After an engaging discussion with Irshad Manji that left Irshad “ruminating,” Dalia Mogahed is back with an exclusive interview only at VirtualMosque.com!
Podcast: Download ( 40:52 — 13.6 MB)
Transcript of the Interview:
Anam Majeed [AM]: Were you born in the US or in Egypt?
Dalia Mogahed [DM]: I was born in Egypt and I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, where I attended public school and went to the University of Wisconsin. I studied Chemical Engineering and then joined Procter and Gamble as a products researcher. I then went on to get my MBA and joined Gallup. During that time I was studying Islam and Islamic Sciences, and I also started a cross cultural consulting and education organization in Pittsburgh where I would conduct talks and workshops for law enforcement, educators, and the general public.
AM: When you were growing up, through high school, was this something you always wanted to do, and saw yourself doing?
DM: It’s definitely not something I ever thought I would be doing. What I had always had in mind was to do something that was meaningful-something that had mission. I didn’t really know what that was going to be, but I had my compass targeted towards something that would make a difference and that would help…
AM: Like a contribution, islamically?
DM: A contribution, exactly, to the world and to try to make people’s lives better in some kind of way.
AM: It’s certainly a very unique thing, you don’t see very many Muslim people, let alone women, tackling survey research. If you could talk to a teenage Muslim girl right now, if she were to possess, you know, an inclination towards these types of things, would you have any advice to give her?
DM: I would say that everything is open to her. That every profession, especially in technical fields like survey research and other sciences are open to her and that she shouldn’t let anything limit what she might want to go into. And I also encourage her to really follow what she feels she has a special talent in. That talent is really gift from God and she has a responsibility, just like we all do, to show gratitude for that talent by utilizing it for good.
AM: That’s very true and InshAllah and I hope that we as Muslims can create cultural arenas where Muslim women are more comfortable in doing that. Moving onto the ‘Who Speaks For Islam?’ project, why did you pick that particular name?
DM: Well the name really came from the idea that when we look around and see who is speaking for Muslims, we find that a vocal, and often violent, fringe group has really monopolized the conversation on Muslims and who they are. And in many cases this vocal fringe is very polarizing in their representation. They are either saying that the West is the enemy of Islam or they are saying that Islam is the enemy of the West. But when we take a much more scientific look at this issue, and we give a voice to what we’re calling the silenced majority -the vast majority of people who have been silenced, who don’t have access to the airwaves, who aren’t speaking as loud as the extremists -when we hear their voices, we find a very, very different picture. And so the question is really a rhetorical question around who gets to speak for Islam, and who should be representing Muslims. Is it a tiny fringe that has access to the airwaves or should it be a much more representative and accurate view of what Muslims really think?
AM: I felt the whole nature of your project and the way it was done went a long way to remove some of the sensationalism from these radical viewpoints -by focusing on a large number of quote unquote ‘average people’ expressing their views on things. How did this come about and how long did it take you to conduct such a huge project?
DM: I would say that the idea of it started 70 years ago with the beginning of Gallup. The whole mission of the company -Dr. George Gallup, the founder of the company, his entire mission was to harness this natural resource he called ‘the wisdom of the people’. And he said that leaders made better decisions when those decisions were informed by the will of the people. And so he created this tool, this mechanism, this methodology, of helping people be heard through polling, through survey research. And after 9-11, our CEO Jim Clifton just looked around realized that no one really knew what was on the minds of a billion Muslims. He was watching a press conference where Donald Rumsfeld was asked how do Muslims feel about these attacks? And Donald Rumsfeld’s response was “Well, I don’t know, it’s not like you can take a Gallup poll.” And it was sort of this that sparked the need to take that mission that Gallup started 70 years ago to the entire world. Because at no time is it more important to help people to be heard, to actually get the views of ordinary people to leaders, than now when there is so much confusion and misunderstanding.
AM: You collaborated with John Esposito. How did that come about and did you find that it was more of a dynamic collaboration because of your two varied backgrounds?
DM: Well, collaborating with John Esposito was really something I could hardly believe was happening. It was really a dream of mine to get to work with him. And basically, I just wrote him an email and told him about our project and asked him if he’d like to be our senior scientist, our lead advisor on the project. And then I asked him to come over and meet our CEO. And he did, he was interested, he thought the project sounded interesting and he thought he could spend a few minutes here with us at Gallup, and so he came and ended up staying a lot longer than he anticipated because of what he heard. It was the first time I had ever met him, and he also met Jim Clifton, our CEO, and we talked about the project and what I think really attracted him about the project is for once we were going to move beyond the battle of the experts. We were trying to get to the real hard data of what Muslims really believe, rather than just guessing. And just the scope and the breadth of the project, the number of countries, the length of time we wanted to keep doing it -we pledged to keep studying this for the next hundred years -he was just so blown away by it, and decided to join the project. And it’s been, you know, just wonderful working with him, because what you might expect is someone with his experience and his name and expertise and status working with someone who is young and relatively new to the field, definitely new to this arena on sort of a national or global platform, that we might have a very unequal relationship of sorts -him sort of dominating the conversations and dictating what we do. And that wasn’t the case at all. We were really equal partners in our collaboration. I never felt that my opinions weren’t being heard or that I had to go along with something I wasn’t comfortable with. It was just a wonderful and very enjoyable partnership. And I would actually also like to add Jean Esposito, his wife, to that. I think we were really a team of three.
AM: It’s really a very prolific study. You mentioned the number of countries you went to and the length of time you’ve pledged to it. Do you feel you have accomplished the goals you set out to achieve with this project, in the sense that the data that was collected and the findings that were published in your book have affected the viewpoints of American companies and maybe the way they look at Muslims?
DM: I really do. And I think the real impact of giving ordinary people a voice and having Muslims actually speak for themselves , I think the real impact of that we will never be able to fully measure. I think there is so much that is happening that we don’t know about. But we have seen an enormous amount of evidence that getting this information out is having a positive impact. We’ve talked to Hollywood producers who have said that reading the book has really transformed their thinking on Muslims, and that they really feel like they want to contribute to better understanding through their own work. One person who said that is Howard Gordon who is an executive producer of the show 24-he read the book and was very complimentary, and said that it helped him understand. In response to the data in it about Americans, when asked what they most admire about the Muslim world, and the most frequent response was ‘Nothing’ or ‘I don’t know’, he said “You know, what am I doing to correct this problem?” That’s one example, but there are many more and I think it’s something that will take time to really see the full impact, but I’m very optimistic because we’ve just gotten a tremendous response to the book from people from every walk of life, from the full political spectrum. People you might not expect, but who have really appreciated the idea of doing more of an evidence based study rather than just hosting a war of opinions.
AM: As you said before, the book means to find a balance, moving away from the extremist viewpoint-Muslims hating the West or the West hating Muslims. Would you say that your book was something of an answer to the ideology behind ‘The Clash of Civilizations’ ?
DM: Well, I think what the book did was to test ‘The Clash of Civilizations’ with empirical data. And when we look at some of the basic assumptions of ‘The Clash of Civilizations’, we find that they really are crushed under the weight of empirical evidence. The idea that Muslims are inherently opposed to the West because of a clash in cultures and values-we found that this is not the case at all. Muslims don’t hate democracy, they admire the West for it. That the West itself has unique and universal values that everyone shares -and that’s not even entirely true -there isn’t a monolithic West and there isn’t a monolithic Muslim world. So it was just really looking at the base assumptions of the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ thesis in light of data, in light of evidence, and finding that much of it just didn’t hold up.
AM: That’s very true especially as you say in the book about how Muslims look favorably upon some of the Western social democratic institutions. Do you think that Muslim countries, or we as a Muslim Ummah, are possibly on the verge of fusing that Western democracy with the Shariah, and is that even possible?
DM: I think that’s a really interesting question. I would say that many people do certainly favor a model of governance that would combine values of representative democracy and fuse them with the principles of faith. Now, whether that is the same as fusing Western democracy with Shariah, I’m not sure, but we do know that when we look at the data, the kind of democracy or the kind of government that people would want if it were up to them, would be one that would guarantee basic freedoms of speech, religion, of assembly, and at the same time be informed by the principles of Shariah. Some would say that those basic democratic values are already inherently a part of Shariah, and it really isn’t the infusion of a Western model with Shariah, but rather, the full manifestation of Shariah as it stands within the tradition.
AM: Right. It’s interesting because you have so many Western criticisms toward Islamic styles of government, but it’s more of a political thing, I find, when you have corrupt governments in the Middle East which aren’t representatives of Shariah or Islamic governance at all. So perhaps it’s not even a fusion, it’s just getting back to our core Islamic values, and we find that our values are very similar to those of the Western world. But as you were saying before there’s a significant proportion of people in the West who have negative perceptions of Muslims-on page 45 of your book you mention a Washington Post-ABC poll that shows that nearly half of Americans look at Islam unfavorably. Is there anything we can do, as young people in our day to day lives, to change that? How can we, as young North American Muslims, work to change this?
DM: Well, one of the strongest factors that actually determines or predicts whether or not someone will have prejudice or whether or not someone will have an unfavorable view of Muslims, is whether or not they know a Muslim. And if they know a Muslim, they’re more likely to have a positive view of Islam and Muslims. So I think it’s really through engagement, it’s through working with people, just giving Muslims a familiar human face by engaging and working with people in the greater community on common goals and interests. It’s only going to be through that long term process that this problem will be reversed.
AM: In your book you talk about the ‘average Muslim’. How would you define the ‘average Muslim’? That is obviously differs from East to West: you have the average Muslim in North America and the average Muslim, in say, Syria. How does that apply to us living in North America?
DM: I think the term ‘average Muslim’ is really more of an expression meaning a person who is not particularly famous, not particularly exceptional, not particularly unique in their views, in their beliefs, but thinks and believes as the majority do. And that person, in many cases, is not represented in the public space when it comes to Muslims that people are speaking for them. And you’re absolutely right-what that person would be like is very different, if we’re talking about someone in Syria versus someone in North America. But even when we just talk about Muslims in North America, the majority view, the mainstream view is not heard as often as is an extreme view, whether it’s an extreme view that’s telling people what they want to hear or is sort of conforming to a stereotype of violence.
AM: For me, just as a Muslim myself, I see the Muslim community as sort of, -I mean, I wouldn’t say we are boring, but we don’t have that element that is portrayed so often in the media-of extremist people living fast and dangerous lives. The majority of Muslims, in my opinion, are kind of average Joes.
AM: With a slightly different way of life. I think that one of the reasons why there are so many misconceptions and misperceptions of Muslims is because we sort of have a tendency -and this is mostly with regards to the immigrant community-to isolate ourselves, and just to go about our business and not really share Islam with those around us. Do you think that’s sort of a positive thing we can take out of all the negative media attention-to come out of our shells and interact with the people around us, and to make Islam less of a extremist alien entity to people?
DM: I think, absolutely, it is something we as Muslims in America have no choice about, it’s not even an option to stay isolated or to decide to be isolated. I think Muslims have been a part of civic engagement for a very long time, so I don’t think it’s completely a new thing. It certainly should increase, but it’s not something we have the luxury to think about or to decide either way, it’s a must. We have to engage and come out of that shell and let people know who we really are.
AM: Especially now with the elections coming up, with so much publicity about that, you don’t really find much of an interest directed towards Muslims as a voting group. You don’t see many attempts to court the Muslim public. Do you think we have a civic responsibility, as Western Muslims, to make sure our voices are heard?
DM: I definitely do. Because, ultimately, our fate is really in our hands and we simply can’t wait for anyone else do anything for us. We have to take things and make sure that our voices are heard. That’s what many groups that have come before us have done, and now it’s really our turn to help America grow by including us as we are.
AM: That’s a very important message for the young people. They’re the ones just coming up on to the voting scene. Moving on, you mentioned the ‘core grievances’ of the Muslim world in your book. To you, that’s necessary for a key understanding to what is going on in the Muslim world. What are these ‘core grievances’ according to you?
DM: The core grievances that we have uncovered through our research essentially can be categorized into three levels. One, is Muslims believe that they are disrespected and they and their religion is seen as inferior and looked down upon by the West. Second, there is the issue of political domination, and many people in the majority of Muslim countries believe that the United States dominates their countries politically and is standing in the way of their self determination -they don’t believe that the United States is serious about democracy in their countries. And then finally, the third is the issue of acute conflicts. Meaning the conflict in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and between the Palestinians and the Israelis. So those three issues combine to really create the core grievances that Muslims cite as causing tensions between them and the United States. Now, it’s important to also note that they don’t think that they are blameless, they also tell us that what they need to do to improve relations with the West is to help control extremism, fanaticism, and to modernize and improve the presentation of Islam.
AM: So do Muslims feel as if there is a way we can move on from these issues -not to ignore them- but to move beyond a standstill?
DM: Yes. Definitely. We found that the majority of Muslims and the majority of the American public believe that greater interaction between the Muslim world and the West is more of a benefit than a threat. So, despite all the tensions and misunderstanding, people all over the world are eager for greater interaction and want to reach out.
AM: So that’s the majority opinion of the Muslim public. However, you have these extremist fringe groups and as you said in your book, they are the product of political ideologies. So with this political backdrop they ignore the balance and the ethics of Islam, and they’re in this quest for power, what role did modernity and certain political ideologies play in the rise of these extremist mentalities?
DM: I think that they are definitely the product of modernity and I say that because many people talk about them in terms of being ‘medieval’ or adhering to medieval principles or medieval ideas which really could not be further from the truth. There’s nothing medieval about them. They are extremely modern. They’re coming up with modern interpretations of what is allowed in war, they are coming up with modern, never seen before ideas of what is allowed in terms of tactics for creating change, and they are very much products of revisionist interpretations that are new and not a continuation of tradition.
AM: People sort of see the Islamic aspect of it and they turn it into this pre-civilized or pre-post modern thinking, but in reality I think there are a lot of parallels between Muslim extremists and say, something like the IRA. Do you think those parallels do exist and it’s the media spinning it to focus more on the Islamic aspect of things?
DM: I definitely think that there are parallels, and in fact, they really fit almost perfectly the classic profile for violent revolutionary terrorists. And violent revolutionary terrorists present with are demands for change, they speak of grievances that are popular and resonate with a lot of people, but they usually envision change that is much more radical and fast than the majority desires. So they are speaking about grievances that are shared with others, but they are always more extreme than the majority. They also speak in the language of the dominant ideology of their communities. So whatever that is -Marxist revolutionaries will speak in terms of Marxism, and when the most prominent ideology of people is Islam, then those radicals will always speak in that language and use those symbols. Just like the Ku Klux Klan used Christian symbolism when they were prominent in the American South, because Christianity was such a prominent part of the society. And so revolutionaries, wherever they are, who want to create change feel that violence is the only viable option and use rhetoric and symbols that resonate and reflect the dominant social medium of their societies.
AM: That is very interesting that you would mention the desire for quick and violent change. That is, in my understanding, isn’t that going against what Islam traditionally advocates in terms of government? Isn’t that a movement away from traditional Islam?
DM: It definitely is. In fact, that’s been the way de-radicalization has occurred in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, is to re-educate youth who have been radicalized into militant groups. And the way to reverse that, the way that it has worked in terms of that process being reversed, the only thing that in fact has ever worked has been a re-education in Islamic tradition, in the orthodoxy of the faith. And it really shows that perhaps that Islam is the only thing powerful enough to combat bin-Ladenism.
AM: Exactly. It’s like the contention that it’s not because of Islam we’re seeing these things, it’s because of an absence of proper Islamic knowledge and action. This came up in a video of a discussion between you and Irshad Manji, where you were arguing against ‘free for all’ ijtihad. That video actually generated over 1500 hits on our website in three days. There was an overwhelming sense of empowerment for the community to see a Muslim responding so well to such a discussion. It was really nice to see. Do you see yourself as a role model for young Muslims, especially young Muslim sisters?
DM: I don’t think of myself as a role model, actually. I do think of myself as someone who has been given an opportunity to speak, and therefore have a profound responsibility to do so well. And I’m really happy, it pleases me very much that people felt that video was empowering. I think that one thing we have to really be aware of as we work with young people, is that the same media that, according to media content analysis, shows the majority of Muslim protagonists as militants, and that the majority of statements made about Islam are negative, that same media that has caused the majority of Americans to actually admit to having at least some prejudice against Muslims, it’s the same media that young Muslims also consume. And there is an effect that it has on them, they’re not immune to it. That same media that portrays Muslims so negatively is also having an effect on young Muslims and it’s affecting the way they view themselves, the way they interact with other people, the way they have relationships, their family, and we really have to be very aware of this and try to address this deep psychological problem that I think is just going to increase. I think young Muslims have problems of depression, they have issues around bullying, there is so much going on with them that I don’t think is being addressed or thought about. If a video made some people feel empowered-I think that’s wonderful, and alhamdulillah that that happened. But it’s such a big problem that I think religious and community leaders need to address.
AM: Do you think that this can be resolved, in part, by getting more involved in the media, by owning and producing forms of media ourselves? Do you think that would be a positive contribution?
DM: Absolutely. I think that would be an enormously positive contribution. I encourage young people to really consider careers in art and culture, and in addition to that, to also consider careers in writing, in producing.
AM: In sort of the non traditional fields, you don’t really find many Muslims taking part in.
DM: Right, exactly. I think that those kinds of skills have to be really fostered within the community.
AM: So lastly, referring again to that video, where you responded to Manji’s contention regarding ijtihad by saying that irresponsible ijtihad gave us Al Qaeda. At the same time you made a number of references to the ijaza system and Dr. Ali Gomaa and Al Azhar, and other, normative sources of knowledge, that fall under the traditional breadth of Islam. Would you comment on that Al Qaeda statement as well as the role of tradition in keeping this balance?
DM: What we find in our research is that when we ask people who have condemned terrorism why they condemn it, they tell us it’s because they have a moral objection to terrorism and much of the time that moral objection is rooted in religion. But when we ask them why they condone it, those who say that it was justified, their response is rooted in issues of revenge and revolution, and not religion. And so, when we take a step back and understand how the majority of Muslims actually understand their faith, it is in direct opposition to bin Laden’s ideology. And it’s a break from tradition and it’s a break from scholarly ijtihad. So bin Laden’s approach in his justification for his actions, is an ijtihad of ignorance, is a sort of freelance vigilante ijtihad. Really it’s the same approach that Irshad is advocating, which is that everyone is just as qualified as everyone else to re-interpret the faith, and if you don’t like something -I mean, both groups, both of those approaches have essentially one thing in common and that is when they find in Islam’s ethical code a limit on the actions they would like to take, they do away with those limits through the magic wand of an ijtihad of ignorance. You know-‘I don’t like this limit on my actions, this is what I want to do, and so, therefore, I will reinterpret away the prohibition.’ And this is what bin Laden’s done. When asked in an interview in November 2001, how he could justify his actions in light of Islamic teachings, he concedes that women and children should not be killed in war. That is what the Prophet (SAW) said, but that in modern times, because of the new situation that we face, this is no longer the case. So he is exercising a modern interpretation. He is not using anything traditional. And that same approach of just wishing away the ethical restraints on our actions is what this other approach that I was arguing against seems to also be calling for.
AM: It’s really interesting to see how similar these two lines of thinking are, when they appear to be so different. Do you think that there is anything we can do in North America to bring this traditional Islam into the mainstream, and make it more familiar to people?
DM: I think it’s very, very important, this idea of religious literacy, it’s just absolutely vital. And Muslims are the first people who need greater religious literacy so that young people are not subject to exploitation by extremists in either direction. And they know what their faith is, and they can be critical in their consumption of opinions. We really need to foster this critical religious literacy as a way to combat extremism of all kinds.
AM: Just to finish up this interview, are there any future projects you’re planning on?
DM: A future project that we’re working on is a poll of American Muslims, and we hope to have that out in early November 2008, inshAllah.
AM: That sounds very interesting and I’m sure we will all be keeping an eye out for that! Thank you very, very much for doing this interview with us
DM: Thank you very much. It was my pleasure.
AM: Thank you Sister Dalia, Assalamulaikum