The first Muslim woman appointed to a position in President Barack Obama’s administration met with lawmakers Monday and discussed her role on an interfaith advisory board the new administration hopes will broaden dialogue and understanding.
Dalia Mogahed’s dimpled smile shined from under her hijab, the Muslim headscarf, as she addressed senate staff and think tanks at a meeting organized by the Congressional Muslims Staffers Association to discuss American Muslim public opinion in the wake of a recent survey.
The Egyptian-born American who heads the Gallup American Center for Muslim Studies a non-governmental research center providing data-driven analysis on the views of Muslim populations around the world, became the first Muslim veiled woman to be appointed to a position in the White House.
“I am very honored to be given this opportunity to serve my country in this way,” Mogahed, who will be Obama’s window into the Muslim American community, told AlArabiya.net.
Last month, Obama signed an executive order setting up a new body at the White House called the “Office of Religious Partnerships” to support religious institutions and strengthen inter-faith dialogue and government ties. The advisory group, consisting of 25 religious and secular representatives, is to report to the president on the role religion can play in resolving social problems and addressing civil rights issues.
“The key idea of the council is to tap into the energy and wisdom of religious organisations and leaders who focus on faith groups to solve common problems,” explained Mugahed.
Mogahed will brief Obama on what Muslims want from the U.S. in a bid to create channels of communication and correct erroneous image of Muslim Americans.
The advisory group will help define issues of concern to religious constituents including the effects of economic crisis on minority groups and the phenomenon of fatherless families. It will also seek to reduce the number of abortions and strengthen inter-faith relations between Muslims and Christians.
“The main premise behind the council is cooperation between faiths and helping them become a force that helps push society forward,” said Mogahed. “These societal challenges are shared by all faith-based groups and it is our task to unite them against common challenges.”
Mogahed will keep her full time job at Gallup while serving as an advisor.
Mogahed’s appointment comes at a critical time given the rising tide of Islamophobia in the media and within some academic circles.
“I am very happy that Dalia was asked to be part of this advisory group because she represents a unique position,” Jihad Saleh Williams, from Congressional Muslim Staffers Association, told AlArabiya.net.
“There is always the question of who are the experts? Who speaks about Muslims? That is on the minds of policy makers and people in general,” said Williams. “Dalia knows the Muslim community and all that she says comes from her work at Gallup, which is fact-based and is the opposite of the ‘experts’ we often see on TV who speak, not based on facts, but on ideology. Dalia is the fact-based alternative to that,” he explained.
As a senior researcher and executive director of the Gallup Center with a chemical engineering and business administration background, Mogahed headed studies on Muslim public opinion worldwide. Her studies and resulting statistics have been quoted in prominent media such as the Wall Street Journal, Foreign Policy magazine, Middle East Policy and the Harvard International Review.
In 2008, she co-authored woth John L. Esposito “Who speaks on behalf of Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think,” the largest and most comprehensive study of the Muslim public opinion around the world.
The first Muslim advisor appointed by the White House marks the beginning of an opportunity for Muslims to seriously engage in public policy and contribute to developing solutions to social challenges.
“American Muslims have ideas and should participate in the development of solutions that serve their country and it is important that they get the opportunity to do so,” Mogahed said.
She hopes to counter stereotypes of Muslims as extremists and sources of unrest that have gained ground in recent years in the wake of U.S.-led wars in two Muslim countries.
As for being the first veiled woman in the White House, Mogahed said the veil was a non-issue in the process of hiring and that her appointment was based on Obama’s interest in hearing from Muslims and her ability to provide that information through her work at Gallup.
“Hijab was not an issue. What the Obama administration is after is sound advice on how to engage American citizens in a common cause,” Mogahed said.
There are currently two full time Muslim hires in the White House, though neither hold high-ranking political positions. However Williams said that the Obama administration is generally behind on appointments and that the Muslim community, like other groups, have submitted resume books they hope will be consulted as more staffing decisions are made throughout the summer.
For a video featuring Dalia Mogahed visit