Photo courtesy Smith College
During my senior year at Smith College, I developed a relationship with Barbara Bush, who guided me to my first job working for the administrator of the US Agency for International Development (USAID). After three years, I left to pursue graduate work at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. For my master’s thesis, I performed research in Kashmir, a region that General Anthony Zinni then called the “most dangerous place on earth.” Undeterred by curfews, shootings, and other violence, I interviewed young militants about their activities and goals, meeting them discreetly in private locations. On one occasion, there was an explosion near my car, giving me a sobering call to action. That summer was the first time I felt the kind of anger and heard the kind of thinking that allowed people to justify violence in the name of a political cause.
In 2002, after several years spent working in the private sector, I returned to USAID. I lived for a short time in Afghanistan before joining the National Security Council to fill a new role dealing with “Muslim outreach.” Later, in the wake of the Danish Cartoon Crisis, the Bush administration asked me to do what most European governments themselves hadn’t: develop Muslim engagement strategies across Western Europe. Over two years, I traveled to fifty-five cities in almost two-dozen countries to meet with young Muslims and hear their perspectives. I became a talent scout and entrepreneur, creating first of a kind influencer networks. These included the first pan-European network of professional Muslims, a network of women fighting violent extremism, as well as a network of young, Muslim elected parliamentarians. We experimented with using former extremists to dissuade kids from joining extremist groups, and we worked with technology entrepreneurs to generate new techniques for mobilizing people against extremism. This in-depth experience with European Muslims, alongside early attention to the importance of the ideological war at the policy level, convinced me that the right talent and influencers could fundamentally disrupt extremist recruiting.
In 2009, I briefed the then-new Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on my work in Europe. She asked me to expand the scope of my activities and to introduce programs in countries around the world. As America’s first-ever Special Representative to Muslim Communities, I traveled to Muslim communities in Africa, South America, Asia, Europe and North America – nearly one hundred countries — listening to youth and mobilizing credible voices against extremists. Initiatives I created include Generation Change, which gathered young “change makers” together to work on issues such as violent extremism; Viral Peace, an online counter-extremism initiative; and Hours Against Hate, a virtual campaign (co-created with Hannah Rosenthal) asking youth to reject bigotry and hatred around the world.
In January 2014, after a year spent launching several initiatives for Secretary Kerry including the Beehive in Malaysia, I left government, to serve as fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. I also served on Secretary Jeh Johnson’s Homeland Security Advisory Committee chairing the task force on countering violent extremism. I am now a senior fellow with the Future of Diplomacy Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School as well as an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
I believe in the innovation that occurs when passionate, dedicated, and well-intentioned people come together around a problem. I’ve served on the leadership or advisory boards of many organizations over the years, including the We Are Family Foundation, America Abroad Media, Tribeca Film Institute, RANE Network, and the Women in Public Service Project (of which I was a key architect). I have served as a Trustee of Smith College and of Milton Academy and a member of the Board of Overseers of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
My book is How We Win: How Cutting-Edge Entrepreneurs, Political Visionaries, Enlightened Business Leaders, and Social Media Mavens Can Defeat the Extremist Threat (HarperCollins). It describes my experiences with Muslim Millennials and presents a far-reaching redefinition of counter extremist policy solutions. I have spoken at the United Nations, the World Bank, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the British House of Lords, European Union, Aspen Ideas Festival, Google Zeitgeist, SXSW, TEDx, and dozens of other government organizations, companies, and universities in the United States, Europe and elsewhere. I have been interviewed and written about hundreds of times in global media, including Face the Nation, ABC’s This Week, New York Times Magazine, CNN, BBC, Bloomberg, MSNBC, CBS News, Al Jazeera, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, The Guardian, Times of India, Zaman (Turkey), and NDTVBusiness (India). In addition to my degree from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, I hold an A.B. from Smith College.
I was born in Srinagar, Kashmir, India and raised in Massachusetts.