Interview with Farah Pandith on tackling the global extremist threat
Farah appointed America’s first-ever special representative to Muslim Communities in 2009 by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Farah Pandith travelled to nearly one hundred countries under both Secretaries Clinton and Kerry launching youth-focused initiatives.
Farah Pandith is a foreign policy strategist, author and diplomatic entrepreneur who has served during three American presidencies. She is a pioneer within the field of countering violent extremism and was appointed America’s first-ever Special Representative to Muslim Communities in 2009 by Secretary Hillary Clinton. This role saw her launch unprecedented youth-focused initiatives at the grass root level. These innovative initiatives were developed from first-hand experience and interaction with thousands of youth in nearly 100 countries and sparked a new framework for looking at the ideological threat we face. While the insights she gleaned globally relate to Muslim youth, the lessons on how to stop the rise of all kinds of hate globally are universal, important and timely. The New Zealand attacks remind us that the “us versus them” narratives are growing stronger every day.
In her ground-breaking book “How We Win: How Cutting-Edge Entrepreneurs, Political Visionaries, Enlightened Business Leaders and Social Media Mavens Can Defeat the Extremist Threat”, Farah gives us solutions and clear-eyed analysis of dramatic trends happening to youth. She explores the geo-political threat of extreme violence and terrorism and provides bold assessments of shortcomings of the current policies set in place to protect against this threat. Hate is on the rise, and yet governments, the private sector and regular citizens have not taken action.
Farah’s book is inspiring and fresh — evoking praise from the highest level of global thought leaders and policy makers. Using her wealth of knowledge and her world-wide research to argue for a paradigm shift in the way we combat extremism, Farah believes “we can win”.
With global interactivity, the development of the dark web, traceless cryptocurrencies and access to ideas and ideologies at the click of a button, are we fighting a losing battle against the spread of extremism online?
Solutions are available and affordable to us after nearly 20 years since 9/11. We know that in order to get ahead of the bad guys we must deploy an approach that actually starts with the emotions these young people are feeling about their identity and belonging. The way in which youth are using the web is not the only problem – it is WHY they are going to other sources, both online and offline to learn more about themselves. To disrupt this process, we have to use what we know about how children, adolescents and young adults interact with each other around identity and use cultural listening as a tool. Using the social media platforms is one of the ways the bad guys recruit and sustain interaction on a peer to peer level. We have the same tools in our toolbox. What we do not have is a comprehensive strategy to stop the appeal of the “us versus them” ideology using narratives that are authentic to youth 24/7 with as many touchpoints as we need. We need to go “all in” and use what we know about how young people explore their identity to move them in a positive direction. If the bad guys are the only ones out there with their various youth-friendly interactions, we are letting them win. It does not have to be this way.
What part can entrepreneurs play in helping to defeat the extremist threat?
Creativity and adaptability are key elements to new programs and initiatives. We have lots of small programs out there, but we have not scaled them, nor have we used a different kind of thinking when it comes to what can be done. Entrepreneurial solutions require a fresh evaluation, a connection to other fields that have had similar problems (and solutions) and vitally, the behavioural data and understanding around human motivation is essential. No other sector out there has this kind of human data. Social and business entrepreneurs can take that knowledge and help us in this fight. This is not something that just government should be concerned with. Fighting hate is something we all must do to make sure societies are strong, resilient and — let’s face it – joyful. In 2019 we are giving up this basic thing because we are allowing bad actors to infuse “us versus them” into our lives. Why? We know how to persuade, educate, and build resilience in other socially impactful arenas – I know entrepreneurs can help in this ideological war.
What impact do you think President Trump has had and may continue to have on extremism within the US? Does this have any global repercussions?
In the wake of the horrific New Zealand attack we can see first-hand how words are the fuel that allow extremists to thrive. What any world leader says about communities and “the other” can either offer a positive way forward or embrace stereotypes and prime the pump of whatever source is engaging in “us versus them” thinking. President Trump has a particularly important role to play because he has not only used words to fuel the anti-Muslim drumbeat (“Islam hates us”) but he also decided to put forward legislation in the first moments of his presidency that suggested that Americans needed to fear Muslims (the so called “Muslim ban”.) I have proudly worked as a political appointee for presidents HW Bush, George W. Bush and Barack Obama – each administration has taken great care to make sure we respect all faiths in the language they use. Even further, they have tried to ensure that they do not give extremists ammunition to help sell their “us versus them” ideology. In the social media sphere, the words of a president can be used in memes and videos etc to be spread quickly and deeply. The white supremist who murdered 50 people in New Zealand specifically referred to President Trump in his manifesto. All heads of state, all global cultural icons have a responsibility to understand that their words can be weaponized. We are in a different era of global connectedness.
In your latest book “How We Win” you state that we need a global strategy to combat extremism but how much of this strategy falls upon our policy makers shoulders?
The strategy I know we need is one no one has ever tried. Grand coalitions of countries fighting a physical war does not address the ideological war. In order to defeat the extremists, going to the heart of the issue means asking what our strategy is to stop the appeal of the ideology so that the terrorist armies do not win recruits. This requires the whole of society to get involved in this effort. Government can’t do this alone. That is why we have been failing all these years – we don’t have a comprehensive strategy that includes physical and ideological aspects of the war, and we do not have the right elements helping on the lure of the “us versus them” ideology.
What is the main take away that you would like your readers to gain from the book?
Readers will be inspired. This is a book that gives us all hope. It does not do what policy makers have been saying since 9/11 – “it is too hard”, “it is too complicated”, “this is just for Muslims to do” “it will take generations” etc… It is not what the business sector has said “it is too scary for us to get involved with”. There is a rise of hate globally. We see it in our everyday lives. Whether in the form of race, gender, religion, sexuality – we see new movements rising all over using each other to fan the flame. There is something each and every one of us can do to build a different reality – from nano-interventions to larger, macro and mega movements. How We Win says all of us have a role to play and it is not “too hard”.
Testimonials for “How We Win: How Cutting-Edge Entrepreneurs, Political Visionaries, Enlightened Business Leaders and Social Media Mavens Can Defeat the Extremist Threat”
“Drawing on her decades of experience, Pandith unweaves the tangled web of extremism and demonstrates how government officials, tech CEOs, and concerned citizens alike can do their part to defeat it.” – Former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright
“One of the most critical tools in the fight to keep our country and world safe is the effort to combat the ideology that underlies extremist activity. Farah Pandith offers a comprehensive look at the war of ideas and provides concrete solutions to this vexing problem. Her book is essential for anyone who cares about security and the resilience of democratic values.” – Leon E. Panetta, former United States Secretary of Defense and former CIA Director
“Farah is a well-respected expert with extensive government experience in this field. Her insights and firsthand perspective offer a unique vantage point on the cultural, ideological, and political forces that effect Muslim youth worldwide. Her book is much more than a provocative analysis of why we have yet to defeat the appeal of extremist ideology that is the backbone of terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda and ISIS. How We Win shows us exactly what we need to do, and can do, to turn the tide.” —The Honorable Stephen J. Hadley, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs (2005-2009) and Board Chair at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
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