Rethinking Public Diplomacy: Engaging Muslim Communities vs. Groups Who Happen to Be Muslim

By: Shaarik Zafar

December 11, 2020

Responding to: Rethinking U.S. Engagement with Global Muslim Communities

Rethinking Public Diplomacy: Engaging Muslim Communities vs. Groups Who Happen to Be Muslim

The election of Joseph R. Biden presents an opportunity for the United States to rethink and reset its engagement with communities around the world.  According to a recent Pew survey, among our closest allies the share of their population with a positive view of the United States is at “its lowest point in nearly two decades of polling.” Given the substantial room for improvement, the Biden administration should implement a robust public diplomacy initiative to engage and improve ties with foreign publics and as a complement to its broader efforts to restore and build trust with its allies. And given their share of the global population, this should, of course, include Muslim communities around the world.

But what does it mean to engage global Muslim communities? The United States has regular bilateral exchanges with the governments of Muslim-majority countries, but should it have a single overarching approach to engaging Muslims? Or should it ignore religious identity and build an approach based purely on country and regional dynamics? Regarding context, should we be solely focused on the ongoing and important security challenge of violent extremism? Or, in light of the number of foreign policy challenges facing the United States, should we take a broader view of engagement?

As a former (and, likely, the last ever) special representative to Muslim communities at the U.S. Department of State, I have some thoughts. Indeed, since I joined the U.S. government in 2004, engaging Muslim communities either in the United States or abroad has been a core function of almost every job I have had. If I had one recommendation for the incoming administration, it would be to calibrate its efforts based on our foreign policy interests and the issues the groups it is seeking to engage care about. Sometimes it will make sense to engage individuals and communities as “Muslims,” and sometimes it will not. 

Sometimes it will make sense to engage individuals and communities as “Muslims,” and sometimes it will not. 

An example from U.S. domestic policy is instructive. During my tenure as the special counsel for post-9/11 national origin discrimination, my job was to help the Justice Department engage communities facing increased discrimination and violence following the terrorist attacks of September 11. This included American Muslims, but it also included Arab and South Asian Americans and other groups facing similar challenges. Indeed, the first victim of a post-9/11 backlash attack was Balbir Singh Sodi, a member of the Sikh faith (a horrific example of the danger of ignorance combined with bigotry). But there was no question that (1) Muslims were being targeted because of their religion; and (2) American Muslim civil rights organizations wanted the federal government to help keep their communities safe. As such, having a focused engagement strategy with U.S. Muslim communities was both important and appropriate. 

At the State Department, I met with a number of civil society organizations in both Muslim-majority and Muslim-minority countries. They often organized on the basis of their faith, but I also engaged with groups—composed entirely of Muslims—who focused on the environment, entrepreneurship, or LGBTQ rights. We prioritized meeting with these stakeholders not because of their religion, but because these public diplomacy efforts advanced key U.S. interests. Indeed, sometimes my title as special representative was an asset, sometimes it was less relevant, and I was simply an official from the U.S. State Department who wanted to meet. 

Sometimes my title as special representative was an asset, sometimes it was less relevant, and I was simply an official from the U.S. State Department who wanted to meet.

As it charts its approach to engaging global Muslim communities, the Biden administration should ask our diplomats and aid workers to determine whether they are seeking to engage Muslim communities—groups who are organizing on the basis of their faith—or rather individuals and groups that happen to be Muslim. 

For example, given the spike in anti-Muslim bigotry globally, U.S. officials should not hesitate to call out this form of hatred and meet with victims of persecution and their advocates. If, as expected, President-elect Biden rescinds the “Muslim ban,” our diplomats should not only engage their counterparts in the impacted countries, but also relevant Muslim groups and leaders given the public framing of the policy. And when the Biden administration (hopefully) convenes faith actors to enlist their support in tackling global challenges such as climate change, gender-based violence, and poverty, it should absolutely include a diverse group of Muslim leaders.

In other instances, it may not be strategic or appropriate to engage stakeholders on the basis of their faith. This is true even in deeply religious societies. I recall an awkward conversation with a police chief in a conservative part of Uzbekistan who took umbrage on the topic of local religious dynamics, as his focus was on fighting crime. 

In other instances, it may not be strategic or appropriate to engage stakeholders on the basis of their faith. This is true even in deeply religious societies.

Focusing solely on religion can also overlook opportunities to emphasize commonalities. Take, for example, two of the State Department’s hugely successful exchange programs: the Young Africans Leaders Initiative and the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study Abroad Program. While they typically include a number of Muslim participants, the focus is on advancing U.S. foreign policy goals by promoting civil society, leadership, and lasting ties between the United States and their countries. The programs could have exclusively focused on Muslim youth. But given the dynamics of the participating countries—including sectarian tensions and regional conflicts—it was far more important to bring together young leaders from diverse backgrounds so they could engage with Americans and each other on the basis of their shared identities and irrespective of their faiths. 

There may have been a time when a having a singular, focused engagement effort with global Muslim communities made sense. I say that as someone who has held what is likely the only position in the U.S. government with “Muslim” in its title and who is grateful to have had the opportunity to serve his country in this capacity. I believe that moment—if it ever existed—has passed. This is not to downplay the role of religion, which still matters across the world. It is simply a recognition that Muslim communities are not a monolith, but rather consist of diverse individuals and groups with varied interests. At times, religious identity will be an important or defining feature for an audience we are seeking to reach. In other instances, we may need to engage deeply religious individuals on matters that have nothing to do with their faith. We should know the difference and tailor our public diplomacy and engagement efforts accordingly.

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