Former SBP Farah Pandith on countering extremism on college campuses

March 27, 2019
Story by Jordan Baker

Institutions continue to grapple with student demands to diversify their campuses and address hate. While many students are comfortable sharing their views, experts say more peer-to-peer networks are needed to counter and prevent external ideologies from taking hold.

We spoke with former Smith College student body president and 2017 Presidential Legacy Awardee Farah Pandith about ways extremist ideology influences young leaders and how college students can combat extremism on campus with intelligence in her new book, How We Win: How Cutting-Edge Entrepreneurs, Political Visionaries, Enlightened Business Leaders, and Social Media Mavens Can Defeat the Extremist Threat.

NCLC: You’ve seen extremism firsthand when you worked with both the Bush and Obama administrations. What did those experiences teach you about the current state of extremism in the U.S. and around the world?

Farah Pandith: I know that we cannot just sit back and expect extremists to decrease their efforts to recruit young people. We have to be more proactive and vigilant. Even in the last few years, the rise of hate has dramatically increased, and this is something we had not imagined could happen. What it’s taught me is that we need to imagine the worst and we need to make sure we’re building antibodies to protect our communities against hate.

NCLC: What inspired you to write this book?

FP: I had the privilege of serving presidents Bush and Obama in a post-9/11 context where I traveled to nearly 100 countries and talked to tens of thousands of young people. I felt it was important to be able to share what I saw and connect the stories and the trends in such a way that people could recognize the opportunities we have to fight hate and extremism. There are solutions that are affordable and available to us right now.

NCLC: How has your experience as a former student body president influenced your work in enlightening political visionaries about extremism?

FP: One of the most important experiences I had growing up was serving as student government president at Smith College. Being elected by your peers to serve as a representative means that as a leader you must be able to listen. I learned the power of listening and engaging. I also experienced the power of communities, the power of coalitions, and the power of young people to make a difference with things that matter to them. When I was at Smith, diversity, and racism were front and center. I learned a lot from my time as SGA president. I carry those lessons with me today.

NCLC: In your opinion, how does global extremism affect the higher education system?

FP: Campuses are not immune to the “us versus them” ideology. And just because terrorist organizations use the “us versus them” narrative doesn’t mean that other groups on campuses don’t use that same framing to try to recruit people to think a particular way. Campuses have to be alert and aware of what they stand for and of the importance of building strong connections with “the other”–whoever “the other” might be.

NCLC: How can colleges and universities protect their students from radical ideologies?

FP: What I would like to see is more efforts on college campuses to educate students about how extremists exploit and use the internet to bring forward their poisonous narratives. Students are smart. If they understand that they are being duped, I think there would be a lot more action out there to prevent that from happening.

NCLC: You suggest young people are on the front lines of the fight against extremism. Did you have a similar experience when you were a student body president at Smith College?

FP: The kind of extremism that we are dealing with in the 21st century luckily was not present in the protected world that I grew up in or on campus during my time at Smith. But I know that while it was decades ago, the “us versus them” had its own character at that point in time. What we can see is the thread of the power of these kinds of narratives to lure people in and to take hold. We all have to be vigilant and act when we see a rise in hate. Unfortunately, in 2019, we are seeing in real time the impact of this kind of ideology–whether it’s in Charlottesville or Christchurch, Boston or Bali.

NCLC: How can student leaders fight the battle against extremist ideology while still supporting Muslim students?

FP: Specific to Islam and Muslims what I want to see is creative solutions on campuses to talk about diversity in Islam and diversity of all kinds. And to do more to create peer-to-peer coalitions and networks that actually fortify communities and prevent external ideologies from taking hold. Young people are on the front lines because they see things that older generations don’t, and they know that the bad guys that are trying to recruit them are about their age. So these bad actors are deploying tactics that are extremely savvy for their potential recruits.

Young people can puncture any attempts these bad guys have to do bad things. And the way to do this is to build the kinds of antibodies in the systems through coalitions and creative ideas in the online and offline space to reject the “us versus them” narratives.

Farah’s new book, How We Win: How Cutting-Edge Entrepreneurs, Political Visionaries, Enlightened Business Leaders, and Social Media Mavens Can Defeat the Extremist Threat, is available in now stores and online. Learn more about Farah by visiting her website.


Photo provided courtesy of Farah Pandith

© 2020 National Campus Leadership Council

© 2020 National Campus Leadership Council

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