About the Author: Charlotte Hu is the Public Affairs Officer at U.S. Embassy Georgetown, Guyana.
On September 30 Special Representative to Muslim Communities Farah Anwar Pandith made her first visit to the South America's Caribbean coast, with a special stop in Guyana. This country has a distinct history and one of Latin America's largest Muslim populations. Although Guyana's history often goes untold, there is a strong and vibrant cultural influence from South Asia. Today, many Guyanese are immigrants, or the descendants of immigrants, who came from India, present-day Pakistan, Java, and other parts of South and South East Asia. Beginning in 1838, Asian and South East Asian Muslims arrived in South America to work as indentured laborers, merchants, and farm workers. Ms. Pandith was eager to learn about Guyana, its people, and unique place within the Western Hemisphere.
Special Representative Pandith had a packed schedule in order to get a broad understanding of views from people across Guyanese society. She met with students from Bishop's College, Isa Islamic School, and Shaeed Boys and Girls Orphanage, had meetings with Muslim, inter-faith, and civic leaders, as well as an evening event with over 150 members of the Muslim Youth League.
In particular, Special Representative Pandith was impressed by the nuanced questions she was posed by Guyanese students. It was immediately clear that the Guyanese students, young and old, are globally-engaged, critical thinkers with a keen understanding of how world events influence their lives. While some students said they got news from Facebook, others obtained information from the mainstream media. No matter what the sources, they had questions that ranged from foreign policy to American culture.
“This morning, I was floored by the level of sophistication of the questions the Guyanese students asked. They are among the most well informed students I've met,” Ms. Pandith said. Quite the accolade given that the Special Representative has visited nearly 30 countries in the past ten months! The students voiced concerns about the reputation of Islam globally, asked about President Obama's vision and agenda, and inquired about the U.S. Constitution with regard to religious freedom. Guyana's focus on education was apparent throughout the trip.
Ms. Pandith was appointed in June 2009 and serves as the United States' first Special Representative to Muslim Communities. Her office is focusing on people-to-people engagement, especially with the "next generation" and building networks of like-minded thinkers. In her role as Special Representative, she wants to listen, engage, discuss, share, and partner with civil society and government leaders. She is focused on finding ways to build initiatives together for the common good.
"I am charged to directly engage with Muslims around the globe on a people-to-people level. I am listening to voices inside these communities, learning from them, brainstorming with them, and looking for ways to partner with them to create and grow sustainable, organic and scalable solutions to the greatest challenges we face," she said.
Ms. Pandith explained that President Obama's Cairo speech laid out a vision of engagement based on mutual interest and mutual respect. The President and Secretary Clinton have continually stressed the importance of reaching out and building dialogue and partnerships.
“I am here to listen, to seek new partnerships with civil society, to build a new way forward based on mutual interest and mutual respect. The Office of the Special Representative is a global portfolio,” she explained. “I have an opportunity to go beyond the traditional government-to-government approach and to really think about how we can build cooperation, partnerships, and dialogue with Muslim communities at the people-to-people level,” she explained.
A key part of Special Representative Pandith's work is to reach out to those under the age of thirty. Muslims make up about one fourth of the world's population and of this group approximately 60 percent or more are under thirty. Ms. Pandith calls this the "Facebook generation" -- those who connect in ways that were never available to previous generations. As a part of her efforts she uses social media tools like Facebook and Twitter to build a worldwide community of young people who are making positive change. Her message is clear -- young people are empowered as never before and it is up to them to take action in their communities.