Interview: Muslim Americans are a microcosm of the US mosaic, says Dalia Mogahed

Rania Al Malky
13 Min Read

CAIRO: When US President Barack Obama gave his very first interview to a foreign news agency to Al-Arabiya within days of taking the oath, the whole world knew that Obama was reaching out to Arab and Muslim populations. So within weeks, the announcement that American-Egyptian Dalia Mogahed, the first veiled Muslim woman to join the White House Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, though exciting, didn’t come as much of a surprise. As a president who acts upon his convictions, it was only natural for Obama to appoint someone like Mogahed, senior analyst and executive director of Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, as a counselor.Hours after he gave his much-anticipated address to the Muslim world on June 4, Daily News Egypt caught up with Mogahed in Cairo before she flew back to the US, the country she calls home.

Daily News Egypt: Had you seen the speech before President Obama gave it at Cairo University? What is your reaction to it? Was it what you expected?Dalia Mogahed: No I hadn’t seen it, but I think it exceeded my expectations. There were so many things in there, I felt that everything I recommended, with very few exceptions, was in the speech. But there was also so much more that I couldn’t have ever imagined. I really appreciated how the president included his own personal experience with Islam. Muslims were sometimes very uncomfortable that he was distancing himself from [them] during the campaign and now he’s embraced it and is expressing pride in his connections with Muslims and Islam throughout his life – as the son of a Kenyan immigrant whose family was Muslim, as someone who grew up in and went to an Indonesian school, he had so many different connections with Islam.We also appreciated that one of those connections was in fact in the United States, in the South Side of Chicago, where he worked as an activist with people, where he found great peace and dignity with Islam in America. One of the things I thought was very striking about the speech, which also exceeded my expectations, was his breaking down these false paradigms, false dichotomies that have been created between the United States and Islam. He really drew a very convincing story of why the two were overlapping and complimentary.

What did you think was missing in the speech, if anything? What would you have expected him to say that he didn’t?I think the one thing that I heard people say was missing was recognition of Palestinians’ concerns over security. Palestinian security was a concept or idea that wasn’t fleshed out. He talked about Palestinian statehood, he talked about the need to freeze settlements and he talked about Israeli security. But Palestinian security wasn’t mentioned.

Do you think the speech will resonate differently in the wider Muslim world and with Muslims in America? Is there any difference in the reaction?There is definitely going to be a difference in reaction. I viewed the speech with so many different hats or hijabs on [laughs] … I viewed it as a scientist looking at it from an analytical point of view and how this would be perceived by the populations around the world that I study. I viewed it as a Muslim-American. I viewed it also as an Egyptian-American and I also viewed it as an American. So from the points of view of all of those different identities – of the scientist, as a proud American of Muslim and Egyptian descent – I felt a great deal of pride. I was so proud from every single perspective. It makes Americans dignified because he was so articulate as he expressed American ideals of equality, of the rule of law, of due process and he expressed what America stands for. He drew on our founding fathers and he drew on the Quran. So while it will resonate differently and people will grab onto different words, I think that for different reasons and all around the world, everyone that hears it, will feel that they were being spoken to and that it resonated with them.

About the Muslim population of the US, how organized is it? How much can it become a lobby that you think subsequent US administrations will take seriously from your perspective as a scientist? The Muslim-American community is among the most racially diverse communities in the United States. It’s also the most socio-economically diverse community of any religious community in the US, which presents challenges for it in coming up with some kind of a coherent platform. Until now that coherent platform does not exist. And it’s very interesting because there is very little in common between Muslim-Americans. They are a cross-section, a complete cross-section of America. They are very rich and very poor. They are white, they’re black, they’re Asian, they’re Arab, they’re Latino, they’re every kind, they are a microcosm of the American mosaic. While this presents a huge challenge to overcome if people want to come up with one singular platform, it also presents a great opportunity, as a community, that offers a wealth of cultural and intellectual capital to society as a whole. And I think that what Muslim-Americans have to do, is harness this diversity much more than they have been. They have to .

. Agree on one thing?The interesting thing is that Muslim-Americans are different in terms of their political ideology. They look exactly like the American population as a whole, they’re a bell-curve, the plurality of them are in the middle of moderates, but there are equal numbers that are conservative and liberal, so they don’t all concentrate themselves in the conservative side, for example. So they are diverse across the board in everything, except two things: they agree overwhelmingly that Islam is important to them, and that they love Barack Obama. That’s it.I think it’s interesting that the president has given Muslim-Americans something to agree on. In a recent poll they were the community with the highest percentage of approval of the president during his first 100 days. In fact, they and the Jewish-American community were statistically equal. So it’s very interesting.

About the reaction of the Muslim world to Obama’s toward the Muslim world. What is your analysis of it? Do the American people realize how popular he is here? Or do they just get the negative voices in the media? And has the media been complicit in that?I guess we’re probably complicit as well. The polls don’t show an overwhelming positive view of the United States. They’re still showing, despite the warm reception he received, that the majority are still skeptical. So what we found was a double-digit increase in the percentage of people who say they agree with the government or the leadership of the United States. And about 25 percent approve of the leadership of the US and another quarter don’t know, and then about a little over half of Egyptians say they disapprove. What I think the American people will need to see is some kind of a strong, prominent voice that seems to represent Muslims, or is a legitimate representative of some Muslims, that responds to the speech and is heard by the American people.

Whose voice would that be?That’s the hard thing. But I think the Organization of the Islamic Conference is an obvious choice, perhaps in the form of an open letter to the American people in response to the president’s overtures. This is very important and it should be pushed out into the American media in a very proactive way. So that Americans understand that there is a response and that people are receiving these overtures with an open heart.

But do you think that the US media in its current state will be receptive to disseminating this kind of picture? Well, it’s certainly not easy for anyone to get their voices heard in the US media or in any media, if they’re not saying something that isn’t sensational or provocative. But I do think that this kind of a message would be heard because of its importance, because of its prominence, if it were done in an organized, coordinated way, if the media were to be engaged and understood. It may not be as loud as we want, but there needs to be something on record that goes out to the America
n people, so that at least it can be referred to in the future when people ask what had Muslims done to respond to this.

One of the hats that you say you put on, was your hat as an Egyptian. Has there been any official Egyptian response to your appointment?I got a very kind phone call from the embassy congratulating me.

During your presence here, have you been received officially in any capacity? No, but I was received with an incredible amount of kindness and generosity by the Egyptian people. I’ve been just overwhelmed by the response of the people. I know that some of the Egyptians living in the US have been quite vocal in their demands for more democracy in Egypt and have been critical of the current regime. Are you involved in the pro-democracy groups over there? What do you think of them? I am not directly involved with any of these groups, but I think that it’s important for Americans to continue to affirm their values and the importance of democracy and human rights around the world. So, I think that continuing to do that is a positive thing.

Even if that means the US will be exerting certain pressure on Egypt?You know it’s really a question for the Egyptian people, it really is. It’s up to them to decide what kind of assistance or distance they want from outside of Egypt and how they’ll achieve what they want.

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