About the Author: Ryan Bradeen serves as Cultural Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
On the eve of the Eid holiday, Muslim civic groups and students in Bangladesh received well-wishes from Special Representative to Muslim Communities Farah Anwar Pandith, who was in Dhaka and the neighboring city of Tangail to kick off a four-country South Asian tour. Pandith's visit follows closely on the heels of President Obama's recent stops in India and Indonesia, and continues the President's outreach to the Muslim communities of Asia. Bangladesh has the world's fourth-largest Muslim population, with an estimated 90 percent of its 160 million people practicing Islam. In three short days, Special Representative Pandith saw firsthand the wide diversity contained within the country, from the dense market districts of the capital to the garment export zones sprouting up outside the city, to the rich agricultural lands that support the populace.
In the small city of Tangail, 70 kilometers northwest of Dhaka, Special Representative Pandith took questions from a group of journalists, lawyers, educators, and NGO leaders that included members of the indigenous Garo minority. But the focus of Pandith's tour was meeting with young leaders from what she terms "Generation Change," those under 30 years old. In visits to Muslim communities in 30 countries during the past year, she has observed a new generation of change-makers forging organizations and methods to address their own countries' problems and to build stronger communities. “My job is to promote and advance the President's commitment to dialogue. The U.S. government can build partnerships and initiatives that come from ideas at the grassroots. We can do this by listening and being conveners, facilitators, and intellectual partners with the leaders on the ground. We want to work with all segments of civil society -- artists, organizers, and entrepreneurs -- and build new relationships that can change the narrative from an 'us and them' to a 'we'."
In Dhaka, Special Representative Pandith met with young leaders of social organizations such as Ejaj Ahmed, president of Bangladesh Youth Leadership Center and Korvi Rakshand of JAAGO. The 25-year-old Rakshand has established the first English-medium school for children in the slums of Dhaka. "We focused on English because English is not just a language; it is tool for life,” Rakshand said. He quickly realized that, to be successful, his students needed more than English; they needed nutrition and health services. As a result, JAAGO has become more than just a school. It now offers critical social and health programs to an entire district.
Special Representative Pandith remarked that the young leaders she has met around the world are similarly motivated to contribute to their own societies. “I see young leaders like you as force multipliers,” she said. Echoing Secretary Clinton's focus on 21st century statecraft, Pandith believes that through technology such as Facebook and Twitter, activists in Bangladesh can collaborate and cross-fertilize ideas with like-minded leaders elsewhere in the world. Pandith conveyed the commitment of the U.S. government to help foster such interchange. This commitment to engagement based upon mutual interest and mutual respect was laid out in President Obama's Cairo speech as well as his recent remarks in Indonesia.
In Bangladesh, where 80 percent of the population is under 40 years old, "Generation Change" represents a huge and vocal segment of the population. At the Madinatul Ulum Model Institute Kamil Madrassa in central Dhaka, Special Representative Pandith witnessed the eagerness of students and educators to engage with informed opinions from outside Bangladesh. The Institute is comprised of two distinct schools, one for girls and another for boys. Officials at both schools wanted their students to hear Pandith's remarks and participate in the Q-and-A session, but never before had a speaker addressed the joint student body of the two schools. After much deliberation, students agreed that if girls and boys sat on separate sides of the courtyard and if the girls wore niqab, the standards of decency could be upheld. Several students from both schools had studied English as part of Embassy Dhaka's Access scholarship program. Both boys and girls put their English studies to good use, asking the Special Representative a wide range of questions in a lively conversation. Pandith said, “We're reaching out to this new generation. They're truly tremendous. I think the future is filled with promise.”