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Her name is not Khan

As Obama’s special representative to Muslim communities, Farah Anwar Pandith’s job is to tell the Muslim world, ‘Look, America ain’t all that bad’. Pandith invariably begins by pointing to her own life as a successful American Muslim woman of Indian origin.

india Updated: Feb 20, 2010 23:00 IST
Zia Haq

As Obama’s special representative to Muslim communities, Farah Anwar Pandith’s job is to tell the Muslim world, ‘Look, America ain’t all that bad’. Pandith invariably begins by pointing to her own life as a successful American Muslim woman of Indian origin.

“One-fourth of the world’s population is Muslim. We want to do as much as we can to build partnerships across the Muslim world, especially with young Muslims,” the 40-year-old Srinagar-born, on a visit to India, told Muslim bloggers at a special interaction.

Originally from the apple town of Sopore, 55 km from Srinagar, the Pandiths migrated to the US in 1970, a year after Farah was born.

Her mother Mehbooba is a pediatrician. Pandith’s father, Mohammad Anwar Pandith, was the scion of a business family in Sopore. Her grandfather, Abdul Samad Pandith set up Sopore’s first cinema, Samad Talkies, which shut after militants banned cinema in 1990.

Mahmoodur Rahman, former Aligarh Muslim University vice-chancellor recalls his days as a young magistrate in Sopore when a chance interaction with Abdul Samad Pandith turned into a lasting family relationship. “Farah has kept coming back to Kashmir over the years,” he says.

As special representative, Pandith’s mandate is to win Muslim hearts, from “Sao Paulo to New Delhi”. But her task is cut out. President Bush’s war on terror was widely viewed as a war on Islam itself. And more than a year after Obama came into White House, relations are still strained. Guantanamo has yet to be closed and Muslims still undergo harassing airport checks.

But Pandith’s qualifications — a Master’s from Tufts with specialisation in Islamic Civilisations, a dissertation on Kashmir insurgency — make her the right person for the job.

In his Cairo speech last June, President Obama had called for a “new beginning between the US and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect”. However, on the ground, Pandith often runs into tough questions from Muslims.

From a New Delhi imam to an industrialist, Indian Muslims told her that they saw “hope” in Obama but would like to see “change” next.

Jama Masjid’s Shahi Imam, Ahmed Bukhari, a cleric she was keen on meeting, asked her when President Obama would get tough on Israel. Scientist G N Qazi, the vice-chancellor of Jamia Hamdard University, wondered why after 30 previous visits, US had declined him a visa last year. “Because I’m Muslim,” he told her. Akhtarul Wassey, a Fulbright scholar and head of Islamic Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, told her that global peace would not be possible without peace in Palestine.

Despite tricky questions, Pandith’s visit was memorable. Sirajuddin Qureishi, the president of India Islamic Centre, eulogised her in a speech. Muslims queued up to present her handcrafts. Everybody she met, embraced her as one of their own — an Indian-origin person and a Muslim.