Obama’s Muslim envoy kindles a lovefest
As President Obama’s special representative to Muslim communities, Farah Anwar Pandith’s job is to tell the Muslim world, ‘Look, America ain’t all that bad’. Pandith invariably begins by pointing to her own life as a successful American Muslim woman of Indian origin. “One-fourth of the world’s population is Muslim. We want to do as much as we can to build partnerships across the Muslim world, especially with young Muslims,” the 40-year-old Srinagar-born, on a visit to India, told Muslim bloggers at a special interaction.
Originally hailing from the apple town of Sopore, 55 km from Srinagar, the Pandiths migrated to the US in 1970, a year after Farah was born. Her mother Mehbooba is a pediatrician. Pandith’s father, Mohammad Anwar Pandith, was the scion of a respected business family in Sopore, the hometown of Hurriyat hawk Syed Ali Shah Geelani. Her grandfather Abdul Samad Pandith set up Sopore’s first cinema, Samad Talkies, which shut after militants banned cinema in 1990. Mahmoodur Rahman, former Aligarh Muslim University vice-chancellor, recalls his days a young magistrate in Sopore when a chance interaction with Abdul Samad Pandith turned into a lasting family relationship. “Farah has kept coming back to Kashmir over the years,” he says.
As special representative, Pandith’s mandate is to win Muslim hearts, from “Sao Paulo to New Delhi”. But her task is cut out. President Bush’s war on terror was widely viewed as a war on Islam itself. And more than a year after Obama came into White House, relations are still strained. Guantanamo has yet to be closed; Palestine is yet to be pushed and Muslims still undergo harassing airport checks. But Pandith’s thoroughbred qualifications -– a Master’s from Tufts with specialisation in Islamic Civilizations, including a dissertation on Kashmir insurgency — make her the right person for the job.
In his Cairo speech last June, President Obama had called for a “new beginning between the US and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect”. However, on the ground, Pandith often runs into tough questions from Muslims. From a New Delhi imam to an industrialist, Indian Muslims told her that they saw “hope” in the Obama but would like to see “change” next. Jama Masjid Shahi Imam Ahmed Bukhari — a cleric she was keen on meeting –asked her when President Obama would get tough on Israel.
Scientist GN Qazi, the vice-chancellor of Jamia Hamdard University, wondered why after 30 previous visits, US had declined him a visa last year. “Because I’m Muslim,” he told her. Akhtarul Wassey, a Fulbright scholar and head of Islamic Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, told her that global peace would not be possible without peace in Palestine. Despite the tricky questions, Pandith’s India visit was not just successful but also a memorable one. Delhi’s India Islamic Centre rolled out the red carpet and its president, Sirajuddin Qureishi, eulogised her in a poetic speech. Muslims queued up to present her handcrafted gifts. Everybody she met embraced her as one of their own — an Indian-origin person and a Muslim.