The Washington Post

State Department taps Texas lawyer to serve as ‘America’s ambassador to Muslims’

Shaarik Zafar, the State Department’s new special representative to Muslim communities. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Is there a tougher job description than Shaarik Zafar’s?

As the State Department’s new special representative to Muslim communities, the boyish-looking Texas lawyer is America’s ambassador to Muslims around the world during a summer of nonstop grim headlines from Gaza, Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. All are places where his brand is not, let’s say, wildly popular.

Having just spent a decade working for domestic federal agencies, primarily with fellow Muslims, on topics that include civil rights violations, police surveillance and Transportation Security Administration screening, Zafar knows the deal.

His work will be done, often, through others.

“It has to be a bank shot,” says Zafar, whose appointment will be formally announced Wednesday. “A Muslim guy with the U.S. government is going to have limited credibility.”

The sensitivity of the topic — how Muslims interact with the U.S. government — flared just this month. Prominent Swiss celeb-professor Tariq Ramadan announced that he would skip the biggest annual gathering of U.S. Muslims — the conference of the Islamic Society of North America in Detroit this weekend — to protest what he sees as a Muslim-American leadership silent or deferential to U.S. power brokers on domestic and foreign issues.

“In bending over backwards, in saying ‘Yes sir!’ they sacrifice not only their dignity, but forget and betray their duty,” Ramadan wrote this month, prompting prominent responses. A similar discussion erupted in July when a large Arab American group called on Muslim leaders to boycott ­government-sponsored iftars — the fast-breaking dinners held during Ramadan — to protest U.S. policy toward the Israel-Gaza war (few did).

Thirteen years after the Sept. 11 attacks prompted a major rethinking of the U.S. government’s outreach to Muslims, Zafar’s appointment reflects a new phase that may be less apparent but deeper and more effective.

Many feel dismayed that the Obama administration no longer gives high-profile priority to Muslim outreach compared with early in his presidency, when he made key speeches in Turkey and Cairo. Years of headlines on such topics as U.S. law enforcement mosque surveillance and failed Mideast peacemaking strained relationships with the government.

But Zafar’s entire career reflects a lower-level infrastructure that has been growing steadily across the government, creating partnerships on topics that are not all terrorism-related. And many more Muslims are part of these efforts, compared with the first engagement office in 2005 that was staffed entirely by non-Muslims. Government iftars, for example, have flourished.

With Zafar, the position of special representative to Muslim communities will move into a new office at the State Department aimed at faith outreach that is rapidly expanding. That office was created last year and will soon have 25 people with specialties such as religion in Europe and training overseas diplomats to engage more with religious figures.

For years, the State Department has offered courses on topics such as religious freedom and religious persecution. But former and current department staff and advocates say many in the Foreign Service are fearful of crossing church-state lines or aren’t knowledgeable about religion.

Some advocates say they are hopeful that the growing network of connections across government and the selection of someone with policy experience in counterterrorism and hate crimes may help.

“In the past, the State Department has been very hesitant in dealing with religious issues, and I think that’s changing,” said Haris Tarin, D.C. director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a well-known advocacy group that works with — and watches — the various government offices that specialize in engagement with Muslims.

Zafar’s predecessor, Farah Pandith, had held the job since it was created by then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2009 and focused on building initiatives with young Muslims around the world.

The most common knock against this position — both under Pandith and Zafar — is that it’s window-dressing and that the office-holders have no influence on the people actually making policy. Whether that criticism will be lobbed at the State Department’s new faith-based office remains to be seen.

On the surface, Zafar has his work cut out for him. When the special representative to the world’s 1 billion Muslims showed up for work one day this week, he forgot his work ID and wasn’t allowed to park in the State Department lot. His assistant had to come escort him to his small office, where he says he does his own dishes after hosting clergy and religious leaders for tea.

Although he’s being officially nominated Wednesday, the 39-year-old father of two began work in July. He hasn’t begun his overseas travel but has hosted clergy from Afghanistan and Senegal and addressed key domestic groups, including North American Pakistani physicians and the annual convention of the minority Ahmadiyya Muslim Community.

But his to-do list is daunting. His goals chart for the office includes developing a plan to combat Shia-Sunni sectarian violence and trying to discourage American foreign fighters from traveling to conflict areas. This week alone, two American Muslims were reportedly killed in Syria fighting for the extremist Islamic State group.

Zafar says he will focus primarily on “pushing open doors” — on matters where cooperation is likely. Two of the State faith office’s top priorities are climate change and entrepreneurship. Another priority (which Pandith focused on as well) is promoting “the creative economy” in Muslim communities overseas, helping them powerfully tell stories through film or art that may help further U.S. foreign policy goals.

Zafar will be in Los Angeles in a few weeks to meet with filmmakers who can help storytellers abroad.

The white board in his office where he brainstorms is topped with cultural themes: “sports, Hollywood.”

Another priority is also a basic goal of U.S. policy: to promote religious freedom overseas. This year has been a parade of nightmare stories about the treatment of Muslim and non-Muslim minorities in countries across the Middle East in particular.

Zafar is likely to find willing allies, particularly among conservatives, on the topic of Christian persecution.

Zafar has reason to see open doors. Despite all the anxiety of the past decade, U.S. Muslims are by far the most supportive American faith group of Zafar’s boss: Seventy-two percent of American Muslims told Gallup this summer they approved of the job President Obama is doing, nearly 20 percent higher than the next group. Globally, confidence in Obama’s foreign policy is lowest in Muslim-dominated areas of the Middle East (including Pakistan, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Turkey and Egypt), but outside of that region, the story is different. In Indonesia, with the largest Muslim population, 60 percent of people have confidence in Obama. In Bangladesh, the figure is 74 percent, and in Nigeria (which is 50 percent Muslim) it is 53 percent.

Not on his list: Discussing hot topics such as the U.S.-launched war in Iraq or U.S. policy on Israel. But Zafar knows these are the most important issues for millions of Muslims overseas. While he worked since 2004 for domestic agencies (including the departments of Justice and Homeland Security), he was often asked about foreign policy by American Muslims as well as by people when he’d travel overseas.

This week, he recalled being sent to the Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan several years ago to talk up the U.S. view of civil rights and his work in a Justice Department office that focused on combating post-Sept. 11 backlash against minorities such as Muslims and Sikhs.

“They didn’t want to talk about that,” he said. “They were very upset about the war in Iraq. It was very tense. I’d say, ‘That’s not my area of expertise.’ You have to be prepared to get yelled at, but if you can hold firm and keep at it, by the end we were taking photos and having tea. If you keep at it — it can’t be one-and-done.”

Yet Zafar did not go back to Kyrgyzstan.

Despite his daunting portfolio, Zafar appears idealistic and upbeat. “People will have strongly held views” on controversial foreign policy issues where there is division and he doesn’t have much influence, Zafar said. “But I can’t focus only on discussing those issues, because there are enormous opportunities in these other areas.”

Michelle Boorstein is the Post’s religion reporter, where she reports on the busy marketplace of American religion.


Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments
Most Read


Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Your Three. Video curated for you.

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.