Muslims Ask, 'Who Speaks For Islam?'

A billion people around the world practice Islam, yet many Muslims in the U.S. and abroad feel too many of the voices often representing the faith are extremists. Host Michel Martin speaks with Dalia Mogahed, executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim studies, about a new television program titled, "Who Speaks for Islam?"

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now, we want to talk about Islam, specifically who speaks for Islam or what defines Islam. Members of many racial or ethnic or religious communities struggle from time to time about who has the right to define them to the world and even to themselves. But for the one billion followers of Islam that question or debate has a special urgency. It's been at the heart of many national and global political debates over the last decade. So that question is the focus of the new conversation series "Who Speaks For Islam?". It begins airing on Link TV this weekend.

With us to talk about this series is Dalia Mogahed. She is the senior analyst and executive director of the Gallup Center For Muslim Studies. She is co-author of the book "Who Speaks For Islam? What A Billion Muslims Really Think" and she is featured in the interview program and she joins us now in our studios in Washington. Welcome, thank you for joining us.

Ms. DALIA MOGAHED (Senior Analyst and Executive Director, Gallup Center for Muslim Studies): It's wonderful to be here.

MARTIN: We certainly want to know more about this series. But first, I would like to ask you about your work with the Obama administration. You're a member of the White House Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Many people have questions about what this council does. So, what is your role on the council and what do you hope to accomplish?

Mr. MOGAHED: My role in the council is I'm a member of this 25-person advisory council and our goal is to advise the administration on how best to partner with faith-based and community-based organizations to solve problems. So, things like climate change, fatherhood as well as interreligious dialogue and cooperation.

MARTIN: I understand that you've gotten a lot of attention for your role, perhaps more than you would like. Our colleague Jamie Tarabay interviewed you recently about the fact you've been kind of promoted internationally far beyond what you would have expected simply because of your visibility and in part because you wear Hijab. And that is very striking to some people. I wanted to ask you what that experience has been like?

Ms. MOGAHED: It's been really difficult because I've spent the past six months trying to correct people's perceptions. There is a misperception out there that I am Obama's advisor on Muslim affairs. And I am absolutely not his advisor nor do I speak for the White House in anyway on Muslim affairs.

MARTIN: Well, let's talk about the series then, "Who Speaks For Islam?" what's the objective of these program?

Ms. MOGAHED: It's trying to give a different voice than what we typically hear in much of the media. What we typically see is, of course, sensationalized headlines and vocal extremists portraying a faith of a billion people rather than allowing ordinary people for speak for themselves.

MARTIN: When you say sensationalize, I think many people would say, the events that cause concern happened, they're not a figment of somebody's imagination…

Ms. MOGAHED: Of course.

MARTIN: They are not the creation of the entertainment industry.

Ms. MOGAHED: Right. Well, they certainly are very painful and they certainly did happen. But the issue is that the extremists are overrepresented and they skew people's perception of an entire population. So, when we ask who is speaking for Islam in the media right now? Unfortunately, it is violent extremists.

MARTIN: At one point in the first episode of this series, you and a fellow guest, Middle East scholar Reza Aslan are asked respond to the perception of some that Islam, as a faith, espouses violence or is a violent religion, if you will. This is how your colleague responded.

(Soundbite of show, "Who Speaks For Islam?")

Dr. REZA ASLAN (Contributing Editor, The Daily Beast): Islam is not a religion of peace, nor is it a religion of war. It's just a religion, and like any religion, it's capable of the greatest heights of compassion and the greatest depths of depravity.

MARTIN: Could you extend this thought?

Ms. MOGAHED: I think we can find passages in all scriptures that seem to promote great compassion, as well as possible violence. So what we have to do is really look at data around what people are saying, what they think, and what we find is that Muslims around the world are at least as likely as, say, the American public to denounce terrorism.

So if Islam was, indeed, promoting violence more than other religions, we would expect there to be more sympathy for violence among Muslims, and we don't find that to be the case.

MARTIN: What about the other way because you've analyzed the attitudes of Muslims around the world, who - most Muslims think Christianity is violent or that the West is violent.

Ms. MOGAHED: When it comes to Christianity, the answer is no. Muslims actually have positive views of Christians. When it comes to the West in general, they also have positive general views but do have negative views of the United States as a country, whereas they have positive views of, say, France or Germany - which of course paints a picture of this whole thing being about perception of what we do, not who we are.

MARTIN: But there are those who would look at - for example, one of the flashpoints of conflict was that - the outrage over the depiction of the prophet Muhammad in a Danish cartoon in 2006, when the series moderator, Ray Suarez(ph), who many people will know from - he was a former host at National Public Radio, and now he's a correspondent with "The News Hour" on PBS. He asked you whether the riots that happened in some Muslim countries in response to these cartoons were out of proportion.

Now, you compared them to the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles. You drew another interesting parallel between the reaction of Muslims to that incident and African-Americans here. Here's just a short clip of your comments. Here it is.

Ms. MOGAHED: There's a very big difference between a majority making fun of a majority's symbols and a majority in power making fun of a powerless and underclass minority's sacred symbol. It is much closer, if we come to back to our country, with the use of the N-word, and if you look at the history of our depictions of African-Americans, they have evolved. They have evolved to be more inclusive of all of our citizens, and we've become a stronger democracy because of that evolution, not a weaker one. The cartoon is not akin to making fun of Jesus; it is akin to using the N-word in the United States.

MARTIN: I take your point, I think many people do, but I think many people would argue that there have not been riots in response to the N-word - that this is a question of speech and that race riots have been occasioned by specific acts of brutality directed against persons, not because of speech, per se.

Ms. MOGAHED: Well, you know, I think we have to look at it with a wider lens. From the outside, the Watts riots was triggered by what looked like a petty act of racism. So police officers pulled over two young African-American men and accused them of drunk driving, and it was that that actually eventually turned into a much bigger issue - because there's a difference between the trigger and the fuel.

And this, the cartoon incident is what we would say or I think is akin to this idea of a trigger that ignited a much wider fuel of feelings of humiliation and domination. So it's not about simply a word, but an act that was seen as a deliberate provocation and slap in the face that was motivated by racism.

MARTIN: So how has this project been for you? On the one hand, here you are, you live in the world of data, you're a trained engineer. The whole premise of this project is that one needs to dig deep into what people really think, and this is a billion people. On the other hand, here you are, you've been tasked with speaking for Islam, in a way.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. MOGAHED: I hope (Unintelligible).

MARTIN: How is it?

Ms. MOGAHED: I think it's very exciting to be able to apply the scientific method and the hard edge of the empirical methods that I have learned, as both an engineer and as a researcher to this highly charged, highly emotional topic, because I think it's very important to get hard data and empirical evidence into what is sometimes a topic so filled with dogma. And that helps us make better decisions and engage the world based on facts.

MARTIN: But does it ever get tiresome? I mean, do you ever say to yourself: Why are we having this conversation? Why do I have to tell people no, my religion does not encourage us to go out and kill people that don't share our faith. Does that ever become tedious?

Ms. MOGAHED: Well, my role is really one of a researcher who informs people and tells them what we find in our research. And if our research were saying that, you know, Muslims around the world want to kill everyone, that's exactly what we would report.

So it's not about trying to defend a faith or a people; it's really about trying to get the facts out.

MARTIN: Dalia Mogahed is a senior analyst and the executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim studies. She's featured in the interview program, "Who Speaks for Islam?" It begins airing this Sunday on Link TV. She's also co-author of a book by the same name, "Who Speaks for Islam?," and she joined us here in our Washington, D.C., studio. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. MOGAHED: Thank you, it was my pleasure.

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