“We’re all working for a more well-informed citizenry”

<<From the altM archives>> Dalia Mogahed, Executive Director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, helped oversee the largest surveys of the Muslim world, co-authoring Who Speaks for Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think in the process. Now, Barack Obama has tapped her to join his Faith Advisory Council. Here, we speak to Mogahed about her new position of influence.
Dalia Mogahed is a pathbreaker. She combined an MBA and research experience to become Executive Director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies. There, she has analyzed data on Muslim public opinion from the largest survey of its kind, the Gallup World Poll. In 2007, she co-authored Who Speaks for Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think (published by Gallup) with John Esposito. I spoke to her recently about her appointment to President Obama’s Faith Advisory Council.

What were your initial reactions to your appointment to the Faith Advisory Council?

I was extremely surprised. I didn’t expect it at all. I also felt a great sense of honor to be able to serve. My third wave of emotion was an overwhelming sense of responsibility. I knew I would have to take this very seriously, and give the role its due importance.

How do you feel about representing the “successful Muslim woman” to America and the world?

I guess I didn’t know I was. It really…I always do my best to make sure that whatever I do, I do very well. It’s very strange for me to feel like people are looking to me as a role model. If they are, it puts that much more of an expectation on me that I’m doing my best. That is important if young people are looking to me as a role model, as someone in the public eye, to be an example for people. It’s important to take that responsibility seriously.

In what ways do you plan to continue using this representative capacity in ways outside of your work with the Council?

It certainly makes it easier to get the information you have to people if you have more name recognition. It does give us the opportunity to be in more places, telling people about what Muslims around the world really think. That’s a really important aspect of this increased exposure; more opportunity to provide this information to the public.

The first negative reactions are coming in from the right wing blogs, alleging sympathies with the Muslim Brotherhood, among other things. Any comments?

My response is to dismiss them. I give them the attention relative to their actual worth… the attacks are ridiculous and baseless.

Some people were disappointed when you recently told an Egyptian daily, when asked whether you’re American first or Muslim first, you said you were American first. How did you arrive at that answer?

I am glad you’re asking me so I can clarify. I usually refuse to answer that question, because my faith and my nationality are not mutually exclusive. The question asked was “what do you hope to accomplish on the council,” and I said “I hope to serve my country.” And then the interviewer said “which country is that?” and I said “the United States of America.”

You’ve said you hold the U.S media accountable for American misperceptions of Islam. Should some responsibility also lie with American Muslims in creating more positive and accurate portrayals of Islam?

Well, I think that the responsibility is definitely shared. The important thing, really, the goal we’re all working for is a more well-informed citizenry. Thomas Jefferson said that the foundation of a democracy is a well-informed citizenry. And so when the American people, of whom American Muslims are a part, are misinformed, it is an erosion of our democracy. We all, as a nation, need to be concerned about bias in the media. It’s misinforming, and misinformation erodes our ability to make rational decisions. It’s not about blaming one side or the other; it’s about fixing the problem because it’s hurting everyone.

How can American Muslims and organizations like Altmuslimah allay the fears of their fellow Americans about Islam and Muslims?

I think it’s offering a nuanced and humanized, accurate view of Muslims. What organizations like Altmuslimah can do is offer the human face of the Muslim community that is skewed by sensational stories about Islam and violence. There’s evidence that the media over-represents violence in all communities, but more specifically in regards to the Muslim community.

Any parting thoughts?

As young people are looking around and thinking about their future, I think it’s very important that they embrace the concept that they are fully American and fully Muslim – that the welfare of the United States is something that they are responsible for helping to build. And that they have to take an active role in contributing to the writing of the next chapter of the American experience.

Abbas Jaffer is Associate Editor of Altmuslimah.


(Photo Credit: Mahnaz Afkhami)

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