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Andrea Useem, creator and publisher of ReligionWriter.com, is a freelance journalist and editor based in Northern Virginia who specializes in writing about religion. Andrea holds a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, as well as a Bachelors degree in religion from Dartmouth College. Previously, Andrea worked as a freelance journalist in Eastern Africa for four years; she has also lived in Muscat, Oman. She is married and has three sons.

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For the terrorist ‘cheering section,’ it’s about ‘policy not principles:’ Q+A with Dalia Mogahed

If you have grown weary of punditry or sweeping op-ed comments about the state of the Muslim world, you may share my feeling that poll data feels like a breath of fresh air in the public conversation about Islam. What do Muslims around the world think about pressing issues like terrorism, U.S. foreign policy and religion?

New answers arrive this weekend in the form of a new book by Georgetown’s John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed, the executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslims Studies. Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think draws on data from a six-year-long research project from Gallup, which involved thousands of face-to-face interviews with Muslims both in Muslim-majority and Muslim-minority countries. The authors write in the introduction:

In totality, we surveyed a sample representing more than 90% of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims, making this the largest, most comprehensive study of contemporary Muslims ever done.

Exciting stuff. But before you get your expectations too high, as I did when I saw the title and authors, realize that this book is pitched at modern American Know Nothings, who not only need to bone up the basics of Islam (”Only about one in five of the world’s Muslims are Arabs”) but also receive a quick history lesson in political science (”Women’s perceived inferior status in Islam continues to be used as justification for cultural, and, at times, political Western intervention.”)

For know-it-alls like me, then, the book then is something of a disappointment, in large part because it does not contain a single table or pie chart. I was all ready to dive into the data (which Mogahed assured me would soon be available online) and learn something new. But then again: Why bother about me? With so many very real and consequential misunderstandings and hostilities between Muslims overseas and the United States, it makes perfect sense to target a book like this at the audience that needs it most. Like many of Esposito’s previous works, Who Speaks for Islam? is an easy book to hand to someone with questions about, problems with, or fears of Islam writ large.

What was not disappointing was my conversation two weeks ago with Mogahed, which appears below.

Andrea Useem: Who does speak for Islam?

Dalia Mogahed, executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies.
Dalia Mogahed: A billion Muslims do. Since 9/11 that population has essentially been silenced by vocal extremists who have monopolized the discourse. They are silenced oftentimes by their local governments. They’re silenced by media pundits who claim to speak on behalf of Muslims. The last group we seem to hear from are the very people we’re talking so much about. What we have done is found a way to give a voice to that silenced majority through the tool of survey research.

Useem: So if you were to put a headline on the book, what would it be?

Mogahed: “It’s about policy and not principles.” Another way to put it is, “Democratizing the debate: Muslims speak out.”

Useem: Okay, they are speaking out, but what are they saying? What do we need to know here?

Mogahed: There are many findings but I think the most important is this: The conflict between the United States and global Muslims is far from inevitable. It’s more about policy than principles, but if we continue to ignore what people are really saying, extremists will continue to gain ground.

Useem: So another way to say that would be, “It’s about U.S. foreign policy, not Muslim theology.”

Mogahed: Yes, absolutely. For those who sympathize with extremism, it’s not about piety but perception of policy. They are not more religious. They are, however, much more intense in their critique of U.S. policy.

Useem: When you say the radical minority is not more religious than the general Muslim population, is that a finding from your study?

Mogahed: Yes, of course. If we look at the conflict between the United States and some Muslims around the world, we find people concerned essentially about two things: anti-Americanism and support for extremism. Now the two are not the same. Despite widespread anti-American sentiment, only a minority of Muslims worldwide sympathize with attacks on America. Neither negative opinion of the United States or sympathy with those who would wish us harm correlate with religiosity in the data. What they do correlate with are perceptions of threat and control.

Useem: Let’s talk about this issue of sympathy for extremism. It seems like the key number here is 7%; you describe 7% of the world Muslim population as “radicalized.” Could you tell us more about that group? What do you mean by radicalized?

Mogahed: That 7% are people who have expressed both anti-American sentiment and sympathy for the attacks of 9/11. We call them “politically radicalized” because in the data what divided them from the mainstream was not their piety but their politics. We found that 7% defied a lot of the conventional wisdom. For example, they were not more likely than the mainstream to attend religious services. They were not more likely than the mainstream to say religion is an important part of their lives. In fact, they were also more likely to be educated and affluent than the general population. Their unemployment rate was equal to the general population.

What did separate them from the mainstream was their heightened sense of being threatened and controlled by the United States, specifically. So for example, when asked, “What is your greatest fear?” the general population around the world talked about things we would hear anywhere: fear of unemployment, inflation, or fear for personal safety. Even fear of terrorism. But among this 7%, their greatest fear was U.S. occupation and U.S. control. While actually being more likely to say democracy would help Muslims progress, they were much less likely to agree the United States was serious about promoting democracy in their region of the world.

Useem: To many Americans, though, the idea that U.S. foreign policy is at the root of the terrorism problem sounds like blaming the victim. How would you respond to that?

Mogahed: As a scientist, I am here to tell you what we see in the data — I’m not advocating for one point of view or another. What we do see is that what differentiates this group is not their perception of our culture. It’s not their perception of their own faith. It really is their perception of our policy.

After we asked people whether or not they thought 9/11 was justified, we asked them, “Why do you say that?” Those who condemned 9/11 talked about things like the loss of human life and that innocents were killed. Some even went as far as to cite verses from the Qur’an. Those who said that it was justified, however, without a single exception, did not cite religious justification for that position. They talked about their perception of geo-political realities and their perception that the United States was an imperialist power, controlling other countries.

I cannot say definitely why someone joins a terrorist group. What I can say definitively is what’s on the minds of the cheering section.

Useem: If terrorist sympathizers mostly care about politics, then how do you explain the religious language coming from people like the Bali bombers or Osama bin Laden?

Mogahed: In countries with a majority-Muslim population, religion is an important part of people’s lives. Something as high as 99% of Indonesians and 98% of Egyptians say religion’s an important part of their life. In open-ended questions, Muslims express a confidence in their faith as their society’s greatest asset, the key to its progress. Religion is the dominant social currency of Muslim societies around the world, and therefore any movement that wants to gain legitimacy will speak in terms of that social medium, which today is religion.

Useem: Do you have a sense, then, that terrorists use religious language in-authentically? That deep down, it’s all about imperialism for them, but when they go out in the street to recruit people, they know they need to wave some hadith around?

Mogahed: Actually, I have spent time analyzing their rhetoric, and I would make the argument they don’t use hadiths at all. In a bin Laden speech, if you take out the introduction where he blesses the Prophet, and the end where he says, “As-salaam aleikum,” you’ve got Che; you’ve got any revolutionary. The rhetoric is about perceptions of imperialism and oppression and humiliation. It’s very culturally neutral. If you analyze bin Laden’s rhetoric for Qur’anic verses, they’re evident mostly in their relative absence. Instead he’s talking about his perception of geo-politics.

Now, he does cite one verse in particular, and it’s almost like his entire dogma is hinged on this one verse. That verse is essentially the Koranic equivalent of, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” [See the Qur'an, chapter 4, verse 45, translation here by Yusuf Ali -- AU.] His argument is what the enemy has done to us, we can do to them. That is the extent of his religious rhetoric.

In fact, one of his very rare interviews post-9/11 was done by a Pakistani journalist, who posed the question, “How can you justify your attacks on American civilians in light of Islamic teachings?” It was a great question, and I was expecting bin Laden to pull out the verses often cited in the media since then–

Useem: Like, “Kill them wherever you find them-” [Qur'an 9:5.]

Mogahed: Yes, the “verse of the sword,” etc. But he actually didn’t mention it at all. He said the Prophet forbid killing women and children in war. So he conceded that in general attacks on civilians are not okay, but he then went on to talk about how America was transgressing in all these different countries, and that the American people were responsible for what their democratic government was doing. He used this circular logic to make an exception to the rule. This is what’s so important: This idea that al-Qaeda and its supporters are waving around hadith and Qur’an is actually not true at all. They’re using political grievances to explain away the Islamic prohibition on attacking civilians.

Useem: Here’s another question about headlines. When the Pew Forum poll on Muslim Americans came out last year, much of the media coverage focused on — well, let me read you a typical headline, this one from Fox News: “Poll: 1 in 4 U.S. young Muslims okay with homicide bombings against civilians.” I can imagine very similar headlines from your data: “7% of one-billion Muslims hate us and want to kill us.” What’s your feeling on that?

Dalia Mogahed: Headlines on this study shouldn’t say that because these 7% are not hardened terrorists: They are what we call the cheering section. They’re people who sympathize with terrorist action, which is very different than being willing to carry it out themselves. But we can’t simply dismiss this 7%. They do represent a potential pool of recruits. They may possibly aid or just simply ignore someone they might suspect of being interested in carrying something out. So we can’t ignore them, but that’s very different than saying a 100 million people hate us and are getting ready to kill us.

Useem: So what can the U.S. do, if anything, about that 7%? Maybe Karen Hughes-style outreach is not going to tickle their fancy. Is it possible for Americans to change the feelings or perceptions of that 7%?

Mogahed: We find in the data that this 7% has a more negative point of view on the actions of the United States. The vast majority of Muslims also disapprove of those actions, but just not quite as intensely. As some other polls have found as well, while most Muslims worldwide actually disapprove of al-Qaeda’s actions and tactics, the group’s causes are widely recognized and accepted. So it’s not that the people are accepting al-Qaeda’s causes, it’s that al-Qaeda cleverly has found causes that everyone cares about and has made those causes their own.

What the 7% really look like are silent revolutionaries. They’re educated, they’re affluent, and they’re angry, and they want change, and they want it now, and they sympathize with those willing to resort to violence. They look like violent revolutionaries anywhere else in the world. The way to undermine violent revolutions is to engage and in some cases make concessions — not to the violent revolutionaries, but to non-violent mainstream reformers who might be working on some of the same grievances but are unwilling to use violence.

The last thing revolutionaries want is compromise and progress from the power structure. They love it when the power structure instead increases repression and lashes out. Because positive change, as slow as it may be, satisfies the bulk of people, who do not want violent upheaval. People are risk averse by nature and have to be driven very, very far in order to actually revolt. So the way to mitigate the risk of that 7% is to engage with a widespread, inclusive group of non-violent reformers.

Useem: Could you make a list of the top issues bothering mainstream Muslims worldwide — that is, the issues that the terrorists have successfully co-opted?

Mogahed: There are essentially three prisms or filters through which everything the U.S. does or says is viewed by Muslims worldwide. The first filter is the perception of cultural disrespect, that the United States does not respect Islam and Muslims. That I could talk about for a long time. The second filter is the perception of political and economic domination. It’s the perception that the U.S. believes, “Democracy is great, but not for Muslims,” and props up dictators so that the wealth of the nation can be exploited. The third filter is that of acute conflicts — Palestine, of course, and now Iraq and Afghanistan.

These three filters are not independent of each other. They overlap, and one reinforces the other and is in turn reinforced by the other. The filters of cultural disrespect and acute conflicts, for example, overlapped in Abu Ghraib. So changing that won’t be easy; it will require both diplomacy and engaging people on policy.

Useem: But some filters are incredibly hard to break. Certainly the U.S. has championed the cause of different Muslim populations around the world — in Darfur, in Indonesia after the tsunami, in Kosovo — yet that perception that the U.S. is a dominating, Muslim-hating superpower remains. It happens on the other side as well: No matter how many statements mainstream Muslim groups issue, conservative commentators will always say, “Why don’t Muslims condemn terrorism?” So is there any hope for penetrating some of these filters?

Mogahed: It will take a lot to break through because it’s fundamentally about trust, or the lack of trust. Just like in any relationship, once trust is lost it takes not one act, but consistent actions to build it back up, and that’s really the case here. There is simply a lack of trust. Muslims around the world express admiration for much of what the United States stands for, but ironically it’s that very admiration that in some ways fuels resentment: “You really must hate us to treat us this way, because it is so against your own values.”

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There Are 3 Responses So Far. »

  1. [...] the vast majority of Muslims around the world do not advocate violence. [For more data, see my interview with Gallup’s Dalia [...]

  2. “What do Muslims around the world think about pressing issues like …. U.S. foreign policy and religion?

    King US President

    Oh what a peaceful morning !
    On aljazeera today, they say,
    The top story is perhaps the collapse
    Of a three-storey-
    Building in Beijing;
    The next biggest news on BBC NEWS
    Is about Madonna whose daughter’s gonna
    Meet the man who deflowered her;
    And then there’s the story of the glory
    Of Africa, which, they say, today,
    Will be purchased by Bill Gates
    And will be prosperous
    And its story wonderous.
    No wars today on aljazeera
    No terror today on aljazeera
    For the world is now more peaceful
    Without Saddam & Zarkawi
    With only Karzay & Badawi
    With only Chris Finch & David Lynch
    And King US President
    On top of the World!


    “Darling,” said Blair in the morning,
    I had a dream;
    That’s why you heard me scream.
    I saw myself in Manhattan
    Having tea with Bin Ladin.
    He looked me in the eye
    And said, ‘Why can’t you and I
    Convert Bush to the Faith of Jesus
    And remind him that Jesus
    Preached love and brotherhood,
    Not war and cowboyhood.’
    And then he served me dates
    And said, ‘Tell Bill Gates
    To rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan
    Or else America will become

  3. [...] lead to being a terrorist. (Dalia Mogahed said Gallup research discovered the same thing: that radical Muslims who endorsed violence were not more religious than politically moderate counterp….) This angle was also emphasized by Columbia Business School professor Ray Fisman in his article [...]

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