We work at the grassroots level throughout the Muslim World to counter violent extremism before it takes hold, to promote tolerance and understanding, and to foster better relations with the United States.
By Sammi Falvey
Understanding the difference between what citizen diplomacy is and what the roles and responsibilities of citizen diplomats are can be difficult. On paper, citizen diplomacy is a grass roots interaction between a person from one country with a person from another. This interaction is the basis for or a contribution to both people’s understandings of each other’s country, life, traditions, religion, and other aspects of culture. These interactions are meaningful because they allow for a person-to-person exchange of ideas that can promote tolerance, understanding, and cultural awareness.
As nice and neat as this definition sounds it is important to point out that there are, generally speaking, no standard roles and responsibilities. For example, on a moral basis you should always tell the truth when talking to someone. So, ideally, when you come into contact with someone who is different from you, and you are having an informative conversation, you should be telling the truth. But in the end you will be telling your truth. And I will be telling mine.
As a young Muslim, Italian-American, Jersey-girl, I pull from my identity as a way to discuss important issues with the people I meet in other countries. My close friend Amaris is a young, Baptist, first-generation, Afro-Caribbean-American girl born and bred in New York who has lived in the south now for two years. If she and I were to talk to the same person, and answer the same question, there is a good possibility that we will have something different to say.
Holding a standard for roles and responsibilities with regard to citizen diplomacy is difficult because there are so many variables that come with each person-to-person interactions. Like with the standard of being honest, what if my truth or honest answer is totally different than someone else’s honest answer? Or, what if our truths are not the norm? What impact will my truth have on my conversation partner? Will he or she take it as a fact, or as an opinion? Does this inform them about the whole of our country, or culture, or religion? So, as a field of study or practice, how can anyone regulate citizen diplomacy?
The reason I bring these questions up is because I have now been a citizen diplomat in Tajikistan for six weeks. So, although I will be boarding a plane back to ‘America the beautiful’ in just a few days (and will be relieved to enter the garden state again!) these ideas still weigh on my mind.
As a Muslim woman I wear hijab. In Tajikistan the hijab, or headscarf, has become more popular since the creation of the democratic country, but now the tradition is under some scrutiny by the government. It isn’t seen as a particularly ‘modern’ or ‘Tajik’ and so it has been prohibited in most professional settings—places like universities and government establishments. At the NGO where I worked for the last chunk of my time in Tajikistan, there is no prohibition and I wore my hijab freely.
My students, who are all Muslim, recently mustered the courage to ask me why I wear ‘the scarf on my head?’ I couldn’t help the huge smile and faint giggle that bubbled up as I answered rather incredulously ‘because I am a Muslim’. This remark was greeted with a lot of ‘mashAllahs’, then almost immediately the follow up question ‘where are you from?’. I laughed at this too, ‘America’, and then ‘Yes, my mother and father are American’, and then ‘My ancestors are a European mix’.
At this point we were all sitting around a long, wooden table in the middle of the classroom. I was getting some rather inquisitive looks while my students mumbled in Tajik to each other. After a minute or so, someone asked what the group must have decided was a good question. He said politely, ‘We had no idea that American Muslims existed, what are your people’s customs then?’
This is when all of the questions I have about citizen diplomacy came crashing down. These students wanted me to speak on the lives and experiences of every American Muslim. How could I talk about my customs, knowing full well that other people don’t do the same things? Not only did I feel unprepared for such a question, I also knew I was responsible for a real answer. What I said would inform these students about Muslim life in America; a topic totally alien to them. I knew there were bound to be people in the classroom that took away some sort of generalization or a conceptualization of America that is true for me, but possibly not for everyone else.
I was scared.
I started with the disclaimer ‘For me, being a Muslim on a daily basis is…”. It was the best I could do. This exchange was citizen diplomacy at its finest, but what was my role? What were my responsibilities? There is no standard response for this kind of question. I had to decide whether or not I would take-up the role of being one of the only channels of this kind of information for my students. I would also have to accept the responsibility of becoming possibly one of the only sources and experiences for my students. That is a crazy concept to me, that level of responsibility. But I accepted that responsibility when I got on the airplane and decided to become an Unofficial Ambassador.