Dalia Mogahed

An Interview with Dalia Mogahed

Todd Green conducted the following interview with Dalia Mogahed on June 5, 2014.

1. Why do many non-Muslims in the West have such strong feelings about Islam even though they know very little about Islam?

 What explains these strong feelings is a very deliberate campaign of misinformation. This is hardly controversial anymore. There are now many good reports documenting the fear industry or the Islamophobia industry, with specific people who receive lots of money to generate fear and hate toward Muslim citizens in the United States and Europe. While many people have really strong opinions, they are being led to those opinions by a specific, targeted campaign to tarnish and demonize Muslims.

When I was at Gallup, we did a study on American perceptions of Muslims and Islam. What we found was really interesting. On the one hand, when people said they knew a great deal about Islam, they were less likely to harbor anti-Muslim prejudice. When they said they knew nothing about Islam, they were also less likely to harbor prejudice. It was the people in the middle who said they knew something or thought they knew something that were the most likely to harbor intense prejudice against Muslims. This is good news and bad news. The good news is that Americans, left alone, totally ignorant, are not prejudiced. Prejudice is a taught state of being. Prejudice is something that people acquire. It’s not simply the default state because you don’t know anything about someone. Americans are as likely to know Buddhists as they are Muslims, yet they harbor virtually no prejudice against Buddhists because there is no anti-Buddhism campaign that they are being fed daily.

Left to their own devices, Americans are an embracing people. They are naturally accepting of people who are different than them. I reject the idea that people fear what they don’t know. That’s not true. They don’t fear what they don’t know. They fear what they have been taught to fear.


2. What is the best way to address the media’s negative portrayal of Islam?

It’s a really tough nut to crack. I think that it is almost impossible without reframing the narrative in the media. Some have suggested that what people need to do is to have more interactions and foster more dialogue with people of different faiths, to create more relationships between Muslims and people of other faiths. I think all of those things are good and important, but all of this ultimately will not be effective or strong enough to counter the daily diet of hate. And I don’t simply mean the Islamophobia industry. The mainstream media is a part of this. Many studies have shown that the mainstream media – CNN, Fox News, MSNBC – portray Muslims and Islam negatively. One study showed that when you look at media content analysis, something like 82 percent of portrayals of Muslims and Islam in the US news media are negative. That compares to 70 percent of the coverage of North Korea is negative. Muslim societies are more negatively portrayed in our media than a country that the US has identified as one of our greatest enemies. That’s a real problem. There are not enough interfaith dinners in the world to counteract that. The only thing we can do is to hold the media accountable and issue these reports and point to this reality and demand a shift in the reporting. It’s unacceptable. And it’s a disservice to the American people who are supposed to be informed by the news media as a pillar of our democracy. Right now, it’s the exact opposite.

Social media is an important factor, but it’s used by both sides. In my experience, social media has been far more of a negative when it comes to Islamophobia than a positive. Anything goes on social media, things become viral when they’ve never been fact-checked, etc. So I don’t think social media is the panacea at all. It can be more effectively used, but it’s not going to be the answer. Plus, when you look at the data, it’s clear that social media does not have the penetration or the impact that the mass media does. We need to hold these big media outlets accountable.


3. What is the one thing you wish more people in the West knew about Islam?

What I would want people to know is that from an empirical perspective, Islam does not motivate extremist behavior. That sounds like a very hard thing to prove. But when I was at Gallup, we did massive amounts of research on public opinion, specifically on public opinion of terrorism defined as deliberate attacks on civilians. We also looked at Muslim opinions of the attacks of 9/11. What we found in both cases – whether we were asking about a specific incident such as 9/11 or more broadly about terrorism – was that religiosity did not correlate with a propensity to sympathize with these actions. Religiosity in fact in many cases was linked with a rejection of terrorism among Muslims. Islam as a net influence is the reason there is so little terrorism. Islam as a net influence is the reason we don’t have more hate and animosity between Muslims and the West. To blame Islam for the actions of a fringe minority is scientifically and empirically false.


4. What can Muslims do to help combat Islamophobia?

Muslims have to engage with their societies – whether in the United States or Europe – as citizens and as members. When you’re a citizen and a member, you sacrifice for your community and your society. You care about its well-being. You want to protect it. You also feel a sense of justified entitlement to be protected by the law and to be treated like an equal citizen.

There’s a problem right now in which many Muslims see themselves as grateful guests rather than engaged members and citizens. But the problem with grateful guests is that while they are quiet and don’t demand too much from their gracious host, they also don’t build. And they don’t sacrifice.

I think that the problem is that Islamophobia has a very negative effect not only on those who harbor it but on those who are victims of it, because they start to internalize those messages. Islamophobia has created a situation in which many Muslims have embraced and internalized a second-class citizenship status. When we give in to those things, when we see ourselves as not deserving and not able to demand the same rights as everyone else, we embolden those who want to marginalize us. We’re not helping anything. We’re not alleviating the problem by giving into it and by accommodating it. I think Muslims have to see themselves as engaged citizens rather than grateful guests.

I also think that we have to go a lot more on the offensive than we have been. For example, I will never condemn terrorism again. In fact, I will call out the next person who asks me to condemn terrorism, because it is implicitly and in many cases explicitly a racist statement to ask Muslims to prove to their fellow citizens that they think that the murder of innocent people is wrong. The fact that this is not assumed reflects a racist position. We never demand that members of other groups condemn the terrible deeds done by some of their members, but we always demand that Muslims prove their innocence by condemning terrorism. This is racist, and we’re not calling this racism and this blatant double standard out.

You can never prove you are against something. It’s impossible. You can never sufficiently prove the absence of something. This is a principle of law. By continuing to try, we’re actually affirming or giving credit to the idea that we should be. I think we’re answering the wrong question. I think we need to stand up and challenge these ideas and demand fairness – not favoritism. We should no longer tolerate being singled out as something other than an equal citizen.


5. What can non-Muslims do to help combat Islamophobia?

Empirically, we know that there is more prejudice against Muslims than against lesbians and gays, African Americans, and even women. This is borne out in surveys. Islamophobia is the civil rights issue of our day. When America faced a cancer like racism in the past, we didn’t overcome this prejudice by only having the victims fight it. It had to be a critical mass of the broader society standing up and saying, “Not in my name!” It had to be a large group of people demanding a better country, demanding that we live up to our professed values. So America will not grow to overcome this cancer without the help of a much broader set of people, a much broader coalition that works together.

Some concrete things non-Muslims can do include calling Islamophobia out as they would any other form of racism. Call it out. Point it out. Make it socially unacceptable. That’s the way we’ve overcome other things. It’s when good people are silent that these things continue.


6. Are you hopeful that Muslims will face less discrimination and hostility in a generation from now?

I’m always a cautious optimist, so I think it will be better, and I think it will be better because that’s what history tells us. As Americans, we have always overcome our shortcomings. One very interesting timeline that I always show in my presentation slides pertains to interracial marriage in America. When Gallup first started measuring people’s attitudes toward interracial marriage back in the 1950s, only 4 percent of Americans approved of it. Both blacks and whites were against it. And now around 86 percent of Americans approve of interracial marriage.

We also amazingly elected a president who is the product of an interracial marriage. When he was born, interracial marriage was illegal in Virginia, which is where I am living right now. He was the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Virginia in decades. What all of those things tell me is that we are a country that is capable of renewal. I have faith in that reality to combat this problem.

Dalia Mogahed is Director of Research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding in Washington, DC. Along with John Esposito, she is the co-author of Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think (Gallup 2007). She is the former executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies where she oversaw the analysis of surveys of Muslims globally from 2006–2012. She also served on President Obama’s Advisory Council for the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.