Dalia Mogahed to SHAFAQNA: Muslims overwhelmingly oppose terrorist acts committed in the name of Islam / A scholar’s view on extremism and terror

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SHAFAQNA- Dalia Mogahed is President and CEO of Mogahed Consulting, a Washington, D.C. based executive coaching and consulting firm specializing in Muslim societies and the Middle East. She is former Executive Director of and Senior Analyst for the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies where she led the analysis of surveys of Muslims worldwide, including in the U.S. and Europe. With John L. Esposito, she coauthored the groundbreaking book Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think.

President Barack Obama appointed Mogahed to the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in 2009, making her the first Muslim-American woman to hold a position of this seniority. In this role, Mogahed joined other American leaders in offering recommendations to the U.S. president on how faith-based organizations can best work with the government to solve society’s toughest challenges. Mogahed was invited to testify before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations about U.S. engagement with Muslim communities, and she provided significant contributions to the Homeland Security Advisory Council’s Countering Violent Extremism Working Group recommendations. She also joined Madeleine Albright and Dennis Ross as a leading voice in the U.S.-Muslim Engagement Project. This group of American leaders, which included senior government, military, and business decision makers, produced a consensus report with key policy recommendations for improving America’s relationship with Muslims globally — many of which were later adopted by the Obama Administration.

The World Economic Forum named Mogahed a Young Global Leader. She is a member of the Forum’s Agenda Council on the Arab World, as well as a frequent speaker at their conferences. Mogahed serves on the boards of Freedom House and Soliya, and is a nonresident senior public policy scholar at Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. Arabian Business magazine recognized her as one of the most influential Arabs in the world in 2010-2012, and The Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre included Mogahed in its 2009-2012 lists of the 500 most influential Muslims. Ashoka named Mogahed the Arab World’s Social Innovator of the Year in 2010, and the University of Wisconsin Alumni Association recognized her with its prestigious Forward Under 40 award for outstanding contributions by a graduate of the University of Wisconsin.

Mogahed is a frequent expert commentator in global media outlets and international forums. She also serves as a Global Expert for the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations. Her analyses have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Foreign Policy magazine, the Harvard International Review, and many other academic and popular journals. Her audiences have included heads of state, parliamentarians from around the world, and religious leaders from every faith.

SHAFAQNA – Back when you were the Executive Director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies you conducted a series of public opinion research in order to determine what Muslims thought of extremism, terror and so on … You actually compiled your findings into a book, “Who Speaks for Islam?  What a Billion Muslims Really Think”.

What can you tell us about your research and findings? How do Muslims view Islam?

Muslims globally are very diverse, speak different languages, have different histories and interpret their faith in different ways. This pluralism is built in and celebrated in Islam. They also have varying views on the U.S. For example, while Muslims in the Middle East were unlikely to approve of the United States’ leadership, Muslims in Sub-Saharan Africa expressed overwhelmingly positive views. Muslims also had varying views on the role of religion in politics, as well as how religious law should be interpreted.

But while there are differences among the many Muslim communities they all share one common denominator –  faith is an important part of their daily live.

SHAFAQNA – What of terror? Mainstream media continue to spew condemning statements, often aligning Islam and Muslims with terror but we rarely hear Muslims’ opinions on terror. According to your research how do Muslims position themselves within the rise of radicalism?

The majority of Muslims overwhelmingly oppose terrorist acts committed in the name of Islam. This was clearly demonstrated by a 2011 Gallup study I was involved in of more than a hundred countries worldwide called Views of Violence: What drives public acceptance and rejection of attacks on civilians 10 years after 9/11. Contrary to popular misperceptions, Muslim majority countries were at least as likely as other societies to denounce attacks on civilians. In the Middle East, religious devotion was linked to a greater rejection of these attacks.

So what do we make of terrorists employing religious symbolism and rhetoric? First, we need to listen more carefully and what we hear beneath the religious veneer is a fundamentally political, not religious, argument. From the Boston bombers to the gruesome murder of a British soldier in Woolwich, terrorists justify their violence by citing modern grievances not medieval exegesis.

We can say the same about terrorists of every stripe actually. The symbols and language they employ depend on their cultural background, but their core message is the same:  Perceived wrongs require violence to correct. One of the most extreme examples of this was two years ago in Norway, when Anders Breivik, who advocated the violent annihilation of “Eurabia,” bombed government buildings, killing eight people, and struck a youth summer camp in Oslo, shooting 69 people dead, many of them teenagers.

Second, whether a terrorist claims to defend Islam or Europe’s white Christian majority, his or her identity provides the context, not the cause, of their radicalization.

SHAFAQNA – What do you mean by his or her identity provides the context and not the cause? Are you implying therefore that radicalisation is a social deviance which bears no link to Islam whatsoever?

Take the August 2012 case of Wade Michael Page, a right wing white supremacist, and his lethal attack on a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. According to a man who described himself as an old Army buddy of Page’s, the attacker often talked about “racial holy war.”  His white conservative background didn’t cause his radicalization anymore than being Muslim or Chechen caused the Boston bombers to turn to violence.  In both cases, the radicalization occurred within the criminal’s cultural context and therefore took on the symbols, on-line space and rhetoric of this sub-culture.

As such, the mainstream Muslim American community is no more responsible for deviant Muslims who turn to terrorism than the Republican party is responsible for right-wing radicals who do the same. In fact, far from acquiescing to this violence, according to Gallup’s 2011 report on U.S. religious communities, Muslim Americans are the most likely U.S. faith community to unequivocally denounce attacks on civilians as morally wrong, whether by an individual or a military.

According to the best research, Muslim radicalization in the West occurs outside the community, in spite of the community and in defiance of the community.

SHAFAQNA – Since it was established that terror is its own disease why aren’t governments doing more to outroot it instead of waging war against the very people which have become extremists’ hostages? What of rising Islamophobia in the West?

Much can be done, but nothing will be as effective as ending acute conflicts involving the U.S. in the Muslim world and bring about a just settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Muslims are Al Qaeda’s number one victims, so no one wants to end this senseless violence more than they do. Al Qaeda also preys on their young men, exploiting their anger at often times legitimate grievances, to recruit them into a life of crime. So no one wishes to see an end to this more than Muslims do. The most important steps that should be taken is to educate our young people on their faith. The Islam of the Qur’an cannot coexist in the same heart and mind with the ideology of Al Qaeda. They are opposing forces and the stronger their understanding of the former the more able they will be to see the falsehood of the later. Women, as mothers, teachers, scholars and community leaders can play a vital role in this regard.

What can you tell us about Westerners’ belief that Muslim women live in the shadows, the victims of a patriarchal society? What do Muslim women think?

The views of Muslim women are complex. They want and expect equal rights, but say that their faith is not the barrier to achieving this goal.  Most regard their faith as a force for freedom, not fanaticism. However, like most women, their main concerns are similar to those of any other citizen in their country, and revolve around development, education and unemployment, not “women’s rights.”  As for the “veil”, the majority of Muslim women say they cover their hair in public and when asked why the most common response is that they believe it is a religious mandate. Simply put, it is part of practicing their faith. Women who wear it associate it with not only piety but “confidence” and “dignity.”

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