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What Islam is ?
What Islam is ?
Dalia Mogahed talks about bridging the gap between the US and the Muslim world
Friday, September 11,2009 02:43
Al-Ahram Weekly

Dalia Mogahed is not alone in feeling that following the election of Barack Obama as US president earlier this year, the famous question of "why do they hate us" may no longer be an issue of concern for the millions of Americans commemorating the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in September.

Something has changed in the White House, and President Obama's election has undoubtedly reflected positively on how Muslims feel towards the United States. This month's commemoration will, in fact, be an occasion for many Muslims to say to citizens of the United States that, contrary to what some people say, "we do not hate you". The commemoration will also be an occasion for moderate Muslim voices like that of Mogahed to be given a platform to tell the Western world that "what you think you know about them [Muslims] is likely wrong -- and that is dangerous."

It is the kind of celebration that President Obama wishes to have. When he announced his "United We Serve" initiative this summer, Obama called on all Americans to participate in their nation's renewal by serving their communities. Thus, from 22 June to 11 September, Americans are being called upon to address community needs in education, health, energy and the environment and community renewal.

"United We Serve is an opportunity for every Muslim-American to be part of a nationwide movement to bring about positive change," Mogahed says. And in order to facilitate this, a group of Muslim-Americans have initiated a national campaign, "United We Serve: Muslim Americans Answer the Call," to encourage Muslim-Americans to answer the call to serve.

"In addition to answering President Obama's important call to help rebuild our communities, 'Answer the Call' also means responding to the millions of Americans in need, especially in the midst of the economic crisis," Mogahed says. "Most importantly, it refers to answering God's call to serve humanity -- to confirm faith with good works -- as the Holy Quran teaches: 'Race one another in good works'." (5:48)

Mogahed insists that Muslim-Americans are already a vital component of US society, but that many (including Muslims themselves) are not aware of all that the community contributes. "Muslim-Americans answer the call to service every day," Mogahed says matter-of- factly. The community's institutions provide free medical care, education, summer programmes, food banks, and homeless shelters for thousands of Americans every year. And on Martin Luther King Day, declared the National Day of Service, Muslim-Americans lead more than 50 service projects across the country.

"The goal this summer is to mobilise a united effort, encourage even more to get involved, and showcase these contributions in a final report to the president," Mogahed told Al-Ahram Weekly in an interview. "As the Quranic verse suggests, service projects are an excellent opportunity for multi-faith cooperation. Our goal for the summer is 1,000 service projects nationally -- at least a quarter of them being multi-faith efforts."

United We Serve: Muslims Americans Answer the Call also does not target any particular ethnic group, ideology, school of thought or political orientation. It is a national movement uniting all in the service of God and community. An enthusiastic Mogahed is positive that the initiative will help to better integrate Muslims into US society. "By participating in the United We Serve initiative, Muslim- Americans can demonstrate to their fellow Americans and to themselves what they are capable of," she says.

"The process of integration requires that the wider public accept a minority group, but it also requires that the minority group sees itself as an active and capable member of the wider community. Participating in this initiative, in fact being at the forefront of this initiative, will help Muslim-Americans grow from feeling on the defensive and being reactive to becoming empowered and proactive, from always telling the world who they are not, to finally getting to tell the world who they are, from declaring what they condemn, to sharing what they contribute."

Yet, despite Mogahed's optimism the picture is perhaps not as bright as she paints it. Muslims around the world have felt wronged and bullied over recent years, and it may be a long way to go before sceptical Muslims rebuild their trust in the United States. Despite Obama's sweeping popularity in majority Muslim nations, some analysts -- some of them in the US -- have complained that while the new president "does not speak" like his predecessor, he "tends to act" like him. In fact, Obama may have brought only cosmetic changes to US policy towards the Muslim world.

Little has changed on the ground, critics say. Anti-terrorism laws have hardly changed, and the notorious US detention camp in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba has still not been closed. Instead, the US has been sending more troops to Afghanistan and has expanded the country's detention facility at Bagram to accommodate 200-plus more detainees. Many worldwide are still mourning the thousands killed, and being killed, in Palestine, Iraq, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Indeed, there is something of a consensus among Arab analysts that Obama's empathetic and eloquent Cairo speech did not amount to a break with the American policies that have created the deep divide between the US and the Muslim world since 9/11. Citizens of Muslim nations tend to agree that without a resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Obama's reiterated messages of goodwill will not achieve their target of forging a new beginning in the US's strained relations with the Muslim and Arab worlds.

Yet, despite these difficulties Mogahed is still optimistic. She insists that although "much still needs to be changed from the point of view of many Americans, Muslims, Christians and Jews, there is a lot that has been changed, and Muslim- Americans do not believe that Obama is like Bush."

During the last two months of the Bush administration, Bush's approval rating among Muslim-Americans was only seven per cent, the lowest in any faith community. By contrast, the approval rating of Obama in his first 100 days in office among Muslim-Americans was 85 per cent, the highest in any faith community. "So by no means do Muslim-Americans think that there is no difference between the two," she notes. "In fact, no group feels as big a difference between Bush and Obama as Muslim-Americans do."

"While many problems still need to be addressed, there are important positive changes," she continues. Today, she says, Muslim-Americans are integrated into every aspect of the administration's agenda, not just traditional "Muslim issues".

"For example, when the president signed a bill to help reduce the use of tobacco, Muslims were among the leaders invited to witness the signature in the White House," Mogahed points out. "When the president hosted a town-hall meeting on the importance of fatherhood, Muslim leaders were among those present. When the president signed a bill to ban all forms of torture, a coalition of faith leaders, including Muslims, was there to see it happen."

Mogahed adds that members of the administration are also much more accessible to the Muslim community than they were during the Bush administration. "One simple example is that of Valerie Jarrett, one of Obama's closest advisors and most senior officials, who addressed the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America over the 4th of July weekend. She was the first White House official in history to address it."

Moreover, Mogahed continues, some of the issues that Muslim-Americans are concerned about, such as the problems facing Muslim charities, are being actively worked on by leaders in the administration as part of the follow up to Obama's Cairo speech.

It is still, however, possible to feel that despite Obama's manifestation of respect for Islam and Muslims in his Cairo speech, the first ever to quote verses from the Quran, the administration's initiatives have thus far failed to change the negative images of Islam in the US media. According to Gallup, nothing has done more harm to the image of Muslims than negative US TV news coverage of Islam. Indeed, Gallup research has found that "Americans are bombarded every day with news stories about Muslims and majority- Muslim countries in which vocal extremists, not evidence, drive perceptions."

Mogahed agrees that today "very little has changed as far as the American public's attitudes towards Islam and Muslims are concerned." According to Gallup research, in 2007, 19 per cent of Americans said they had "a great deal of prejudice" against Muslims. In 2009, this figure was 14 per cent, only a slight decrease, but at least one heading in the right direction. "It may just take more time for public opinion to catch up with the president's new approach," Mogahed comments.

Yet, changing public opinion about Islam may not be an easy task, if Gallup figures are anything to go by. According to polls, the majority of Americans (66 per cent) admit to having at least some prejudice against Muslims. Almost half do not believe American Muslims are "loyal" to the US, and one in four does not want a Muslim as a neighbour.

Such alarming figures may explain why hate crimes against Muslims persist. Only a few months ago, Ali Mohamed, the imam of a mosque in California, was burnt to death when a group set his house on fire after harassing him for being a "Muslim terrorist". Elsewhere, the Al-Azhar envoy to the Islamic Centre in London, Mohamed El-Salamony, was beaten by an attacker only six months after starting his mission, eventually losing his sight. The recent murder of Marwa El-Sherbini at the hands of a Russian- German extremist in a court in Germany has similarly been seen as proof of Western prejudices against Islam.

Mogahed, however, contends that El-Sherbini's murder, though "a horrific crime", is one that "should be seen as a symptom of a deeper problem of prejudice in Germany" and not necessarily in the West as a whole. Moreover, she says, El-Sherbini's murder does not necessarily indicate a rise in prejudice against Islam since, according to Gallup, Islamophobia in general has either been stable or is on the decline.

Mogahed speculates that "crimes against Muslims may just be getting greater attention than before, due to the new focus on better relations brought about by Obama's Cairo speech." She adds that Western stereotyping of veiled or bearded Muslims as "terrorists" may also be changing, pointing to "President Obama's positive reference to the hijab several times in his Cairo address" as testimony of this.

Mogahed herself is a veiled Egyptian- American citizen, and she sees herself as being the product of a fair system that has allowed her to make her way all the way to the White House. Mogahed feels that too often Easterners do not see the positive aspects of Western societies in the right light, tending instead to see only the contradiction in Western policies towards Muslims as a reflection of "the best and worst in human nature."

"All societies, and in fact all individuals, are capable of justice and compassion and also of oppression and cruelty," she says. "This contradiction is a contradiction of being human, of having free will and of being capable of both good and evil. Just as there are extremists in the West, there are also principles of equality. Just as there is racism among some in the West, there is also reason and systems based on merit. The West is not monolithic, just as Muslim societies are not monolithic. It is as difficult to stereotype America as it is to stereotype Egypt or Muslims around the world. Every community, and indeed every individual, has both good and evil within them."

Such is in essence the message that Mogahed has tried to convey through her organisation's "Who Speaks for Islam?" initiative. Starting in 2001, Gallup embarked on the largest, most comprehensive survey of its kind, spending more than six years polling a population that represented more than 90 per cent of the world's estimated 1.3 billion Muslims.

"The results showed plainly that much of the conventional wisdom about Muslims -- views touted by US policymakers and pundits and accepted by voters -- is simply false," the study found, revealing that American ignorance of Islam is a "fatal flaw", and that "anti-Muslim sentiment fuels misinformation, and is fuelled by it -- misinformation that is squarely contradicted by evidence."

Many Americans, for instance, charge that Islam encourages violence more than other faiths, but studies show that Muslims around the world are at least as likely as Americans to condemn attacks on civilians. Polls show that six per cent of the American public thinks attacks in which civilians are targets are "completely justified". In Lebanon and Iran, this figure is much lower at two per cent.

Moreover, "it is politics, not piety or poverty, that drives the small minority -- just seven per cent -- of Muslims to anti- Americanism at the level of condoning the attacks of 9/11," the study said. According to the study, not a single respondent who condoned the attacks used the Quran as justification. "Instead, they relied on political rationalisations, calling the US an imperialist power or accusing it of wanting to control the world," concluded the study.

Gallup also found there was a gap in understanding the nature of the conflict between the US and the Muslim world. According to its research, 80 per cent of Americans believe that people in Muslim countries have an unfavourable view of the United States.

Asked if they believe Muslims' negative opinion of the US was due to the actual actions of the United States, or misinformation about America propagated by the media and leaders in Muslim countries, the majority (64 per cent) chose the latter. In other words, only a minority (19 per cent) believes that to improve relations the US needs to change its actual policies. This perception stands in sharp contrast to that of Muslim populations.

"Muslims are angry primarily at America's policy decisions in regard to the acute conflicts in Afghanistan, Israel and Iraq, and to its perceived lack of support for Muslim self- determination, as well as what they see as America's disrespect for Muslims and Islam," Mogahed comments, adding that "President Obama is attempting to address all of these issues."

But Muslims themselves also need to exert more effort to correct misconceptions about Islam. For instance, Gallup found that 72 per cent of Americans disagreed with the statement that "the majority of those living in Muslim countries think men and women should have equal rights." In fact, majorities in even some of the most conservative Muslim societies refute this assessment: 73 per cent of Saudis, 89 per cent of Iranians and 94 per cent of Indonesians say that men and women should have equal legal rights.

Majorities of Muslim men and women in dozens of countries around the world also believe that a woman should have the right to work outside the home in any job for which she is qualified (88 per cent in Indonesia, 72 per cent in Egypt and 78 per cent in Saudi Arabia), and to vote without interference from family members (87 per cent in Indonesia, 91 per cent in Egypt and 98 per cent in Lebanon).

It remains questionable, however, who should speak for Islam in order to refute such misconceptions. Should it be the formal seat of Sunni learning, Al-Azhar University in Cairo, or should it be independent preachers, international Islamic organisations, the Shias, or even the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood?

According to Gallup, "rather than letting vocal extremists define the discourse, we should listen to the voices of ordinary people and thus let facts, not fear, shape our global engagement."

Mogahed also argues that "Muslims must live their faith as a collective. Muslim scholars at Al-Azhar are important guardians of Islam's intellectual heritage and teachers of the tradition, but if the masses don't reflect the lofty ideals the scholars claim for Islam, the faith will always seem at best a theory instead of a force for progress in the world. Today, we see people either doing bad things claiming they are acting in the name of Islam, or people, usually scholars, saying nice things and claiming that they are speaking for Islam."

"What is missing is more people doing good things claiming they are acting in the name of Islam. In other words, it really is up to ordinary people at this point, not scholars or celebrities, to show the world what Islam is by countering every bad action done in the name of Islam with many more good actions in the name of the same faith. I believe that Muslims already do this every day, but the human side of Muslim societies, the compassion, the sacrifice and simple dignity of ordinary Muslims around the world, is rarely seen."

"However, it will be up to them to solve this problem. If Muslims want to change the negative image of Islam they need to show, not just tell, what Islam is," Mogahed says.
 


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