vitally important in the aftermath of a U.S. administration that demonized Muslims as the dangerous “other.”
- Finding Common Cause: Open as many channels to conversation as possible. These are essential to developing new alliances through shared interests.
- Discerning Cultural Differences: Understand the meaning of the demographics by knowing how Gen Alphas, Gen Zs, and Millennials differ from each other and older generations and planning for what that means for global challenges.
The Biden team has a fresh opportunity to build on past successes to avoid failures. The key is a strategy that includes younger Muslims at home and abroad as current and future leaders, empowering them to create grassroots initiatives that build stronger communities.
It’s a win-win approach—for the Biden administration and the world.