Dalia Mogahed, former executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, talks with Samina Ali about what she learned in her extensive research about the real lives of Muslims, including their views on fundamentalism, terrorism, the veil, and more.
Samina Ali: You are the former Executive Director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies. Can you please explain to our global audience what the Gallup Center is and what kinds of studies you performed.
Dalia Mogahed: The Gallup Center for Muslim Studies was a think tank and consultancy that offered evidence based advice on Muslim societies around the world. The analysis drew on Gallup’s global public opinion research, which represented the views of more than 90% of the world’s Muslims. This massive study brought the voices of ordinary people into a debate that had until then been dominated by a vocal fringe claiming to speak on behalf of Islam and Muslims. This research provided the foundation for my book “Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think”, which I co-authored with Professor John L. Esposito of Georgetown University.
According to these studies, what were the top commonalities among Muslims globally?
Muslims globally, from Morocco to Malaysia, in overwhelming majorities said their faith was an important part of their daily lives. This more than any other quality united Muslims from diverse backgrounds.
And the top differences?
Muslims globally are very diverse, speak different languages, have different histories and interpret their faith in different ways. This pluralism is built in and celebrated in Islam. They also have varying views on the U.S. For example, while Muslims in the Middle East were unlikely to approve of the United States’ leadership, Muslims in Sub-Saharan Africa expressed overwhelmingly positive views. Muslims also had varying views on the role of religion in politics, as well as how religious law should be interpreted.
In the wake of 9/11 and other crimes being committed in the name of Islam, people are interested to know how Muslims in general feel about terrorism. From the Gallup research as well as research you did for your own book, can you tell us what you’ve discovered?
The majority of Muslims overwhelmingly oppose terrorist acts committed in the name of Islam. This was clearly demonstrated by a 2011 Gallup study I was involved in of more than a hundred countries worldwide called Views of Violence: What drives public acceptance and rejection of attacks on civilians 10 years after 9/11. Contrary to popular misperceptions, Muslim majority countries were at least as likely as other societies to denounce attacks on civilians. In the Middle East, religious devotion was linked to a greater rejection of these attacks.
So what do we make of terrorists employing religious symbolism and rhetoric? First, we need to listen more carefully and what we hear beneath the religious veneer is a fundamentally political, not religious, argument. From the Boston bombers to the gruesome murder of a British soldier in Woolwich, terrorists justify their violence by citing modern grievances not medieval exegesis.
We can say the same about terrorists of every stripe actually. The symbols and language they employ depend on their cultural background, but their core message is the same: Perceived wrongs require violence to correct. One of the most extreme examples of this was two years ago in Norway, when Anders Breivik, who advocated the violent annihilation of "Eurabia," bombed government buildings, killing eight people, and struck a youth summer camp in Oslo, shooting 69 people dead, many of them teenagers.
Second, whether a terrorist claims to defend Islam or Europe’s white Christian majority, his or her identity provides the context, not the cause, of their radicalization.
Can you give me an example of this?
Take the August 2012 case of Wade Michael Page, a right wing white supremist, and his lethal attack on a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. According to a man who described himself as an old Army buddy of Page's, the attacker often talked about "racial holy war." His white conservative background didn’t cause his radicalization anymore than being Muslim or Chechen caused the Boston bombers to turn to violence. In both cases, the radicalization occurred within the criminal’s cultural context and therefore took on the symbols, on-line space and rhetoric of this sub-culture.
As such, the mainstream Muslim American community is no more responsible for deviant Muslims who turn to terrorism than the Republican party is responsible for right-wing radicals who do the same. In fact, far from acquiescing to this violence, according to Gallup’s 2011 report on U.S. religious communities, Muslim Americans are the most likely U.S. faith community to unequivically denounce attacks on civilians as morally wrong, whether by an individual or a military.
According to the best research, Muslim radicalizing in the West occurs outside the community, in spite of the community and in defiance of the community. This is made even more apparent by the fact that Muslim Americans helped thwart the majority of foiled al-Qaeda inspired terrorist plots in America. Rather than bearing collective guilt for Al-Qaeda inspired terrorism, the Muslim American community is its most formidable adversary.
If the majority of Muslims truly do believe in peace, what causes have you uncovered that correlate with people committing acts of terrorism? Is it poverty? Living under repressive governments?
The most striking predictor of sympathy with extremist actions among Muslims is not poverty or unemployment, but anger at acute conflicts involving the U.S. and Muslims, such as the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Palestinian Israeli conflict.
Knowing these root causes, do you think the U.S. government’s response is most effective? How can the U.S. create better relations with Muslim communities?
Much can be done, but nothing will be as effective as ending acute conflicts involving the U.S. in the Muslim world and bring about a just settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Many in the West feel that Muslim women living in Muslim majority countries are repressed, their freedoms stripped away. From your research, what would you say are the top three concerns Muslim women in Muslim countries are facing? Are they all concerned about the veil?
The views of Muslim women are complex. They want and expect equal rights, but say that their faith is not the barrier to achieving this goal. Most regard their faith as a force for freedom, not fanaticism. However, like most women, their main concerns are similar to those of any other citizen in their country, and revolve around development, education and unemployment, not “women’s rights.” As for the “veil”, the majority of Muslim women say they cover their hair in public and when asked why the most common response is that they believe it is a religious mandate. Simply put, it is part of practicing their faith. Women who wear it associate it with not only piety but “confidence” and “dignity.”
Let’s be honest. Even if a minority of Muslims turn to violence, that’s still too many. How can the Muslim community effectively deal with these kinds of zealots and stop the random violence? Is there anything specific that women can do or are already doing?
Muslims are AlQaeda’s number one victims, so no one wants to end this senseless violence more than they do. AlQaeda also preys on their young men, exploiting their anger at often times legitimate grievances, to recruit them into a life of crime. So no one wishes to see an end to this more than Muslims do. The most important steps that should be taken is to educate our young people on their faith. The Islam of the Qur’an cannot coexist in the same heart and mind with the ideology of AlQaeda. They are opposing forces and the stronger their understanding of the former the more able they will be to see the falsehood of the later. Women, as mothers, teachers, scholars and community leaders can play a vital role in this regard.
Around the anniversary of 9/11, people will be thinking about this tragedy again. The recent Boston bombings has fueled the fear and misunderstandings people have about Islam. What is the one message you’d like to send out during this time?
These national tragedies must bring us together and increase our resolve to fight this common enemy as one nation.