The First Veiled Muslim Woman In The White House
Dalia Mogahed was propelled into the international spotlight when she became President Barack Obama’s advisor on Muslim affairs. Born in Egypt, she is the president and CEO of Mogahed Consulting, a consulting firm specializing in Muslim societies and the Middle East. She co-authored the book Who Speaks For Islam?What a Billion Muslims Really Think, based on six years of research and more than 50,000 interviews. Mogahed has been widely recognized as one of the most influential Arab women in the world.
Why did President Barack Obama choose you to join the 26 consultants of the Interfaith Council on Muslim Affairs, which works to build bridges between the federal government and nonprofit organizations?
I believe I was chosen because of the research I was leading at Gallup Center on Muslim opinion around the world. I was not part of President Obama’s campaign, nor am I active in the Democratic Party. I was chosen on the basis of my scholarship, not my political affiliation.
Do you think that your reputation preceded your achievements inside the White House, since you were the first Muslim – and veiled – woman to hold such a high position in Obama’s administration?
My “fame” was always a mystery to me. My position with the White House was a huge honor, but the actual influence I had was less than what the media portrayed. I think it was more about what my appointment symbolized that people found appealing than the real impact I had on policy. Young women and girls come up to me and say that I showed them they could succeed no matter who they are, whether they choose to wear hijab or not, or what their name is. If this is the only thing my appointment brought about, then I am very happy.
Isn’t it a heavy responsibility to brief the American president on the opinions and ways of thinking of the entire Muslim community?
Yes, of course this is a big responsibility, but I don’t claim to speak for every Muslim! I only wanted to convey what Muslims were saying for themselves, using the scientific survey research. With this tool, we are able to find out what a large group of people think and feel, hear their voices and understand them as they really are. My job was to take this information to the world.
You studied Chemical Engineering and then got a Master’s Degree in Business Administration. How did you move from these two fields to the world of research?
My career journey shows that you never know where life will take you, so you should be open to how God unfolds your path. Yes, I began my education as a Chemical Engineer with a minor in Arabic, but I wrote in my college newspaper about the Middle East. I was also the co-founder of an organization that helped educate people on the region, so international issues were always a passion of mine. After I graduated, I joined Procter & Gamble in their research and development department, where I studied the company’s consumers. It was fascinating for me to study people’s views and turn this understanding into product ideas. I went on to get my MBA and joined Gallup Center as a management consultant for big American corporations, advising managers and executives on business and leadership. When the CEO announced the company would be doing surveys all over the world I asked to be moved to this project. I proposed to him to start a center for Muslim studies within this larger project. He agreed and I became the Center for Muslim Studies director.
You wrote with professor John Esposito Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think. Let me simply ask you: what do they really think?
Who speaks for Islam? A billion Muslims do. The idea of the book was to give ordinary people a voice to tell the world what they really think, rather than allow extremists to speak for them. Of course a billion Muslims don’t all think the same. The global Muslim community is very diverse. However, the largest study of Muslims ever done shows that, over all, Muslims around the world support democracy, gender justice, and reject violence against civilians. They don’t hate the West or the United States because Americans are “free.” Their anger at the US is because of its policies, not its principles, which they actually say they admire.
In your opinion, what makes Obama, who explained and insisted that he is not a Muslim, go towards employing Muslims in the White House?
First, it is important to note that Barack Obama does not have a single Muslim in a position of high seniority in his administration. The better question is: “why doesn’t the president have more Muslims in the White House, and in more senior positions?” Muslim Americans are contributing citizens of this country and should be represented in decision making just like any other group! It is true that the president is far better than his predecessor in being inclusive, but our government still has a long way to go.
What is Obama’s reaction when he sees and hears that so many people hate America? Did you help him understanding the problems of Muslims and the reasons for their anger?
My interaction with the President was limited, so I used to communicate much more with his advisors and officials. Their reaction to this reality was mostly acknowledgment that America’s policies were unpopular, but that these were still going to be America’s policies! The conversation always turned to how to make the policies seem less bad to people. For this question I did not have an answer.
What is Obama’s biggest achievement concerning the interfaith dialogue?
I think President Obama’s most important accomplishment, in regards to the dialogue between religions, is to steer Muslim-West relations away from religion and into the place of politics. During President Bush’s tenure, the majority of Muslims were not only angry at America’s policies, but believed that America was actually at war with Islam. This idea is no longer as strong. Now people point to Obama’s actions, not to his ideology, as their reason for distrust. This is actually an improvement because policies can change, but religion and ideology are much harder to alter.
Your task was limited to “consulting”. When did you exceed that line and affect President Obama’s opinion, position or speech?
My biggest impact was really the impact of Gallup’s research on the conversation taking place in Washington, regarding Muslims and their motivations. When we started, most people in Washington believed Muslims were irrational and only hated America because they hated democracy or freedom. They also believed that terrorism was motivated by religion. The research I lead showed a different picture: it proved that Muslims love democracy and freedom and want more of it themselves, and were angry at America because it denied them this same freedom. It also showed that extremists’ violence was motivated by politics, not by religion. These new ideas began to become mainstream in Washington, and they were also accepted by the president in his own speeches and strategies.
In parallel to the increase of Islamophobia in the United States, studies show a high number of new adherents of the Islamic faith in the country. How do you explain this contradiction?
I actually see no contradiction. Islamophobia makes people curious about Islam, and when they study it they discover a truth that puts their hearts at rest and quenches the thirst of their soul.
Is it true that Muslims are well-integrated in America but not welcome? Is it possible to be a devoted Muslim and a dedicated American at the same time?
Honestly, I’m starting to get uncomfortable with the idea of Muslim Americans being “integrated,” because it implies that we are a foreign element needing to join the “real” Americans. Are Catholic Americans “integrated?” Are African Americans “integrated?” The question makes no sense when applied to other groups. Just as African Americans continue to face discrimination but America is still their country, Muslim Americans are in a similar situation. We are not becoming American or Americanizing. We are just American. It is who we are, not what we want to become. America simply needs to grow and adjust to this reality by including all its members. It will be a stronger country when it does so. Islamophobia is a cancer that destroys everything in a society. It sells unjust wars, it compromises our values and it misinforms our citizens. All Americans must stand against it.
As a veiled woman, what was the most difficult situation you went through in the United States?
The most difficult time for me was right after the attacks of September 11, when our community was scared and unsure about its future. I didn’t know what to expect from my fellow citizens. But, alhamdulillah [all praise and thanks to God], I was surprised to find great support and solidarity.
A large number of Muslim immigrants take advantage of the economy, welfare and livelihood of advanced foreign countries, and then they criticize these societies. Don’t you see a kind of “schizophrenia” in their behavior?
I don’t think this is a sort of split personality. I think there are positive and negative things about every country, and we don’t have to love or hate everything to be consistent. I believe it is important to take anything on its own value and evaluate it, no matter where it is from. Islamic civilization never rejected anything simply because it was foreign, nor did it accept everything simply because it is foreign. Every idea should be evaluated on its own merit.
Your declarations concerning the Egyptian situation raised a lot of angry reactions, and you were accused of being the advisor of the Muslim Brotherhood and not Obama’s advisor. How do you respond to this accusation?
Sadly, anyone who speaks against the severe human rights violations and abuse of power in Egypt right now is labeled a Muslim Brotherhood supporter or member. I am not a member of this group or a supporter of their ideology and neither is anyone in my family. I support justice, democracy and human rights and will continue to speak against anyone who violates them. I will not let these accusations or reactions deter me from speaking the truth.
Many analysts believe that the Muslim Brotherhood in America has one goal – the Islamization of the US – and that many members of the international organization hold important and high positions in the country. What do you think about that?
I can’t speak about the goals of the “Muslim Brotherhood.” However, what I know for a fact is that no one accused of being a member of the group in the US government is an actual member of the movement. These rumors are spread for a very specific reason. It is to marginalize Muslim Americans from the political process and exclude us from our country’s decision making. It is so sad to see the Arab media aiding American Islamophobes in this effort.
Finally, what are the best aspects of Egypt and America? And what is the worst thing about both?
The best thing about Egypt is its youth. They are resilient, courageous and love freedom. The worst thing about Egypt is its media. It is dishonest, hateful and panders to power. My favorite thing about the United States is its ability to change. It is not static. Society renews, innovates and looks for ways to improve. My least favorite thing about the United States is the idea among many that America is God’s chosen country and that its many blessings are a license from God to do anything it wants, rather than a responsibility to act with justice.
This interview was originally published in Arabic by An Nahar Newspaper