How the U.S. engages with international Muslim communities

This past summer, I was appointed Special Representative to Muslim Communities at the State Department

Shaarik H. Zafar

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This past summer, I was appointed Special Representative to Muslim Communities at the State Department. As Special Representative, I am charged with driving Secretary Kerry’s engagement with Muslim communities around the world on issues of mutual interest and in support of shared goals.

There are approximately 1.6 billion Muslims around the world who by and large care about the same pressing issues as everyone else: peace and security, a clean environment, and a growing economy. How then can my office make an impact, given the enormity of these challenges and the size of the world’s Muslim population?

Simply put, I am addressing three critical areas in my role as Special Representative.

First, we are developing and writing policies that expand the Department’s capacity to engage faith communities, protect religious minorities -- Muslim and non-Muslim -- and counter violent extremism and promote tolerance and pluralism.

Emphasizing key challenges

Second, we are emphasizing key challenges and leveraging resources and expertise to partner with others to address them. For example, in support of our broader environmental agenda, we are highlighting efforts to conserve our oceans and promote a healthy environment to Muslims worldwide, including religious leaders who believe that protecting the earth’s resources is an obligation of their faith.

Third, we are seeking to address the aforementioned areas in ways that are creative - given the unique challenges we are faced with today. Because the average time an individual spends in a refugee camp is 17 years, we are exploring innovative ways to provide refugees entrepreneurship training in addition to life-saving humanitarian assistance. Because stories and culture matter, we are supporting the creative economy in Muslim countries by providing training to filmmakers and artists, both on developing and producing content, as well as distributing it into global entertainment markets. And working with the technology sector, we are looking for innovative ways to empower those leaders who are inspired to take on the ideological fight against violent extremism online, in their own voices, and consistent with their religious traditions.

Playing a greater role

Governments obviously have a role in this respect. But community and religious leaders must also play a greater role. This is not because they are to blame, but rather – when it comes to challenging an ideology that cloaks itself in religion – the credibility and efficacy of governments is often limited.

Meanwhile, the recruiting tactics of terrorist groups are growing increasingly sophisticated, leveraging social and new media. These spaces cannot go unchallenged. We must find creative ways to provide appropriate support to communities that we know are willing to take on the ideological fight in ways we simply cannot or should not.

In all of these areas, my focus is on results. While difficult, this is a challenge my colleagues in the U.S. Government, together with our regional partners, fully embrace. This is why I feel very fortunate to be out here, and I look forward to deepening our partnership with our international partners in advance of our shared goals and interests.


Shaarik H. Zafar was appointed as the Special Representative to Muslim Communities at the U.S. Department of State in July 2014. He is responsible for driving Secretary of State John Kerry’s engagement with Muslim communities around the world on issues of mutual interest, in support of shared goals, and to advance of U.S. foreign policy. He can be reached on Twitter at: @specialrepmc

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