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Respectfully Yours

Dalia Mogahed may be the most influential figure guiding the Obama Administration’s Middle East outreach

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The most important person shaping the Obama Administration’s Middle East message isn’t Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, Dennis Ross, Joe Biden, or Rahm Emanuel. Rather, it’s a Cairo-born mother of two named Dalia Mogahed.

“I had a lot of input on framing different issues for the President’s Cairo speech,” Mogahed, a 34-year-old chemical engineer-turned-pollster for the Gallup Organization, told me recently. Mogahed, who holds a BS from the University of Wisconsin and an MBA from Pittsburgh, was appointed by the president last year to sit on the Advisory Council of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, which drafted a memo to the president’s speechwriters that helped to shape the president’s famous address to the Muslim world. Of course, there are plenty of people who are credited with writing the Cairo speech, or who claim credit for it, but Mogahed alone has regular access to the White House, through its Senior Director for Global Engagement, Pradeep Ramamurthy, and through Joshua DuBois at the office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

As founder and executive director of Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, Mogahed regularly travels the Middle East and other Muslim regions to find out what people are really thinking. What she’s discovered is that America doesn’t need to sell itself to Muslims. “In our research,” says Mogahed, “we found that was not the right approach. People largely know what we stand for. They tell us they admire what we say we admire about ourselves. The issue is that they don’t believe we admire anything about them. Our policies are seen through a prism of perceived disrespect.”

Mogahed has encouraged the White House to “demonstrate an appreciation for Islam’s contributions to the world, rather than simply reassuring Muslims that we believe Islam is peaceful.” The point that America needs to make, she says, is that we believe Islam “is not just benign but beneficial.” Speaking to the Muslim world as a great undifferentiated throng slights the specific historical and practical circumstances of individual countries but suits Obama’s self-image as a transformative leader, one who calls on different parts of the globe according to how they structure their fears and hopes and premonitions of the eternal. Obama is the Great Listener who hears the world’s laments and seeks to redress the indignities visited upon those who are unhappy with the current order.

Obama, it is worth remembering, is the child of a father who left his native land to come to America in search of a better life—but did not find it. Mogahed, on the other hand, is the product of a successful immigrant story. Her Egyptian parents uprooted her, at the age of 5, and her sisters to move to Madison, Wisconsin, for graduate degrees in engineering. “I was raised in a home that valued faith,” says Mogahed. “But education was the biggest thing. My sisters and I were encouraged to excel in education. It was the typical immigrant story,” she says. “They spoke Arabic to us, and we answered them in English.”

It wasn’t until college at Wisconsin that Mogahed became fluent in Arabic, a skill that would become invaluable when her bosses at Gallup accepted her proposal to create a special unit researching Muslim societies. Her Muslim West Facts project, Mogahed explains, disseminates research on Muslim as well as Western societies. “The idea,” she says, “is in briefings with policymakers and opinion leaders to inform the conversation with the voices of ordinary people.”

Mogahed’s research sparked some controversy with the publication of a book she co-authored with John L. Esposito, founding director of Georgetown University’s Prince Alwaleed Bin-Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. The 2009 book Who Speaks for Islam? is based on a six-year Gallup project interviewing tens of thousands of Muslims from more than 35 countries, constituting a polling sample that represents “more than 90 percent of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims.” Using the respondent’s feelings about 9/11 as the standard to define gradations swinging from moderation to extremism (a 1-5 scale from “not at all justified” to “completely justified”), the book set out to prove that the vast majority of the world’s Muslims are moderate by nature. Yet it was hard for many readers to be comforted by the news that only 7 percent of the respondents answered that 9/11 was completely justified. Not only would a pool of 91 million people be more than sufficient to create a climate of violent extremism, but it also appears that Mogahed and Esposito fudged their definition of moderation: As Mogahed admitted in a panel at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, an additional 6.5 percent of her sample believed the 9/11 attacks were “partially justified.”

Some in Washington see Mogahed and Esposito as whitewashing the problem posed by the growing power and influence of radical Islamists and view it as part of a larger context of the Obama Administration’s public diplomacy efforts. “There’s nothing wrong with outreach to Muslims,” says WINEP’s Executive Director Robert Satloff. “Executed intelligently, such outreach may be quite useful. The problem is that the same eagerness for outreach has not been matched by an eagerness to counter Islamic extremism. Outreach and counter-radicalization are not the same thing, and we have not seen this Administration meet this latter challenge with the same vigor.”

Concerns that Mogahed could not distinguish between moderates and radicals intensified after she gave a call-in interview to a British TV show hosted by a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organization condemned by the U.S. State Department for its anti-Semitic, anti-Western ideology and for promoting jihad against U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I didn’t know the affiliation of the host when I accepted the invitation,” says Mogahed. “I went on to convey research findings, and the fact the research was used to make points that Hizb ut-Tahrir supports is not something I advocate.”

Mogahed’s mistake underscored the fact that she is not a policy professional whose activities are subject to the kind of vetting process that is standard fare in bureaucratic Washington. But Mogahed’s mistake was simply a mistake: In conversation, she comes across as a somewhat innocent, guileless person, a surprising quality for someone who advises the Administration on an issue fraught with controversy. “I am not a pundit but a researcher,” she says. “I don’t engage people in ideological debate.”

Nonetheless, Mogahed will find herself in the middle of white-hot ideological arena  in New York City tomorrow, when she will be part of a PEN American Center panel marking the first U.S. public appearance of Tariq Ramadan, the European Muslim activist whose visa application to the U.S. was famously rejected by the Bush Administration. Mogahed says she has met Ramadan at events in the past but chooses not to comment when I ask her opinion on his notorious debate with France’s former Interior Minister, now President, Nicolas Sarkozy, who challenged Ramadan to condemn the stoning of women for adultery (Ramadan agreed only to a “moratorium” to allow for proper discussion of the practice). Mogahed says it’s important to listen to Ramadan, because he’s an “important voice that carries influence, especially on the subject of integrating Muslim and European identity.”

Why, I asked Mogahed, did President Obama defend a woman’s right to wear the veil during the Cairo speech? Was he criticizing France for its ban on the headscarf? “I think what he meant is to take a celebrated principle of American society, religious freedom, and highlight it. Just because France is a close ally doesn’t mean we won’t call them out when we see a policy as unjust.”

And yet according to Mogahed’s research, accentuating our differences with our ally matters little since France still rates considerably higher than the U.S. in Muslim opinion. “We are strong compared to Europe in our domestic policies,” says Mogahed, “but this is overshadowed by the perception that our foreign policy is hostile toward Muslims.” The main issues, says Mogahed, are the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as our position in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. These acute issues, she says, constitute one of the three main sources for the tension between the United  States and the Muslim world. The other two, she says, are “political domination, or the perception that we control and dominate Muslims as a post-colonial imperial power; and the concept of disrespect.” In other words, says Mogahed, “the tensions are not about what they think of our values, but about what they think we think of theirs.”

And yet there is no escaping the unhappy fact that while Americans may well come to admire some folkloric aspects of the Muslim world, it is clear we do not hold in high regard the limited opportunities and resources that the Muslim world affords its people: Otherwise, large numbers of us would be looking to move to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. Mogahed’s research itself eloquently testifies to the sad condition of the Muslim world. What Muslims want most for their own regions, says Mogahed, is unity. Instead, there’s widespread discrimination against ethnic and confessional minorities and Muslim sects and civil war throughout the region. To name just a few examples, there’s Sunni and Shia fighting in Iraq and Lebanon, Hamas and Fatah at war in the Palestinian territories, and the Islamic Republic of Iran squared off against the Sunni Arab states for regional domination. Meager standards of living combined with a violent political culture and a paucity of intellectual achievement and technological innovation ensure that none of these disputes are likely to end any time soon. Not even the President of the United States can alter these facts.

“Respect” may be the Obama Administration’s keyword for dealing with the Muslim world, but one might argue that there is nothing respectful about lying through our teeth to a substantial part of humanity and pretending to admire culturally ingrained behavior and practices that we in fact deplore. Nor is there anything kind and decent about imagining that Muslims are so childish as to be duped by our mendacity. Muslims in the Middle East are well aware of the tragedy of their situation as members of a society in which innovation, education, and personal liberties are on the decline and violent radicalism is on the rise. That is the reason for their anger and despair.

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carlos says:

Until the Moslem world can honestly recognize its problems and solve them without blaming the Jews and the West it will remain known for its antisemitism, misogyny, irrationality, corruption and intolerance for other religions.
What honestly has the Moslem world brought forth in the past several hundred years?
As for Obama and crew his policies in the middle east seem to based on wishful thinking and the certainty that the whole world thinks like the USA.

nyc1 says:

@Lee Smith, the author:

That last paragraph was awesome, good for you!

Rebecca Shepard says:

I had a best friend that was a Muslim Turk. We were like sisters till she married a very strict Muslim from Egypt. Only after that did she begin to veil herself and lose her identity. He forbid her to contact me over time and even cut her off from her “westernized” family.

I’m for freedom of religion IF you don’t step on my rights as a human. While many Muslims may tell you they are moderate, they are just making you feel good while they plan to stab you in the back. I have been in Muslim homes and I have been treated well, but I have also been around them enough to know that there is much more lurking than we realize. We had better not be stupid. I’m not paranoid, but I’m not blind either.

OH and my parents were alive and my Dad fought in WWII. NO ONE wanted Israel until the Jews came back. It was a barren wasteland. And Palestinians were given land back in WWII days, it is called JORDAN!!!!!

Burton Paikoff says:

If she is so into her Muslim Culture can she explain how the other Muslim Nations Stand up to Hamas and Hezbolla. After all Th duly elected Head of the Palestonians was Driven out of his Gaza Office and is still under a Death Threat by Hamas.
Maybe it is time for her to grt the Egyptions, Jordanians, Saudis,and the rest of the Middle Eastern Muslim Nation to stand up to all the Radical Muslims. They are a Greater Force Together, and should be able keep the Radical In Check

Why doesn’t the Muslim world respect us for pouring trillions of dollars in oil money into their coffers? Aren’t we really the ones being exploited by their oil cartels?

gerald schwartz says:

THIS INDIVIDUAL IS JUST AS DANGEROUS TO ISRAEL AND WORLD JEWRY AS THE MOST AGGRESSIVE IRANIAN. SHE HELPS FEED PRESIDENT OBAMA MUSLIM RADICALISM IN A NOT-SO-SUBTLE FASHION. SHE COULD COST DEMOCRAT THE HOUSE IN NOVEMBER,

Chris says:

That final paragraph in Mr. Smith’s book touched on some really important issues. Due to a rivalry, a one way rivalry that is, with the West the Muslim world seems to be having difficulties confronting these major issues that Mr. Smith has pointed us to. He writes “the tragedy of their situation as members of a society in which innovation, education, and personal liberties are on the decline and violent radicalism is on the rise.”

Ruth Gutmann says:

It is a bit difficult to believe that Pres. Obama and members of his administration who deal with the Middle East can be taken in by the one sided approach of this young woman. She does not even seem to register the problems of her own sex in the Middle East — quite apart from the violence mentioned by other comments among Shites and Sunnis, Kurds and Iranians, Hamas and Palestinians and so on. Reiterating their worries of what Americans think of Muslims will hardly advance the social conditions of their lands.

jerome kellert says:

I’m truly at a loss…why on earth should the West respect Muslims at this time? I’m still waiting for Muslim clerics to call out the cowards who bombed the World Trade Center. What is it about the Muslim World that we are supposed to respect? I hate that I’m writing this, but everything Ms. Mogahed says just doesn’t add up. If we are to believe she influences our president, then we are in bigger trouble than I thought. Why should the Muslim world not respect us? All we do is give them finanical support and try to help them. Self serving? Maybe, but there’s nothing wrong with that either. Boy, things that seem so simple, get really confusing.

The remarks here basically indicate a distrust not only for this advisor to Obama but Obama’s willing acceptance of this person’s lack of sophistication and inability to be critical of outrageous ideological positions and practices widespread in the middle east. What are the countervailing positions being put forth in this administration? It sounds like cloud-cuckoo-land.

Scott says:

Dahlia’s a sweet, smart person whose analysis is deeply flawed and therefore dangerous. First and foremost, there is no such thing as a Muslim world. There are Muslims living in nation states around the world but they are as diverse as Christians living in their respective nation states. The notion that there is a Muslim world that needs ‘unity’, as Dahlia puts it, is a notion chiefly advanced by Islamist ideologues like HT and violent extremists like AQ. Why on earth would our president continue to echo what is essentially AQ propaganda? The US is a nation state that has interests that we should work with other nation states to advance. We are wandering down a blind alley in attempting to win the “Muslim World” to our side. Instead we should seek to raise up and support Muslims like the father of the Christmas day bomber who was, in my view, more of a Muslim than his son. We should support those who for their own reasons are seeking to rescue their societies from the twin evils of authoritarianism on the one hand and Islamism on the other. We should recognize that to change our policies just because people don’t like them is hardly the point of the American project. We should be clear with what we believe and make arguments for our policies. We respect people when we tell them the truth; not when we coddle them.

David N says:

Ms. Mogahed talks about bringing the US closer to the Muslim civilizations and does not say a single word about how the Muslims
are treating and being treated in their respective countries.
She should ask her father why they left Egypt almost 30 years ago.
I can only imagine that Egypt and the rest of the Muslim countries
can not give the same type of opportunities that the western
civilization can. In plain English this is called “running out on your
country”.

raymond says:

I’m just wondering how long it will take for someone to take advantage of our freedoms. Why is a person carrying the Bible not allowed into Saudi Arabia or other Muslim countries, while we allow Muslems to establish Mosques, schools, social clubs, the Quran, etc without restraint in the good old USA.It’s called Freedom. Let’s not spoil it Obama!

TopAssistant says:

Each American must contact their national politicians and ask, “Which House and Senate committees holds jurisdiction over determining if Islam is a religion or just a 7th century cult started by a 7th century pedophile?” CAIR and other Muslim Brotherhood groups are using they are a RELIGION when they are not. Google, Stephen Coughlin thesis and read his legal research paid for by DoD Join Chiefs of Staff. What he found in legal research is Islam was not hijacked by a few radicals,

Muslims despair and long for unity, presumably under the banner of Islam. Yet Islam is precisely the problem or the cause of their despair. Furthermore, Islam was only ever united for a few decades. It has always been at war within.

I find this desire for unity very troubling. They seek to create an even greater monolithic Islam which can only mean a more powerful, even less tolerant faith. Of course, this is why they have trouble distinguishing extremist Islam from moderate Islam. To create more unity, they can not reject any part of Islam but must embrace all of it.

Muslims longing for unity comes at a great cost, to them and the rest of the world. It is alarming that they do not see, even now, that more Islam is not the answer. More Islam is a threat to the world because of the attitudes of Muslims toward every other faith, every other way of living. While the West becomes even more tolerant and accepting of cultural, religious and sexual differences, Islam digs in it’s heels.

I do not care what Islam has contributed to the world in the past. What is it doing now, in the world that I live in and why should I respect it? I see no reason to respect an intolerant faith, of women, gay men and women, of other faiths, of freedom, of the idea that we are born free and any compulsion in religion or politics is backwards, ignorant, and to be condemned, loudly.

Sorry, but I see no upside to Islam. It is not on the side of individual freedom and until it is I can not respect it.

Dani Levi says:

I worry little about Muslim culture. It will eventually implode, like all cultures based on tribalism, exclusion and an inability to adjust or disenfranchising 50% of the population.Every day hundreds of young Arab men cross, attempt to cross and many drown, while crossing the Med on their way to a better life. If Arab Muslim culture were the bees knees they’d hardly risk their lives going to Italy. Human History is littered with cultures who never made the grade for various reasons. The Spanish culture being one of them.

Fnord says:

““Respect” may be the Obama Administration’s keyword for dealing with the Muslim world, but one might argue that there is nothing respectful about lying through our teeth to a substantial part of humanity and pretending to admire culturally ingrained behavior and practices that we in fact deplore.”

Ah, Lee Smith, and still you wonder why people like Andrew Exum sees you as a parody?

Wise Man says:

Didn’t you all see something strange about this entire article? Didn’t you notice something missing?

The word “Jewish” or “Jews” does not appear in it once. “Christian Muslim” understanding; “Israeli-Palestinian” conflict … but not once a mention of the real persecuted minority in the Middle East: the Jewish People, for whom the Muslim world has yet to accept the right to sovereignty or self-determination, and prefers to view them, like 200 years ago, as a defeated and barely-tolerated religious minority.

Something like they relate to the State of the Jews, Israel ….

Very good article with several fascinating recommendations! I can’t say that I completely agree with all you have suggested here, but there are a few important ideas you have emphasized that can be rather useful on natural health and related topics. Keep offering more ideas on this topic and associated subjects, as there are plenty of people who are working to evaluate the costs and benefits.

Lauren in Canada says:

A NOT-SO-PARTIAL OBSERVER:

I am certain that I am much less well-versed in the situation surrounding Egypt’s situation than the average Israeli. And yet, as an outsider, I can see a few things clearly. And I say this without pointing the historical finger of blame towards any particular party; competing claims of victimization do little to illuminate the path forward here.

So, what DO I see from the outside?

I see an inspired Egyptian youth movement that is captivating in the purity of its aspirations. It moves us all to try for something more noble, rather than settle for some more cynical compromise, of the usual political sort. Their non-violent methods, particularly respecting the dignity of the women involved; this is especially laudable. And so the world’s conscience is justifiably moved. Now, what reality the Egyptians make of this, only time will tell. And, particularly, whether the usual paranoid, or vindictive voices of Egypt will rise anew against Israel, well, that remains to be seen, and must be a real concern for Israelis I imagine.

BUT, on the sidelines, HERE IN THESE COMMENTS, there are the usual ugly voices, unwilling to concede even the smallest measure of dignity to those on the streets of Cairo — unwilling to wish their fellow humans well, determined to paint all Arabs as vicious liars… all Arab crowds as tribal hordes.

THIS ATTITUDE IS PRECISELY THE SORT IT PRETENDS TO ABHOR: The comments here are obviously “tribal” in their disgust, their hatred, for the ‘other’. There is zero effort to give the benefit of the doubt to those who are risking their lives for an ideal. There is only the usual finger-pointing, suspicion, and bigotry. It is not the Arabs who are guilty this week of ethnic enmity. Look in the mirror.

I would think those who have suffered so much due to cruel ethnic bigotry would be the first to eschew it; apparently not, when it comes to Arabs. There is no justification for this attitude, there are only excuses

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Dalia Mogahed may be the most influential figure guiding the Obama Administration’s Middle East outreach

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