September 22, 2019
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Full • Dalia Mogahed Interview on Islam & the Promise of America for OnFaith


Sahil Badruddin: In the past decade, especially Muslims have engaged in outreach initiatives to help correct the perception of Islam in
the West and the world generally. You, for example, co-authored the book Who Speaks For Islam?: What a Billion Muslims Really Think. This was based on six years of research and
more than 50,000 interviews. Fortunately, today we’re seeing Muslims on
television and in films, but if you look at the general perception of Islam today, it
would seem there is still a long road ahead. What factors might be overwhelming or negating
progress to change this perception? Could it be the political rhetoric, the media
bias, violent “radical Islam”, lack of long-term education about Islam, perhaps a combination
or even other forces are at play? Dalia Mogahed: Thank you for the question. I do think that it’s a number of factors. The first being that there is a well-funded,
well-organized industry that has no other goal than to manufacture fear against Islam
and Muslims. The Islamophobia industry had access to more
than $200 million between 2008 and 2013. You look at just that budget and this is a
budget of groups that do literally nothing but churn out material, whether it’s in written
form, video, sometimes in the form of on the street, so called protests targeting Islam
and Muslims. You look at that budget and you compare it
to the budget of groups that are working for tolerance, or groups that are working for
better understanding or education, the numbers are so much bigger on the side of organized
hate. That’s one factor. We are out-funded and outorganized by hate. Groups that work for factual, accurate understanding
are just not as lucrative. It’s not as lucrative to do that than as it
is to be on the other side. That’s one factor. A second factor is media bias. Media bias is real. It’s outrageous. In 2015, 90% of coverage of Islam and Muslims
was negative and this is now mainstream news media not the fringe Islamophobic media. The thing is about the Islamophobic industry
is it feeds into mainstream media so mainstream media is heavily impacted by the Islamophobic
industry. Then, there is, of course, political rhetoric. We know that around election years, Anti-Muslim
sentiments spikes. The perceived connection between Islam and
violence spikes in the American public even when there is no new violent acts. In fact, violent acts, real violent acts,
do less to spike them, perception that Islam and violence are connected than they do less
to grow that perception than does a presidential campaign. When you actually look at the facts, it’s
interesting to know that real Muslim extremists are less harmful to the image of Islam than
are politicians who will do more to elevate the public’s perception of Islam and violence
than an actual terrorist attack. When you combine all of those things, it paints
a pretty clear picture why we haven’t made more progress despite what feels like a lot
of work. SAHIL: How do we change perceptions perhaps
more quickly? Would it be through popular culture, stories,
movies, TV, etc? What other areas would you, personally, like
to see more Muslim presence? DALIA: I definitely think popular culture
is very important. We need a lot more diversity in Hollywood
whether it’s Muslim or other people of color. I also think that just public education is
extremely important. Aside from all of that, we actually have to
find a way to call out, expose, and make clear that the Islamophobic industry is a harm to
every American. Unless we cut off the poison, the body is
never going to be healthy no matter how many vitamins we give it. That’s really the analogy I feel we have to
understand. Islamophobia is a cancer. It is a harm to and a danger to every American
not just Muslims. When Americans are fed fear day in and day
out, it’s impossible to be healthy. It’s impossible to overcome that no matter
how much exercise or vitamins or fruits and vegetables we eat. There has to be a greater effort in challenging,
calling out, and stopping the-churning out of hate-filled material. A lot of people might hear that and think
that I’m suggesting curtailing freedom of speech and actually I’m not at all. If you look at our society, there are certain
things that we no longer say and do. There are certain words we no longer use to
describe groups of people. There are certain cartoons that are no longer
acceptable in our society even though they were, say, 80 years ago. We’ve decided, as a society, that we have
evolved beyond that, not because it’s now illegal, it’s just now considered morally
repugnant. The question isn’t “Can we?” but “Should we?” And as a society, collectively, to certain
things we should say, “No, we should not.” We should not speak that way. We should not tolerate that kind of racism. It is time for us to recognize as a society
that Islamophobia is actually harming our democracy, and because of that we have to
say no to it as a society and evolve beyond it. SAHIL: To follow the same analogy you just
said, in your 2016 TED Talk, you said “Muslims, like all other Americans, aren’t the tumor
in the body of America. We are a vital organ.” Speaking specifically about narrative and
storytelling, what stories could Muslims share, commonly, to break through the lack of empathy
or negative perceptions? DALIA: I think the stories that need to be
told are of one of humanity. It’s an interesting question because I think
that a lot of us are tired of having to prove our humanity to our fellow citizens. A lot of us are tired of giving white America
the ability to certify our humanity by appealing to them for that certification. Muslims are human beings. The stories I think we need to tell are ones
of complexity, humanity, not perfect people. We also need to tell another story that isn’t
just about why Muslims are good, but rather calling out unflinchingly, unapologetically
double standard and the hypocrisy of requiring Muslims to prove their humanity. I say that with love. I say that with compassion for the public
that has been misinformed. We cannot cuddle racism. We cannot accommodate it by continuing to
appeal to it, to certify our humanity. I think that stopping short of calling it
out, pointing it out, making people aware of their unintentional bias will never get
us to where we need to be. I think we need to apply some tough love and
treat people like they’re adults not treat them with kid’s gloves. The time for all of that is completely over. SAHIL: You’ve cited several studies in neuroscience
which show when people are afraid, at least three things happen. They become more accepting of authoritarianism,
conformity and prejudice. Are there any other potential solutions you
might provide to Muslims, or other relevant organizations and groups to be more effective
in changing perceptions or to rethink their strategy? DALIA: There is a number of things that have
been shown to be effective. First, is the strategy I just pointed out
is actually calling things out, has actually been shown in research to be more effective
than continuing to accommodate people’s prejudice, and just try to make them feel safe. I think that just meeting people where they
are, and then gently guiding them to a different place is one narrative that, I think, we need
to incorporate a lot more. Another really important strategy is coalition
building. The more that people can work across color
and creed for a common goal of a more just society, the more likely they are to succeed. The third is, I think we have to do a lot
better job of holding media accountable. The media is supposed to inform the public. It’s supposed to provide a way for democracy
to happen by informing the citizenry. When it stops doing that, when it starts to
do the opposite by disinforming people, we owe it to our democracy to make a correction
to that. I think that people need to feel much more
empowered to call for meetings with their local editorial boards, to write in when they
read something that’s blatantly biased. Before they can do that, they have to educate
themselves on what that bias looks like and how to spot it. SAHIL: Quoting another study you use which
shows that when subjects were exposed to new stories
that were negative about Muslims, they became more accepting of military attacks on Muslim
countries and policies that curtail the rights of Muslims such as American Muslims. The media, as you said, often focuses on sensational,
violent and negative stories of which the Muslim world has managed to offer over the
past few decades. This, unfortunately, dominates the news to
the exclusion of many positive stories, which are not reported, leading to clearly skewed
perceptions of the Muslim world. What else can be done to address this bias? DALIA: I think a couple of things. First, communities have to learn more about
how the media works and learn how to pitch positive stories, develop relationships with
editors and reporters so that those stories are heard and increase the chances of them
being reported on. That’s the responsibility of the community. There is responsibility on media outlets to
look for those stories, to listen when those stories are brought to them and to actually
report on them. I think it’s a responsibility of both sides. I have seen situations where communities do
everything I just said. It’s a compelling story. It’s timely. It’s interesting. There is beautiful visuals that are possible,
and yet they are still ignored by even their local media. On the other side, I’ve also seen media try
to write some of these more complex human stories, and find it hard to break into the
community and find the right people to talk to. I do think it’s a responsibility of both sides,
but it has to become a priority, both for communities around the country as well as
media outlets. SAHIL: Given your extensive work with polling,
I wanted to take this opportunity to help our audience understand polling better, as numbers
are throwing out all the time. Just a couple of years ago, the Pew Forum
polled Egyptians, and 64% said that the death penalty should be the punishment for apostasy,
leaving the faith, despite the neighboring countries have only about 5 to 10% who believe
the same thing. To make things even more complicated, the
same poll also shows 75% of Egyptians want complete religious liberty. Given this contradiction which really shows,
I would say, the lived experience of religious people, what are common mistakes or misunderstandings
people often have when they read or cite polls? DALIA: That’s a really good question. I’m glad you’ve asked about how to consume
polls in a critical way. First of all, when you’re looking at a poll,
the first question you ask is, “What’s the sample of representative?” In the case of Pew, the answer is yes, they
do very high quality polling and their samples are representative. The way you know a sample is representative
is not by how large the sample size is. This is a very popular misconception. People often say, “That’s just a sample of
1,000, and then this other poll has a sample of 80,000 so it must be more representative.” That’s completely wrong. Representation, actually has very little to
do with how large a sample is. It has to do with the quality of the sample
and how it was selected. A representative sample is one where every
citizen in the country has a chance, and an equal chance, to have been selected for the
survey. If my sample consists of people on Facebook
that just decided to answer the survey, that is not a representative sample because you
didn’t give every single person an equal chance of getting chosen for the sample. Not everyone saw your ad. Not everyone has Facebook. Not everyone has internet. Not everyone has electricity. It’s a terrible way to do it. Even if you have 80,000 people in your so-called
sample that’s not representative. What Pew does and what Gallup does, the company
I used to work for, and what a good polling firm will do, is they will use methods that
select households for interviews at random, therefore, everyone has an equal chance of
being selected so 1,000 people are more representative than 80,000 done on Facebook. That’s one thing to just always ask to begin
with. The second question I ask is, “How was the
question phrased?” What other questions in the survey help to
explain what people may have meant. Now, in the case of this question which gets
brought up quite a bit, especially by liberal Islamophobes. It’s interesting that as you said neighboring
countries don’t hold the same view. It’s something peculiar to Egypt. It’s not something peculiar to Muslims. That’s one thing to keep in mind is, is this
something I’m going to generalize over Islam, Muslims and everyone from the faith, or is
this something that we need to figure out what’s going on in Egypt. The question, I believe, was one of asking
people a theological question and then being interpreted in a very political way. As an Egyptian, I’m an Egyptian, we are taught
in our traditional Islamic education that anyone who leaves the faith, in theory, the
penalty is death, which sounds extremely…a violation of religious freedom, of course. I, personally, don’t believe that that is
the correct interpretation of Islamic law, but it is the conventional way that people
are taught. When they’re asked, they basically recite
what they were told or taught somewhere along the way. Now, is this actually ever implemented? Is that the law in Egypt? Do people actually get executed for leaving
a faith? They actually do not. This is also not something that happens to
people even in cases of vigilante violence against people. I’m not saying it never happens, but that
is not a widespread crisis that Egyptians are undergoing. It is a very theoretical response based on
how people have been educated according to a certain medieval, pre-modern interpretation. I will add that that interpretation is usually
understood in a pre-modern context where leaving the faith actually is assumed to mean an act
of treason, is joining an enemy force to fight against your previous community. It’s more of a political change of sides rather
than simply a question of freedom of conscience, but those two things have been conflated and
people are understanding it this way. I think this is a reflection of how Egyptians
are educated on this question rather than something that was deeply thought about and
is being acted on in any way, shape, or form. Now, as someone who holds a different point
of view in my own religious understanding, I would love to change the way Egyptians are
educated about this. I want a different conversation to happen
in religious circles and in religious educational institutions that reexamines this question
and re-understands it, in a way that I think is actually more authentic to the spirit it’s
in. “Am I going to succeed in trying to make that
happen by approaching this question with humility and compassion?” or, “Will I succeed in reforming
this understanding by ridiculing and demonizing these communities?” That’s where I really have a very hard time
with so-called liberalist Islamophobia because it is all about feeling superior rather than
any real concern for these communities. Demonizing and dehumanizing these communities
by putting out these poll findings so out of context does absolutely nothing to improve
the situation and does absolutely nothing to even empower the folks on the ground trying
to make change indigenously. All it does is to say, “We’re more civilized
and they’re barbaric.” In fact, hurts and feeds into reactionary
forces in the region. SAHIL: On a different note, what impact, from
your experience, have polls and other data metrics been in changing perceptions and attitudes. Does it change people’s minds or is it better
to deal with perceptions through relationships and personal interactions? DALIA: I don’t think it’s either/or. I absolutely think relationships and personal
interactions are very– SAHIL: Combination. DALIA: Thank the Lord polls do actually also
help to change perceptions. Otherwise, my whole life’s works is useless. SAHIL: I’m sure that’s not the case. [laughs]
DALIA: I certainly hope not. One study actually found that some of the
American public’s perception of Muslims and specifically the dehumanization of Muslims
was improved by reading an article which contained polling data that said that Muslims admired
certain things about American culture. After reading this article that contained
this data, people had a more humanized view of Muslims. So no, data actually can work. It actually can help bring people’s opinions,
perceptions to a more accurate place. Relationships are incredibly important as
well. I do think it’s both. SAHIL: Any final thoughts or advise you want
to give or you want to provide for better understanding and utilizing poll data? DALIA: I think that poll data always has to
be contextualized. I don’t think you can throw around a number
and think you understand a community. It’s important that polling data is interpreted
by people familiar with that community, familiar with its history, familiar with its modern
debates, so that it can be understood properly. I think that these numbers that you cite about
Egyptian culture are perfect example that where someone like Bill Maher or Sam Harris
throw these around as proof of Muslim barbarism without really understanding the full history
and the full background. SAHIL: In another poll from the Pew Forum,
around 24% of Americans self-identify themselves as non-affiliated, non-religious believing
in some form of spirituality and the divine but not really identifying with one particular
religion. Within that, if you’re under the age of 30,
interestingly, there’s a 66% chance you’re in this non-affiliated category. Why do you think there’s a sudden increase
in the non-affiliated group? DALIA: It’s a really good question. I’m not sure what the answer is. Interestingly, young Muslim Americans tend
to be, actually as likely as their elders to be religious or to claim that religion
as an important part of their daily life. What that means for them and how they practice
is a different story. They are less likely to attend the mosque
but they’re just as likely to say religion is important to them, unlike their peers,
their age peers or fellow generational peers, in other faiths where young people or non-Muslim
are far less likely than their elders to say religion is important. Now, why is religion losing importance in
the lives of young people in the general public? There’s lots of reasons I can think of but
it would all be speculation. I don’t really study that. What I do study are American Muslims. In that case, they are much more likely to
be alienated from a mosque but not from their faith itself. They, I think, at least compared to their
elders, remain devoted to the ethical framework of Islam even if the way they’re practicing
maybe different from their elders. SAHIL: You were a member
of President Barack Obama’s Inaugural Advisory Council on Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships. Could you talk about your experience and how
you were able to help increase more faith-based alliances? DALIA: Well, as a member of the President’s
Advisory Council, I think my biggest accomplishment was actually to help mobilize and then document
the contributions of American Muslims to community service. The president had called on the nation to
serve in their community, to alleviate the impact of what, at that time, was really an
economic crisis in our country. I worked with community leaders, both local
and national, to put together service projects. Our goal was that, at least a quarter of them,
would be in cooperation with other faith communities and that we would come up at the very end
very with, at the end of the summer, with a thousand days of service, across the country. My promise to the community was that if we
could meet those two goals, a thousand days of service, quarter at least done in cooperation
with another faith, that I would deliver this report to the president myself. People put the word out. People used everything from Friday khutbahs
to Facebook. When we collected all of the projects at the
end of summer, it was more than 3,000 days of service and close to 95% of them were actually
done with another faith community. I don’t take any credit for that other than
counting that this was happening and compiling it. In fact, I did hand it to the president in
a report. It made up the lion’s share of the projects
that were collected by the White House that summer. It was the Muslims, while the smallest faith
communities who had actually done the most service that summer. I tell you that story and I share it because,
I think a lot of the problem is that we, ourselves, don’t know what else is going on. I was surprised that the fact that there were
more than 33 free Muslim clinics around the country. I had no idea about that. I was surprised that some of the projects
that were being carried out, alliances and cooperation between Muslim charities and native
American schools on reservations. I had no idea that was happening. That there were educational programs against
human trafficking in our urban centers here in America led by Muslims. I didn’t know that. That there were projects across the country
to feed the hungry and to clothe the poor, to provide toiletries and other sanitary products
for the homeless, etc. The list goes on and on and on. The greening of mosques, the cleaning up of
highways. Had the president not made this call to service,
a lot of these projects were already happening. Some were inspired by the president’s call,
but had we not tried to compile and count, we wouldn’t have known. Most of these projects had no idea other projects
were happening that were just like them in other parts of the country. SAHIL: Interesting. DALIA: When we compiled everything, and I
showed it back to the community, so “This is what you guys just do. This is who you are.” People were blown away. Their only picture of themselves, their own
perception of who they are as a community, it’s so skewed, just as much by the media
as anyone else. Even though they might be serving, they think
they’re the only ones. They’re not. They’re actually the norm. This is what it means to be a Muslim American. SAHIL: On various occasions, you’ve made the
distinction that while you had access to the Obama administration and even other relevant
organizations, it didn’t always need to direct influence. Access doesn’t always mean influence, as you
say. DALIA: Yes. SAHIL: So what advice would you give to future
leaders to leverage grassroot efforts to make a tremendous difference, and even eventually
garner attention at the national level? DALIA: You’re absolutely right. I often point out that one thing I learned
is that, no access doesn’t equal influence. What I mean by that is just having a seat
at the table does not mean you are going to influence anything. What you need to do is combine access with
leverage, and then you get influence. Access with something to prove. It’s something to offer and something to take
away, that equals influence. Not just being there. Not just occupying space. Not just warming a chair and speaking out
of your mouth. That’s not enough. If you don’t have organized people and resources
behind you, and what you say is really, they’re not going to do anything. I saw it so clearly in the way that other
communities came to the table. They came to the table with the ability to
mobilize 20 million voters. That’s influence. When you combine access to with the ability
to mobilize 20 million voters, that equals influence. Coming to a table and just being there, that’s
access without any influence. What, I think, Muslims, Muslim Americans generally,
not all of us, but many of us don’t understand is the difference between access and influence. We think access equals influence, and it does
not. We don’t come to the table, having done that
homework of mobilizing at the grassroots of organized money and organized people. And in the absence of that, all the wonderful
access we had to re-enable in the administration really did not amount to a whole lot of impact
on policy. I hope that these four years of not having
any access, obviously, or at least most of us don’t have access nor do we seek it, we
can do that at home. We can do that organizing on the ground so
that if and when we ever have access again, we come prepared and utilize that access to
make real impact that makes a positive difference in our country. SAHIL: You’ve said that
while Muslims in the West, especially America, have been keen towards building interfaith
bridges, they’ve unfortunately even amongst themselves, have not been as effective in
working with Blacks and Latinos. Why is that? DALIA: One of our weak blind spots, I think,
in our community among Arab and Asian American Muslims, is that we have framed our outreach
in terms of interfaith. What interfaith often means, especially in
suburban community where a lot of Arab and Asian Americans live, is white churches and
synagogues. That’s how people understand interfaith. Where they haven’t done as much work or any
work is in interfaith among people of color, in intercultural alliances. And it’s incredibly important that targeted
communities, which are now people of color across religious backgrounds, work together. Muslim communities, especially Arab and Asian
forge those relationships and expand what it means to work with other communities of
faith to finish off. I think, there once a sense among many people,
whether conscious or unconscious, in the Arab and Asian American communities, where they
had this aspirational whiteness. That is if worked hard enough, they made enough
money, had a nice enough house, good enough job, that they would be white. They would enter the hierarchy of racial-
ascend the racial hierarchy and be honorary whites. 9-11 kind of disabused people that or should
have. Then, Trump really disabuse people of that. So I hope that the people gotten the memo
that that is, a) not going to happen, and b) should not even be a goal. Recognize that in our faith and in our Prophet’s
example; he relinquished privilege in order to stand for truth and to be aligned with
the vulnerable. That’s exactly what Muslim should always do
rather than run after privilege and turn away from both truth and the vulnerable. In some ways, Trump is a blessing because
it forces– he forces and his phenomenon. The wave that brought him forces the reality
on Muslims that our faith and just reality on the ground should make it clear that we
need to align with the marginalized, the vulnerable and stand with justice, and truth rather than
run after an aspiration that really will never happen. SAHIL: Like you said, speaking about intra-Muslim,
Muslim-to-Muslim relationships, in these times, how can Muslims better support each other? DALIA This is such an important issue. I think one of the biggest challenges Muslims
are facing today is internal fragmentation. I think, if we can overcome that, we’d be
so much stronger. So how should communities overcome fragmentation? It’s like its own field of study. I think that learning about each other’s history
is essential. I think that working together to meet a common
goal is essential. I actually think collaboration, on a local
level, needs to be built into how regional organizations operate. I’ve actually recommended to umbrella organizations
that serve the needs of Muslims in all of Chicago or all of northern California to have
each major mosque appoint a chief collaboration officer, whose only job is to find ways to
collaborate with other mosque and other communities. And to set up a fund where you can only get
the money for grant, for project, if you’re working across communities. We have to incentivize collaboration. We have to value collaboration. We need to award collaboration if we want
it to happen. We can’t just passively hope that one day
will happen. We have to work proactively to make sure that
it does happen. I think that maybe some of these practical
nudges in the right direction will eventually bring about a stronger community, but a lot
of these is deep. It’s going to take generations because it’s
baggage. It’s baggage from American culture. It’s baggage from cultures from other parts
of the world that have been impacted by white supremist thinking. We have to overcome that. SAHIL: Turning to the future now, what guidance
would you give to help Americans and the world, generally, move beyond just advisory and consulting-based
faith partnerships to more participatory and action-oriented faith leadership? DALIA: Well, I think the first step in becoming
faith based leaders is to recognize the moment we’re in in our country’s history. We are not victims. We are, in fact, people who are being called
on by their faith to play an incredibly important role to save our country from itself. And while we may be the first to feel it,
like canaries on a coal mine, the toxic climate of fear and disinformation is up to everyone. We have to think of ourselves in a different
way, first of all, as people who have something to offer, have something to give, have an
important role to play, because we are inheritors of an ethical framework that calls us to stand
for justice. So that’s the first step. The second step is to do the introspection,
the self-purification, and the self-resistance to be in the right spiritual space to be able
to play that role, to divorce ourselves of ego, to free ourselves of the wrong kind of
ambition, to find that psychological space of being a true servant leader. The third step is to organize across coloring
and creed. This just extremely important. We have to never allow ourselves to feel isolated
and to reach out to other impacted communities, and work together. Then, we have to start to become involved
politically. That’s starts with voting but it’s so much
more than that. Running for office, working on campaigns,
all these things are now really necessities. We have to take our country back. But it requires the hallmark, the foundational
pieces that I explain, to begin with.

Otis Rodgers

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