The NS Interview: Dalia Mogahed, adviser to Barack Obama

“Corny as it may sound, I am proof of the American dream”

Click here to see an extended version of this interview.

Click here for an exclusive portrait shoot.

Are you the first hijab-wearing Muslim woman to hold a White House position?
To my knowledge, yes.

Have you met the president?
I met him briefly at the White House this fall. He is just as he seems on TV: charismatic, down to earth. He makes people feel like what they are saying to him is of the utmost importance.

Polling in the Muslim world - and writing Who Speaks for Islam? - what did you discover?
We learned a number of things, but the most important was: conflict between the "west" and Muslim societies is not inevitable. Tensions arise because of politics, not principles. We share a great deal: a respect for good governance, liberties such as freedom of speech. The tensions are not about what they think of our values, but about what they think we think of theirs.

Has Barack Obama helped America win "hearts and minds" in the Muslim world?
Our research suggests that electing President Obama, and his subsequent outreach, significantly improved America's image in Muslim-majority societies, especially in the Middle East. For example, in 2008 Egypt clocked in at 6 per cent approval for the US leadership. In the spring of 2009, it went up to 25 per cent. After President Obama's Cairo speech in June, 37 per cent of Egyptians approved of the US leadership. We have seen significant improvements across the Middle East, but much remains to be done.

Who are your heroes?
Raising someone to "hero" status is too great a simplification. I can tell you character traits I admire - perseverance, self-discipline, courage to stand up for what is right.

Do you vote?
Yes, absolutely.

From your polling, what proportion of the world's Muslims supports religious violence?
Roughly 7 per cent supported the 11 September 2001 attacks as "morally justified", but they gave political, not theological, justifications. Not one cited a verse from the Quran. Often the majority who condemned the attacks explained their position in religious terms.

What is the single biggest driver of radicalism and extremism in the Muslim world?
Our data suggests it is a combination of anger at foreign and domestic policies, and a lack of faith in peaceful means of change. Those in the "politically radicalised" 7 per cent resemble violent revolutionaries throughout history: politically engaged, middle-class and frustrated.

What US policy would you change if you could?
I'm not in the business of changing policies. I hope to inform, not form, decisions. But if I were to advise leaders on what would have the biggest impact on western-Muslim relations according to our research, it would be to resolve conflicts in Muslim societies in which western powers are involved, directly and indirectly.

How bad is Islamophobia in America today?
Americans express more prejudice towards Muslims than any other faith group. Most say that they view Islam unfavourably. Like one of any minority, I have experienced prejudice. But much more often I have experienced solidarity from fellow Americans. I'll never forget the first Friday prayer after 9/11. Half the congregation were non-Muslims who came to show support.

Do you see your own life and professional success as proof of the "American dream"?
Corny as it may sound, I think the answer is yes. I am very grateful for the opportunities I have been afforded.

Do you see yourself as an American first, or a Muslim first?
Hah! My favourite question! The two are complementary. My national identity is first American. My religious identity is first Muslim.
What was your reaction to being appointed by President Obama to the Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighbourhood Partnerships?
I was honoured. It was exciting to see our research [she is a senior analyst for the Gallup poll­ing organisation] get this kind of recognition.

What is the council's role? Isn't the US based on the separation of church and state?
Most definitely - this constitutional principle is something the council is very careful to uphold. Its role is to advise the government on how it can best partner with faith- and community-based organisations to solve problems. Our agenda is diverse, ranging from fighting global poverty to promoting interfaith co-operation.

What would you like to forget?
Nothing. Everything I have experienced in my life helps form who I am today and I would not change or forget any of it.

Are we all doomed?
Not at all. I remain optimistic because, despite the bad news we hear, there is empirically much more good in the world than bad.

Click here to see an extended version of this interview.

Click here for an exclusive portrait shoot.

Defining Moments

1974 Born in Cairo, Egypt. Emigrates with her family to the US at the age of four
1993 BSc in chemical engineering. Goes on to earn an MBA (University of Pittsburgh)
2004 Joins the Gallup organisation
2006 Becomes executive director of the Gallup Centre for Muslim Studies
2007 Co-authors Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think
April 2009 Appointed an adviser to Barack Obama on Muslim affairs