Dalia Mogahed - extended interview

A longer version of this week's NS interview with the advisor to Barack Obama.

Click here to see the interview as it appeared in this week's magazine.

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. Muslims do not hate our freedom; they admire us for it. 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. Muslims around the world believe we do not respect Islam or regard Muslims as equals. Our policies, from the Iraq war to our stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict, are often viewed through this filter.

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 -- the lowest of any country measured by Gallup. 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. We even saw an improvement in Palestinian opinion from spring to fall of 2009, from 7 per cent to 20 per cent approval, which was especially interesting, since their opinion had actually gone down slightly after the election of President Obama.

I believe a significant reason opinion has improved is President Obama's outreach efforts, especially his Cairo address. I attended his 4 June speech in Cairo and witnessed first-hand its impact on the audience. The president finished to a standing ovation, was interrupted more than 40 times with applause, and exited an auditorium of people chanting "O-Bah-Mah". He electrified a cross-section of Egyptian society in a way few American leaders ever have.

How did the president of the United States, in the country with 2008's lowest approval rating for US leadership, receive a rock-star reception? What I heard from students, shopkeepers and the intellectual elite alike was that the president made them feel understood, even when they disagreed with him. They said Obama correctly identified and addressed the challenges dividing the US from its Muslim-majority counterparts, rather than ignoring or mischaracterising them.

But much remains to be done. Many are watching and waiting for concrete actions to follow up the gestures of goodwill.

Who are your heroes?
That is really a hard question. I admire many people, but I am not sure that I have any "heroes". People are so complex and multidimensional that raising someone to "hero" status is too great a simplification.

I can tell you character traits I admire and work to develop in myself - perseverance, self-discipline, courage to stand up for what is right even when it is against one's friends or one's self.

Do you vote?
Yes, absolutely.

From your polling, what proportion of the world's Muslims supports religious violence?
I do not know how many support violence in the name of religion. Roughly 7 per cent supported the 11 September 2001 attacks as "morally justified" and have unfavourable opinions of the United States, but they gave political, not theological, justifications. They said America is an imperialist power, or that it kills civilians and this is what it deserves. Not one cited a verse from the Quran.

Often, the majority who condemned the attacks explained their position in religious terms. This group referenced the Quran, specifically verses which prohibit murder.

What is the single biggest driver of radicalism and extremism in the Muslim world?
It is hard to pinpoint the biggest driver, but 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 are actually more likely to be educated and affluent than the mainstream. They resemble violent revolutionaries throughout history: politically engaged, middle-class and frustrated. They are not more religious than the mainstream, but do express more negative perceptions of western policies such as the war in Iraq. They are also more likely than the mainstream to say that moving towards greater democracy will help Muslims progress.

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 -- the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Obviously very difficult to do, but this policy shift would make the single biggest impact.

How bad is Islamophobia in America today?
We released our report on US perceptions of Muslims and Islam just a few weeks ago. Americans express more prejudice towards Muslims than any other faith group. Roughly four in ten say they harbour at least some prejudice toward Muslims; most say that they view Islam unfavourably.
Like one of any minority, I have experienced prejudice. But much more often I have experienced great gestures of compassion and solidarity from fellow Americans. I'll never forget the first Friday prayer after the 11 September 2001 attacks. Half the congregation were non-Muslims who came to show support at a time when many Muslims were literally afraid even to go to the mosque, for fear of a backlash.

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. There are few other countries in the world where I would have had all these choices.

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 -- even the times when I wish I had acted differently. These serve as valuable reminders to keep growing.

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 the interview as it appeared in this week's magazine.

Click here for an exclusive portrait shoot.