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Farah Pandith explores how to defeat the extremist threat

Pandith gives book talk at START on countering violent extremism

In July, Farah Pandith visited START to give a talk on her new book, “How We Win: How Cutting-Edge Entrepreneurs, Political Visionaries, Enlightened Business Leaders, and Social Media Mavens Can Defeat the Extremist Threat.”

A world-leading expert and pioneer in countering violent extremism, Farah Pandith is a frequent media commentator and public speaker. She served as a political appointee under presidents George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. She was the first-ever special representative to Muslim Communities, serving both Secretaries Hillary Clinton and John Kerry.

Under President George W. Bush, Pandith was the director for Middle East Regional Initiatives at the National Security Council, and chief of staff of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Bureau for Asia and the Near East.

She also served on the Department of Homeland Security’s Advisory Council, chairing its task force on countering violent extremism. She is currently a senior fellow with the Future of Diplomacy Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School, as well as an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“When I left government service in 2014, it was not because I was tired of the work I was doing,” Pandith said during the talk. “It was because I wanted to be able to share with people who were asking, in my view, the wrong questions, about what was going on globally.”

In the book, Pandith argues that the solutions to the crisis of recruitment and radicalization are available and affordable.

“I had travelled to more than 100 countries as Special Representative to Muslim Communities,” Pandith said. “I had talked to tens of thousands of Muslim youth all over the world. I wrote this book because I felt it was important to share what I had seen. I thought it was morally correct to speak truth to power. This book is a passion project, but everything about it is truth to power.”

Pandith described extremism as a virus infecting individuals and entire communities, shattering lives, destroying families and disrupting the global economy.

“Right after 9/11, everyone said it was because the attackers were poor, uneducated, mentally unstable,” Pandith said. “But what I learned is that those elements may make a difference in some communities, but that for young people, you’re always looking for who you are, the meaning of your life. If you’re asking those questions while your body is changing, your mind is changing, and now you have bad guys trying to tell you how to be a real Muslim, you’re going to have an identity crisis. It’s this feeling of being unsure of culture versus religion, being unsure of who you are.”

Pandith argued that the United States and governments all over the world can do far more in countering extremism.

“The reason why we have failed in countering violent extremism is because government doesn’t do emotion well,” Pandith said. “Government doesn’t do identity. The bad guys are not 85-year-olds trying to recruit 16-year-olds, it’s peers recruiting peers. It all starts with a crisis of identity.”

“No government in the world has gone all-in on countering violent extremism,” Pandith said. “When a government wants to fix something, there’s a way to go about it. You know how to activate every element. We did not do this.”

One of the solutions Pandith pointed to was encouraging the diverse expression of Islam in communities all over the world.

“Diversity is our friend in countering extremism, monolithic Islam is not,” Pandith said. “Saudi Arabia has deployed millions of dollars globally to encourage the idea that there is one type of Islam. They’ve done this by setting up schools and giving free Korans translated in such a way that nuance is removed, they’ve provided free textbooks all around the world. They’ve gone around the world and they’ve obliterated signs of other types of Islam. I argue that if you don’t have the idea of the monolithic expression of Islam, then extremist groups can’t find footing in local populations.”

START staff were enthusiastic in their praise for Pandith’s book.

“It’s so packed full of information and ideas I’m going to have to go back and read it again,” START Executive Director Amy Pate said about the book. “Don’t skip any part of this book, it’s very interesting.”