A Talk with President Obama’s Advisor on Muslim Affairs, Dalia Mogahed
London, Asharq Al-Awsat – In this interview, Asharq Al-Awsat speaks to Dalia Mogahed, a Senior Analyst and the Executive Director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies – a non-partisan research center dedicated to providing data-driven analysis on the views of Muslim populations around the world.
Mogahed has co-authored a book entitled, ‘Who speaks for Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think,’ with John L. Esposito PhD, and has had articles published in The Wall Street Journal, Foreign Policy magazine, the Harvard International Review, the Middle East Policy journal and many other academic and popular journals.
Mogahed leads the analysis of Gallup’s unprecedented survey representing the opinions of Muslims worldwide, including Muslims in the West. She also directs the Muslim-West Facts Initiative through which Gallup, in collaboration with the Coexist Foundation, is disseminating the findings of the Gallup World Poll to key opinion leaders in the Muslim world and the West.
Mogahed travels the globe engaging diverse groups on what Muslims around the world really think. Her audiences have included the High-Level Group of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, the Community of West and Islam Dialogue (C-100) group of the World Economic Forum, the Brookings Institution’s US-Islamic World Forum, British parliamentarians, American senators, and religious leaders from every faith.
Mogahed earned her master’s degree in business administration with an emphasis on strategy from the Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business at the University of Pittsburgh. She received her undergraduate degree in chemical engineering. Upon graduation, Mogahed joined Procter & Gamble as a marketing products researcher.
The interview follows:
Q) What kind of Islam are you promoting?
A) I am on the council to serve my country by cooperating with other Americans to solve shared problems. I will draw heavily on the research Gallup has done on Muslim public opinion. I believe that the administration selected me to join this group because of this research. It means they are genuinely interested in understanding Muslim societies. At Gallup we believe that leaders make better decisions when those decisions are informed on the people. To solve the difficult problems facing the world today, ones that don’t stop at national boundaries or discriminate based on color or creed, leaders must hear what is on the minds of all people. President Obama and Muslims around the world tell us that they want to be partners in solving the world problems. Our research helps make this possible by giving ordinary people a voice at the table.
Q) How do you feel about being the first Muslim appointed to the Obama administration?
A) I am not actually the first Muslim. Other Muslims have been appointed to Obama’s administration. I am also not the only Muslim on the Whitehouse advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnership. I join Dr. Eboo Patel as the second Muslim on the council. I am however the first Muslim woman in this council and I feel very honored for the privilege to serve in this way, but I also recognize the responsibility that I’ve agreed to take on. I see my role much more in terms of what needs to get done rather than a historical accomplishment. I believe the accomplishments are yet to be fulfilled.
Q) Tell us about the role of the Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnership?
A) I am one of a 25-member advisory council to the Whitehouse that focuses on offering solutions for societal problems sourced in the wisdom of faith communities. More specifically, I am on the inter-religious dialogue and cooperation task force, which is made up of a group of only five. We will work on recommendations for our area of focus and these will be reviewed by the larger council and then included in an annual report with recommendations from the council to the President.
Q) What is your role as an advisor on Islam?
A) I would not say I am an advisor on Islam; I would say that it is my role to convey the facts about what Muslims think and feel. I see my role as offering the voices of the silenced majority of Muslims in America and around the world to the council so that our deliberation is informed by their ideas and wisdom. I believe that I was chosen because the administration cares about what Muslims think and wants to listen.
Q) What are your hopes and aspirations for American Muslims?
A) My hopes for Muslim Americans are that they enrich America by becoming fully engaged in its growth and development, as well as its struggles. Muslim Americans lag behind other Americans in their political and civic participation according to our research (National Portrait). The best thing they can do to strengthen America is to become fully engaged in writing its next chapter by getting involved and feeling a strong sense of ownership for the future of their country.
Q) Are you a Democrat or a Republican?
A) I’m an American dedicated to serving my country.
Q) How many hours do you work per week?
A) At least 60, but I have to admit I’m always thinking about work.
Q) What is your opinion of the increasing levels of Islamophobia in America?
A) Anti-Muslim prejudice in America is very real. Gallup finds that Muslims are among the most unfavorably viewed groups in the US and only a little over a third of Americans say they have no prejudice against Muslims. This presents a grave danger to America as a whole. The disease of racism, by definition, is a bias in judgment. This means that racism clouds sound judgment and leads people to make irrational decisions. It also divides a nation and prevents the full utilization of its intellectual and cultural resources. Racism is wasteful. Racism is a strategic disadvantage. I am very proud of the progress America has made in fighting this problem as it relates to the relationship between blacks and whites. In 1956, only 4 percent of Americans approved of a marriage between whites and blacks. The marriage that produced our president was illegal in Virginia when he was born. Today 80 percent of Americans approve of marriage between blacks and whites. Last year, Barack Obama became the first Democratic Presidential candidate in decades to carry Virginia. We are a stronger and smarter nation because of this growth. Our next growth spurt will be in ridding our society of all prejudice.
Q) Do you experience any problems wearing the Hijab in America and do you feel that it is necessary to wear it to express and identify yourself as a Muslim?
A) Hijab of course immediately identifies me as a Muslim which is an identity I wear with tremendous pride. However, I wear Hijab because, like the majority of Muslim women who wear it, I understand it to be a tenant of my faith, not to make any specific statement. Though it isn’t easy looking different in any country, I believe the US is one of the most accepting societies in the world. Most importantly, we hold religious freedom as a sacred value, and we have been a beacon and an example of this for the world. Our nation is strengthened, not threatened by allowing each person to practice their faith freely. As President Obama so eloquently said, “Our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness.”
Q) What is your message to Muslim women across the world?
A) I would say you have an important role to play in making the world a better place for future generations, as inventors and writers, mothers and healers, peacemakers and leaders. The world needs your energy and genius so continue contributing with all your heart.
Q) What areas of domestic and foreign policies do you believe the administration should be working to change?
A) I would advise it to listen first and foremost. Many have claimed that terrorists have ‘hijacked Islam’. I disagree. I think Islam is safe and thriving in the lives of Muslims around the world. What the terrorists have been allowed to take over are Muslim grievances. Muslim concerns over injustice have been largely dismissed by the previous administration leaving a vacuum exploited by extremists. This is a dangerous reality for all of us. Instead, the US must listen to mainstream Muslim concerns even if America does not agree with their perceptions. These issues can no longer be ignored or left for the extremists to monopolize.
Q) How would you advise President Obama to improve relations with American Muslims and the Muslim world?
A) I would endorse the action plan outlined in the report entitled ‘Changing Course’ that recommends four areas of action: respect, reform (political and economic) and resolution of conflict. When it comes to the US, I would recommend that a senior member of the administration go on a ‘listening tour’ of the US and hear what Muslim Americans are concerned about. Like all Americans, they are worried about the economic crisis, their financial future and jobs and like many other US citizens Muslim Americans are also worried about racial profiling, discriminatory immigration policy and the erosion of civil liberties.
Q) What kind of advice would you give Muslims around the world to improve relations with the US?
A) When Gallup asks Muslims around the world this question, their most frequent response is to help reduce extremism and modernize their societies. Many also say that they should build a relationship built on mutual respect with the West and the United States. It is interesting that Americans most frequently said that Muslims should improve communication with Americans and secondly, they mention reducing extremism. So there is already recognition among Muslims that not only does the extremism of a few hurt the relationship between Muslims and the West as a whole, but that Muslims are its first victims.
As a first step, I encourage Muslims around the world to reach out to the new administration and respond to President Obama’s call for a new way forward. Just a simple email to President@whitehouse.gov telling President Obama how they feel about this invitation and how they respond to it. Next I would encourage Muslims around the world to shift their thinking from that of victims, though many problems still exist, to valuable world citizens with constructive solutions to offer. I would encourage Muslims to give this new administration a chance before making judgments, but also to manage their expectations since American policy will and cannot change overnight or with one person. However, this does not mean that there cannot be any areas of cooperation, incremental improvement, and further dialogue.
In the end, what is most important in the long term is for young people to invest in building their own societies to reflect their values of justice, opportunity and compassion for all.
Q) Can you tell us about your own journey as an American Muslim woman who wears Hijab. What challenges have you faced along the way?
A) I have been tremendously blessed, Alhamdulillah [praise be to God]. I feel that mine is a uniquely American story. I grew up in an educated middle-class home, but with no special connections or privilege. By excelling in school I was able to attend a top university and helped pay my way by working during the summer as an engineering intern. My summer job was at a paper factory in a small Wisconsin town. I was only 19 years old and I was managing technicians who often reminded me that they’ve been working on the machine longer than I’ve been on earth! Many also told me that I was the first Muslim they’d ever met. Very few women worked in the factory, so I was already a minority just as a female, but I was also the only person wearing Hijab in the entire town and the only Muslim in the factory. All of this of course presented a challenge, but one that taught me a great deal. Once people got to know me I became a professional to them, not a woman in Hijab. I took this experience with me to my permanent job after college and to my graduate work. These situations taught me that living according to your conscience was more important than comfortably conforming to your surroundings. I think this simple lesson in life is one that has helped me succeed and has given me the courage to face the most difficult and daunting situations.