Shaarik Zafar is America’s representative to Muslims. He’s got his work cut out
By Yasar Khan
The task on Shaarik Zafar’s hands is somewhat herculean. As a U.S. State Department diplomat, his mission isto engage with Muslim communities around the world. Comfortable in his own skin, he is clearly a straight-talker. With a decade of experience under his belt within the administration and Homeland Security, Zafar is now a seasoned operator.
The position was first created by Hillary Clinton in 2009, and went to Zafar’s predecessor, Farah Pandith. Pandith didn’t win plaudits for her work, but the role itself is constrained by a limited mandate and a limited resources. It is, however, a portfolio that will certainly be needed come the next administration, irrespective of whoever is at the helm.
Zafar believes his role is multi-faceted, and not limited to engaging with Muslims through the prism of counter-terrorism. “We recognize that there are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, by and large they care about the same issues as all people do, like clean environment, growing the economy, peace and security,” he tells Newsweek Middle East, whilst on a tour of the region. His goal is not to target elites, but to engage as broadly as possible. “Yes we engage students at elite universities. But I go to madrasaas [in this case, religious schools] too—I’ve gone to very conservative madrasas, and the message is the same. It’s amazing how just by showing up and by giving people respect” he is able to win trust, he says.
Zafar drives the State Department’s engagement with Muslim communities around the world. In broader terms, his role focuses on advancing bilateral relations, as well as promoting economic development, educational and training opportunities for people; and counter extremism.
Zafar says his approach “is to make sure that we have a broad level of engagement with these communities. I refuse to only engage Muslim communities on issues like terrorism,” because he believes that opportunities in education and entrepreneurship, among others, outweigh other considerations.
America’s relationship with the Muslim world has faced setbacks, not least with interventionism from the deposition of Iran’s Shah to the Iraq war. Zafar is conciliatory. “We recognize that in many parts of the world the relationship hasn’t always been as strong as it should be. There are reasons for that,” he says, and these reasons have shaped the creation of his role and the need for a focused portfolio.
But for his nation, “a stable Middle East, a stable South Asia is incredibly important; it is a key part of our foreign policy. That is why [when] President [Barack] Obama said ‘We want to end the war with Iraq, we want to draw down the effort with Afghanistan,’ we recognize that stability in this region would mean stability in the U.S. We are in this together.”
But that’s not to say that countering terrorism is not off his agenda. His predecessor was tightly focused on that particular remit, with limited success. Countering propaganda from outfits such as Daesh is key, and on this subject, Zafar is strident. “One of the lies that these groups propagate is that there is a war on Islam. Al Qaeda is different from Daesh, which is different from Boko Haram—but they have some commonalities. One commonality that they all use is [the idea] that there is a war on Islam. And that is false,” he says. “If there is a war on Islam, it is being waged by Daesh, by Al Qaeda, and Boko Haram killing more Muslims than anybody else, here in the Middle East, in Pakistan and elsewhere.”
Secular governance is the way forward, he believes, even if there is a role for non-government actors. “When it comes to religion and theology, the reality is that governments have very little credibility. Yes, I’m the special representative for Muslim communities, but I’m not an alim (religious scholar), I’m not a sheikh, I’m not a religious authority.”
Those pretenders to the throne who do seek to use Islam for nefarious political ends do have to be “exposed,” he says. “We have to say that no, clearly that they are not winning. But when it comes to countering that narrative, there is a role for religious leaders, young people, parents who lost their loved ones as victims of terrorism. Everybody has a role to play. I think that is how we’ll InshaAllah, we will eventually be successful when you recognize what their specific roles are and we stay in our lanes.”
Zafar slams terrorist groups for using the Israel-Palestine conflict as an excuse for terrorism, adding that such justification was just “lazy thinking.” “How can that ever be used to kill other Muslims? They’re slaughtering Muslims, Yazidi, other people that have nothing to do with that conflict.” For Zafar, this is proof that “what they really care about is power and control; it has nothing to do with religion.” He adds: “They use religion to justify what they are doing but it is really about power and control and inflicting their world view; that ‘unless you believe like us, unless you agree to let us run your society, not only will we remove you, we will destroy and kill you.’”
His task is made harder because of domestic politics and the rising tide of Islamophobia, as presidential contender Donald Trump’s statements about Muslims being banned from entry to the U.S. have made headlines across the world. Zafar is sanguine. “I’m going to be honest with you. Lots of people are following the American election, including Muslim communities around the world. When I travel—I was just in Pakistan, Turkey, India elsewhere—this issue comes up, about statements being made,” he says.
“As an American diplomat I’m not going to engage myself in domestic politics. But what I will tell you is that you have to be honest and truthful. And acknowledge that racism and bigotry exist in every corner of the globe, including the United States.”
But Zafar clearly believes American exceptionalism is at play; he was honored, he says, to have been present during Obama’s speech at a mosque recently. He paraphrases Obama: ‘If anyone questions where you fit in, let me tell you that you fit in right here. You are not a Muslim or American, you are a Muslim and an American.’ “What the president said is incredibly important and I think he displayed tremendous leadership,” Zafar says. “Here we have laws in place, that when discrimination happens, these are not just laws that stay in books. We implement them, we prosecute people for hate crimes. People go to jail when they do this. We have Muslims having the right to practice religion, to pray, to build mosques.
“American civil society overwhelmingly supports pluralism. Our motto is e pluribus unum—out of many, one. And when these types of incidents happen, no one talks about the thousand of Jewish rabbis [who] wrote a letter in support of Muslim refugees or the fact that the Muslim American community after [the attacks of] San Bernardino raised $200,000, or the young boy in Texas who took his savings to a mosque because it was vandalized. And you hear these things over and over again,” he says.