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The Messenger

Farah Pandith is working to build bridges with Muslims overseas and to help spread the word of integration and tolerance to young people

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Irene Sege
Globe Staff / May 17, 2008

ORTHAMPTON - Eighteen years after she graduated from Smith College, Farah Pandith, her hair neatly coifed in a flip, her tailored pink jacket and dark skirt accented with a string of pearls, her White House folder in hand, visits her alma mater. A flyer advertising a talk by former Vermont governor Madeleine Kunin catches her attention, and, with a nod of approval, she reads aloud the title of Kunin's book: "Pearls, Politics, and Power."

"I'm glad to see that Smith is still bringing in good people to inspire their students," Pandith says. "I remember when Betty Friedan came in. Gloria Steinem."

On this sunny spring Friday, it's Pandith who's bringing pearls, politics, and power to Smith women. Here to meet with students a day in advance of addressing a model United Nations, Pandith is senior adviser to the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, charged with working to counteract the radicalization percolating in some segments of Europe's Muslim communities.

Pandith, 40, brings to the task a resume that includes stints as director for Middle East regional initiatives for the National Security Council, chief of staff for the Bureau for Asia and the Near East at the US Agency for International Development, and vice president for international business at ML Strategies in Boston. Born in Kashmir, in India, and bred since infancy in Braintree and Milton, she also draws on her personal experiences as a Muslim American.

"When you have a population in Western Europe that is 20 million strong in Muslims, how are we Americans thinking about what's taking place in Europe?" Pandith asks. "How are we Americans thinking about what's taking place in Europe in terms of demographics and how are we getting to know that next generation and the generation after it? Are we building bridges of dialogue?"

In the 14 months since she started her latest job, Pandith has traveled to more than 40 cities in more than a dozen European countries to meet with community leaders and government officials and others. Inspired to move to Washington by the events of Sept. 11, 2001, she carries a three-pronged message.

America is not at war with Islam, she tells a small group of political science students who meet with her over pizza, and the story American Muslims present to the world is more a story of integration than alienation. Against a backdrop of the 2004 train bombings in Madrid, 2005 subway attacks in London, and 2006 thwarted plot to blow up transcontinental airliners mid-flight, as well as America's long-term ties to Europe, the United States' self-interest, she says, dictates paying attention to the circumstances of Muslims there.

"It's about what are the tools we're giving Europe to push back against violent ideology. The goal is not for everyone to love America," she says. "There is a narrative suggesting they cannot be Western and Muslim. How do you push back against that?"

In returning to this bucolic campus, Pandith returns to the place where she first wrestled with diversity as a political issue and where her nascent career received an unexpected nudge from Barbara Bush.

In the spring of 1989, Smith was one of several campuses rocked by racial incidents, in this case a note saying "go back to the jungle" slipped under an African-American student's door. "That, literally, is the starting point of Farah in government," Pandith says. "The very issues we were confronting on campus are issues I'm dealing with in Europe every day."

The following fall, Pandith, as Smith's new student body president, addressed the issue in her convocation speech. "Diversity," she said, "like anything worth having . . . requires effort." Also on the podium was the first lady, who attended Smith for two years before leaving to marry George H.W. Bush.

The next day the White House called. Barbara Bush wanted a copy of Pandith's speech and permission to quote from it. One opportunity came the following spring at Wellesley College's graduation, where the first lady, the controversial commencement speaker, cited a "moving speech about tolerance given last year by a student body president of one of your sister colleges."

In addition to borrowing Pandith's words, Bush invited her to the White House. When Pandith graduated from Smith, she worked as confidential assistant to the administrator of USAID, a political appointment she attributes to Barbara Bush.

"That's how I got my first job," Pandith says. "She was kind enough to ask me what I was interested in doing and gave me a chance."

'The hub of the wheel'

Pandith was barely a year old when her family visited relatives in Massachusetts and stayed because of unrest back home in their native Kashmir. She lived on the grounds in Braintree of the Massachusetts Respiratory Hospital, where her mother was medical director, and then moved to Milton. Her parents divorced when she was 11, and she has never married.

She attended Milton Academy from kindergarten through 12th grade, studied Koran at the Sunday school at the Islamic Center of New England's mosque in Quincy, and spent summers visiting relatives in India. A few years after graduating from Smith, she earned a master's degree from Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

Pandith is outgoing and poised and ambitious - so assimilated into the overwhelmingly non-Muslim communities of her childhood that she was elected copresident of both her junior and senior classes at Milton. When classmates complained about the high price of prom tickets, she organized pizza sales to defray the costs. She has a wide circle of friends that crosses party lines, dating from her days at Milton to her current life in Washington, and enjoys cooking Indian dishes for the dinner parties she hosts.

"Farah is the hub of the wheel. She is the letter writer. She is the e-mail writer," says John Marshall, her copresident at Milton and now a Rockefeller Foundation fellow working with the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority. "Wherever she's been she introduces friends to each other. Now some of my good friends are people I know through Farah. It's bridge building on a small level. I can see how that skill transfers on a professional level."

Peter Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, calls her a "very 21st century" woman with a "very grand dame old school elegant approach." Singer, who was founding director of Brookings' project on US policy toward the Islamic world, also calls Pandith an exception in an administration he often considers tone-deaf in its dealings with the Muslim world.

"She's one of the unfortunately few people within the structure right now that I would describe as someone who 'gets it,' " Singer says. "She gets both the scope of the problem but also how knee-jerk reactions aren't going to solve it."

A balanced view

Pandith works for the administration of an unpopular president and carries her message at a time when many in Europe, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, disagree with the US war in Iraq. She distinguishes between "American foreign policy that happens to be directed at a country that is Muslim" and the criticism she often hears in Europe that the US is anti-Islam. "It is not because they are Muslim-majority countries that we have policies," she says.

Where Muslims in the United States tend to be better educated and more affluent than the general public, the opposite is true in Europe. Pandith touts this success at a time when rumors that Barack Obama is Muslim have threatened his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination and when surveys find a significant minority of Americans are suspicious of Muslims.

"I'm not painting a picture of America as a perfect place. We're a work in progress," Pandith says. "We're not telling European countries how to do it," she adds. "They're coming to grips with the idea of balancing identities, and it's useful for them to use another Western Muslim experience."

Pandith's day here in Northampton ends with a meeting with Emily Taylor, president of Smith's Student Government Association. Her biggest challenge, Taylor relates, came when a student newspaper called The Right View criticized affirmative action and noted African-American and Hispanic-American communities may "not put as much emphasis on academic achievement."

"My year was just like yours," Pandith tells Taylor. "An ugly incident made our campus stronger."

Meanwhile, Pandith's term with the State Department ends when a new president takes office in January. Pandith doesn't know what she'll do next, but taking a break, she says with a laugh, is not in her nature. Asked whether she'd ever consider running for public office, the former student government president says, "Of course." Asked whether she would run in Massachusetts, she says, "Where else?"

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