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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

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Tweeting terror: what social media reveals about how we respond to tragedy

From sharing graphic images to posting a selfie, what compels online behaviours that can often outwardly seem improper?

Why did they post that? Why did they share a traumatising image? Why did they tell a joke? Why are they making this about themselves? Did they… just post a selfie? Why are they spreading fake news?

These are questions social media users almost inevitably ask themselves in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy such as Wednesday’s Westminster attack. Yet we ask not because of genuine curiosity, but out of shock and judgement provoked by what we see as the wrong way to respond online. But these are still questions worth answering. What drives the behaviours we see time and again on social media in the wake of a disaster?

The fake image

“I really didn't think it was going to become a big deal,” says Dr Ranj Singh. “I shared it just because I thought it was very pertinent, I didn't expect it to be picked up by so many people.”

Singh was one of the first people to share a fake Tube sign on Twitter that was later read out in Parliament and on BBC Radio 4. The TfL sign – a board in stations which normally provides service information but can often feature an inspiring quote – read: “All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you.”

Singh found it on the Facebook page of a man called John (who later explained to me why he created the fake image) and posted it on his own Twitter account, which has over 40,000 followers. After it went viral, many began pointing out that the sign was faked.

“At a time like this is it really helpful to point out that its fake?” asks Singh – who believes it is the message, not the medium, that matters most. “The sentiment is real and that's what's important.”

Singh tells me that he first shared the sign because he found it to be profound and was then pleased with the initial “sense of solidarity” that the first retweets brought. “I don't think you can fact-check sentiments,” he says, explaining why he didn’t delete the tweet.

Dr Grainne Kirwan, a cyberpsychology lecturer and author, explains that much of the behaviour we see on social media in the aftermath of an attack can be explained by this desire for solidarity. “It is part of a mechanism called social processing,” she says. “By discussing a sudden event of such negative impact it helps the individual to come to terms with it… When shocked, scared, horrified, or appalled by an event we search for evidence that others have similar reactions so that our response is validated.”

The selfies and the self-involved

Yet often, the most maligned social media behaviour in these situations seems less about solidarity and more about selfishness. Why did YouTuber Jack Jones post a since-deleted selfie with the words “The outmost [sic] respect to our public services”? Why did your friend, who works nowhere near Westminster, mark themselves as “Safe” using Facebook’s Safety Check feature? Why did New Statesman writer Laurie Penny say in a tweet that her “atheist prayers” were with the victims?

“It was the thought of a moment, and not a considered statement,” says Penny. The rushed nature of social media posts during times of crisis can often lead to misunderstandings. “My atheism is not a political statement, or something I'm particularly proud of, it just is.”

Penny received backlash on the site for her tweet, with one user gaining 836 likes on a tweet that read: “No need to shout 'I'm an atheist!' while trying to offer solidarity”. She explains that she posted her tweet due to the “nonsensical” belief that holding others in her heart makes a difference at tragic times, and was “shocked” when people became angry at her.

“I was shouted at for making it all about me, which is hard to avoid at the best of times on your own Twitter feed,” she says. “Over the years I've learned that 'making it about you' and 'attention seeking' are familiar accusations for any woman who has any sort of public profile – the problem seems to be not with what we do but with who we are.”

Penny raises a valid point that social media is inherently self-involved, and Dr Kirwan explains that in emotionally-charged situations it is easy to say things that are unclear, or can in hindsight seem callous or insincere.

“Our online society may make it feel like we need to show a response to events quickly to demonstrate solidarity or disdain for the individuals or parties directly involved in the incident, and so we put into writing and make publicly available something which we wrote in haste and without full knowledge of the circumstances.”

The joke

Arguably the most condemned behaviour in the aftermath of a tragedy is the sharing of an ill-timed joke. Julia Fraustino, a research affiliate at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), reflects on this often seemingly inexplicable behaviour. “There’s research dating back to the US 9/11 terror attacks that shows lower rates of disaster-related depression and anxiety for people who evoke positive emotions before, during and after tragic events,” she says, stating that humour can be a coping mechanism.

“The offensiveness or appropriateness of humor seems, at least in part, to be tied to people’s perceived severity of the crisis,” she adds. “An analysis of tweets during a health pandemic showed that humorous posts rose and fell along with the seriousness of the situation, with more perceived seriousness resulting in fewer humour-based posts.”

The silence

If you can’t say anything nice, why say anything at all? Bambi's best friend Thumper's quote might be behind the silence we see from some social media users. Rather than simply being uncaring, there are factors which can predict whether someone will be active or passive on social media after a disaster, notes Fraustino.

“A couple of areas that factor into whether a person will post on social media during a disaster are issue-involvement and self-involvement,” she says. “When people perceive that the disaster is important and they believe they can or should do something about it, they may be more likely to share others’ posts or create their own content. Combine issue-involvement with self-involvement, which in this context refers to a desire for self-confirmation such as through gaining attention by being perceived as a story pioneer or thought leader, and the likelihood goes up that this person will create or curate disaster-related content on social media.”

“I just don’t like to make it about me,” one anonymous social media user tells me when asked why he doesn’t post anything himself – but instead shares or retweets posts – during disasters. “I feel like people just want likes and retweets and aren’t really being sincere, and I would hate to do that. Instead I just share stuff from important people, or stuff that needs to be said – like reminders not to share graphic images.”

The graphic image

The sharing of graphic and explicit images is often widely condemned, as many see this as both pointless and potentially psychologically damaging. After the attack, BBC Newsbeat collated tens of tweets by people angry that passersby took pictures instead of helping, with multiple users branding it “absolutely disgusting”.

Dr Kirwan explains that those near the scene may feel a “social responsibility” to share their knowledge, particularly in situations where there is a fear of media bias. It is also important to remember that shock and panic can make us behave differently than we normally would.

Yet the reason this behaviour often jars is because we all know what motivates most of us to post on social media: attention. It is well-documented that Likes and Shares give us a psychological boost, so it is hard to feel that this disappears in tragic circumstances. If we imagine someone is somehow “profiting” from posting traumatic images, this can inspire disgust. Fraustino even notes that posts with an image are significantly more likely to be clicked on, liked, or shared.

Yet, as Dr Kiwarn explains, Likes don’t simply make us happy on such occasions, they actually make us feel less alone. “In situations where people are sharing terrible information we may still appreciate likes, retweets, [and] shares as it helps to reinforce and validate our beliefs and position on the situation,” she says. “It tells us that others feel the same way, and so it is okay for us to feel this way.”

Fraustino also argues that these posts can be valuable, as they “can break through the noise and clutter and grab attention” and thereby bring awareness to a disaster issue. “As positive effects, emotion-evoking images can potentially increase empathy and motivation to contribute to relief efforts.”

The judgement

The common thread isn’t simply the accusation that such social media behaviours are “insensitive”, it is that there is an abundance of people ready to point the finger and criticise others, even – and especially – at a time when they should focus on their own grief. VICE writer Joel Golby sarcastically summed it up best in a single tweet: “please look out for my essay, 'Why Everyone's Reaction to the News is Imperfect (But My Own)', filed just now up this afternoon”.

“When already emotional other users see something which they don't perceive as quite right, they may use that opportunity to vent anger or frustration,” says Dr Kirwan, explaining that we are especially quick to judge the posts of people we don’t personally know. “We can be very quick to form opinions of others using very little information, and if our only information about a person is a post which we feel is inappropriate we will tend to form a stereotyped opinion of this individual as holding negative personality traits.

“This stereotype makes it easier to target them with hateful speech. When strong emotions are present, we frequently neglect to consider if we may have misinterpreted the content, or if the person's apparently negative tone was intentional or not.”

Fraustino agrees that people are attempting to reduce their own uncertainty or anxiety when assigning blame. “In a terror attack setting where emotions are high, uncertainty is high, and anxiety is high, blaming or scapegoating can relieve some of those negative emotions for some people.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.