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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

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Everything you know about Islam is wrong

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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