The Most Influential Muslim at the White House?

Lee Smith has a piece up at Tablet about a woman he calls the most influential person influencing the White House on Muslim matters, Dalia Mogahed. She is the director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, and sits on the White House's faith-based advisory council, and she was the only person at the Aspen Ideas Festival in hejab. Lee argues that Mogahed is well-meaning but naive about the importance of showing "respect" to the Muslim world:

"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.

Lee suggests rather strongly that in her polling work, Mogahed systematically underplays the levels of extremism among Muslims. But you should read the whole thing. Because both Lee and Dalia are friends of mine (Goldblog is a uniter, not a divider), I asked Dalia to respond to some of Lee's points, and she did, in this e-mail below (complete with charts).

Though I am flattered at being called more influential than Denis Ross and Secretary Clinton, Mr. Smith uses a lot of embellishment in this article, including his description of my position.  My access to the White House is no greater than any other member of the White House Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, a group whose one year term ended 3 weeks ago. I disagree with some of the opinions in Mr. Lee Smiths's piece, but I see two main factual issues requiring a response.  First, the definition of politically radicalized used in Who Speaks for Islam, and second, the idea that "respect" as an approach is disengenuous and ineffective.
On the first issue: Had Mr. Smith asked me about this issue in our hour long phone call 2 days ago, or done the most rudimentary research, he would have found the empirical evidence for our decision on how to define the extremist fringe. The decision as to where to break out the "politically radicalized" from the rest was data-driven. It was based on several analyses of where the data clustered for a natural breaking point. The analyses showed that the people who responded with a "5" (completely justifiable) to the question on the justifiability of 9/11 as a group were distinctly different from the groups who responded with a "1", "2", "3" or "4." The graphic below provides an illustrative example: It shows the percentage of people in each of the 5 groups who said "sacrificing one's life for a cause one believes in" is completely justifiable. The group that responded to the 9/11 question with a "5" look distinctly different from the groups that responded with a "1" to "4."



Events of Sept 11th in USA, that is, the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon










The term "moderate" is more of a placeholder label than a value judgment. It is similar to calling one clustering in the data "group A" and another "group B." We simply used labels that a broad audience can easily understand and remember. Some have also asked how we can call someone a "radical" simply because they thought 9/11 was justified and actually had not *done* anything. The idea here is not that we are judging who or what a "moderate" or "radical" is, but rather assigning labels to statistical groups that we clearly define.

The 7% with extremist views in Muslim societies are similar in proportion (no statistical difference) to the 6% of the American public who report they believe that targeting and killing civilians is "completely justified."  In both cases, these groups are the extremists "cheering section", not an organized network of would-be terrorists.  

Who Speaks for Islam is a Gallup Press publication, which means that it had to meet Gallup's standards of objectivity and scientific rigor.  Gallup is a for-profit company which relies on its brand image of non-partisanship and integrity to stay in business.  It would be hard to find a reason for Gallup to deliberately put its business model at risk by reporting inaccurate or "whitewashed" analysis.  The book did not "set out to prove that the vast majority of the world's Muslims are moderate by nature."  The book set out to showcase data in a readable way, regardless of what that data proved or disproved.

On the second issue:  Muslims around the world are not waiting for Obama or anyone else to pretend to respect aspects of their societies that they themselves abhor.  But like all people, Muslim men and women want to be engaged as equal human beings.  The Cairo speech clearly outlines the issues in Muslim societies that Muslims themselves say need to be fixed, from a deficit in education and innovation to a lack of gendar justice.  The issue is that Islam should not be scapegoated for these issues.  When Martin Luther King demanded that Africa Americans be respected as equals, he was referring to a recognition of a common humanity, not a dismissal of any problems the community is facing.  President Obama frequently addresses the problem of fatherless families that plagues the black community disproportionately.  Yet, clearly, he still regards the African American community as equally deserving of respect. It is possible, indeed crucial, to show respect for a community while honestly raising the challenges that community faces.  It was in fact this candor that many said they admired about the Cairo address.