Pandith

Farah Pandith, a former State Department diplomat, speaks Thursday at the Aspen Security Forum.

The way to defeat Islamic extremism is to marshal the better angles of the economic, political and cultural forces at play in the modern world to push back in every way possible against the “us versus them” mentality that gives rise to radical fundamentalism, according to an expert who spoke Thursday at the Aspen Security Forum.

So far, the presidency of Donald Trump has not advanced those goals, said Farah Pandith, a former State Department diplomat and the author of the book “How We Win: How Cutting-Edge Entrepreneurs, Political Visionaries, Enlightened Business Leaders and Social Media Mavens Can Defeat the Extremist Threat.”

“President Trump didn’t come in here saying we want to defeat the ideology of ‘us versus them.’ In fact, he has added a spark to it,” she said in an interview at the Doerr-Hosier Center with New Yorker staff writer Susan Glasser. On top of that, the soft-power approach championed by previous administrations — Pandith worked under both presidents Bush and Obama — has languished since January 2017, she said.

Pandith has dedicated her career to studying where the next wave of extremism might be coming from and how to combat it. She emphasizes that there are 1 billion Muslims around the world under the age of 30 who are struggling with an identity crisis. Her studies dive into changes in the way that Muslim youth are eating, dressing and speaking. How the world around them responds to that identity crisis could be a turning point in an individual or a community’s decision regarding extremist ideology, which remains a potent force in the Muslim world.

Glasser asked how images will play in the Muslim world of an audience at a Trump rally on Wednesday in North Carolina chanting “send her back,” concerning Ilhan Omar, a Somali-born member of Congress. The audience was following Trump’s lead from the weekend when he said on Twitter that Omar and other women of color in Congress should “go back” to their countries of origin (all but Omar were born in the United States). 

“What we are seeing is the rise of ‘us versus them’ in whatever form it comes,” Pandith said. “The kind of bad guys that I have been working on will take anything that we do in our country and utilize it to say, ‘We have told you all along, that being Muslim means you can’t be American, that the West is against Islam, or there is only one way to be a Muslim and we are going to show you how to do it.’”

“Our conversations here matter,” she said, since they are sent around the world and absorbed by the 1 billion-strong young Muslim community. 

When the wrong message is sent, it can be dangerous, Pandith added. 

Even though the mainstream media conversation around Isis and Al Qaeda seems to indicate that they are defeated, they are continuing to recruit and they are savvy, she said. The same level of savvy should be part of the U.S. government’s playbook but that is rarely the case, she said, arguing that the model should be the corporate marketing department that invests in studying cultural trends.  

Curtis Wackerle is the editor of Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at curtis@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @CurtisWackerle.