“Muslims are not only victimized by ISIS,
but at the same time blamed for ISIS.”
Dalia Mogahed – TED.
In SABF 2016 Dalia Mogahed gave the participants and all the listeners a reading of the political, economic, social and cultural reality that acted as a trigger to provoke an introspective in-depth analysis of each one’s acting individual, but also in acting as a society against the events that occur in the world.
From an original point of view, she told in the first person her life experience, and how it was marked by certain events that also marked the future of the world.
More than a year after her participation in the SABF, from the Blog Team we considered it necessary to reconnect with her in order to understand what her reading of reality is. Dalia, answered a couple of questions that help us to analyse how the world changed in the last year. We focus on different topics to be able to touch a little the questions left by her participation and doubts that we all have when it comes to watching the news.
Who is Dalia Mogahed? Dalia is the Director of Research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) in Washington D.C. Also, she is President and CEO of an executive coaching and consulting firm Mogahed Consulting, specializing in the Middle East and Muslim societies. She was selected by President Barack Obama as an adviser on the White House, which made her the first Muslim American woman to hold that position. She chaired the Gallup Centre for Muslim Studies. She is a chemical engineer from the University of Wisconsin with an MBA from the University of Pittsburgh.
Without further introduction, I give you: Dalia Mogahed.
Jonatán Carné: Since your participation in SABF 2016, there have been important changes in the international context. What do you think are the main changes in international politics? What are the issues that are dominating international agenda and social interest this year?
Dalia Mogahed: The biggest difference is that Donald Trump went from being an embarrassing presidential candidate to my country’s commander in chief and President, an outcome many of us didn’t think was possible. This reality points to a rising tide of reactionary identity politics where traditionally privileged communities fear that their advantage is under threat. They look to politicians that promise to restore said privilege. This trend is sweeping Europe as we saw with Brexit, and the relatively strong performance of right-wing and even “Alt-right” parties. As Chris Rock said though, “if you’re losing, then who’s winning?”.
JC: What do you think is the role of the media as an instrument of international politics?
DM: Media forms perceptions, and public perceptions provide consent for government policies. When the media provides one candidate more attention than all others combined, this will inevitably help that candidate win. If the media tells us every day to be fearful of a group of people, then many of us will be and we will act on that fear by supporting more surveillance of this group, restrictions on their rights and even military interventions in countries that we have been taught “hate us”.
JC: Media generates images and stereotypes. Do you think that media reproduces a wrong image of Muslims or of who is different? How does this affect society?
DM: One study by an ISPU (Institute for Social Policy and Understanding) scholar named Muniba Salem and her colleagues found that exposure to negative media about Muslims made people more likely to support tighter security for Muslim-looking people at airports, military invasion of Muslim majority countries and even taking away the voting rights of Americans who are Muslim. The media has an enormous responsibility to report objectively because what they say and do matters to the health of our democracy.
JC: The advent of the Islamic State (ISIS) comes to revive that anti-Islamic feeling that was seen after 9/11? What do you think is the cause of increased ISIS adherence around the world and how to avoid it?
DM: I am not a military expert but all my readings indicate that ISIS is in fact in retreat and is shrinking, not growing. ISIS’s primary victims are Muslims, more than 95% in fact.ISIS is a cancer and Muslims are at the forefront of fighting this gang of deviants. The sad part is that despite these clear facts, Muslims are not only victimized by ISIS, but at the same time blamed for ISIS.
When I’m asked if ISIS is “Islamic” since they have this word in their name. I ask two simple questions: 1) Would a group like ISIS, with the same tactics and brutality? 2) Exist in this region if all else was exactly the same in terms of geopolitics, failed state, foreign invasion, torture and genocide, but no Islam? The answer is yes, they would exist because a group like ISIS has emerged everywhere in the world when the same conditions existed but by different names and appealing to different ideologies. When the surrounding community is communist, the terrorists use language that appeals to communist sentiments (Tamil Tigers), when the community is Buddhist, they use this rhetoric, when the people look to Christian beliefs to guide their thinking, the terrorist talk in terms of the Bible, God and the Ten Commandments (Lord’s Resistance Army), and the list goes on. So, blaming Islam for ISIS is confusing the context for the cause.
JC: Precisely, from the West it seeks to understand Islam with bounded information. What is the role of women in Islam? What is the answer to the criticisms of the Western feminist movements denouncing the role of women in the Muslim world?
DM: ¡Oh, wow, such a big question with so much to discuss! Where to begin? Let’s start by stating the obvious: Muslims are sexist. Women don’t have their full equal rights in the Muslim community in many parts of the world. Why? Because Muslims are guilty of being human beings sadly. Everyone is sexist, and women don’t have their full rights anywhere. But it’s worse for women in the Muslim world, I hear someone scream! In some parts yes, but not because of Islam.
In a study Gallup did on women’s rights in the Middle East, researchers found that men’s perceptions of women’s rights mattered a lot to how women fared in their societies. But men’s support for women’s rights did not correlate with their piety, or religious devotion. Instead, it correlated to their level of education, their own well-being and their country’s score on the UN Human Development Index.
What does this mean? Women do better when societies are better for everyone. Women do better when men feel better about their own situation, not when they are less religious, which has no impact empirically. Muslim women, according to all the research I lead at Gallup and ISPU, expect and want equal rights. They also cherish their faith, in many cases even more than men, and see their faith not as an obstacle to liberation, but as part of the solution. So, if feminists really want to help Muslim women they can start by listening to Muslim women rather than lecturing them or degrading their religion. They should also be cautious to not be used as instruments of Islamophobia.
JC: Academically, it reads increasingly the view that the Middle East is losing territorial borders and begins to draw a sectarian map in which the countries areas of influence are conceived by religious alliances. What is the role of religion in politics in the region? What is the difference with other regions like Europe or the American continent?
DM: I’m so relieved that America and Europe know nothing about war or killing each other over territory or ideology and can comfortably lecture the world about how to be civilized! The difference is America and Europe are stable countries, not failed states. Failed states, due to foreign invasion, genocidal dictators, or revolutions, create the conditions where people have to turn to tribe for protection, like human beings have done from the beginning of time. This occurs everywhere these conditions exist. When the state cannot protect you as an individual, we coalesce around a tribal identity for survival. This is why gangs exist in the inner city. This is why ethnic warfare occurs in places with a weak central authority.
JC: You had the opportunity to participate as an advisor to the Barack Obama’s administration. What are the lessons that political experience left you and what advice would you give to young people who are interested in politics?
DM: The single most important lesson I gleaned from this experience is this: Access does not equal influence. Being “in the room” and “at the table” is a necessary but insufficient condition to bring about real change. You need to be at that table with resources to offer or take away. If you don’t have actual resources in the form of organized people and money, you are warming a chair. So, for young people, build from the ground up. The real power is with the people on the ground. Organize them. Empower them. Educate them. Then when you are invited to sit at the table of power, be there representing those people, not your resume. This is how you can make real change.