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How to Speak for Islam amidst the Hostility of American Politics

Updated: Nov 13, 2021

In an increasingly globalized and diverse society, discourse is imperative to creating positive change. Those in positions of privilege and opportunity have the responsibility to bring stories from the fringes of society towards the core of our normative narratives. This message was the essence of Dalia Mogahed’s lecture titled “Who Speaks for Islam? The Modern Muslim Mind and the Quest for a Brighter Future”, delivered the evening of November 13, 2019 at the College of Islamic Studies (CIS). 

Mogahed is the former White House Advisor on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, co-author of Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, and the Director of Research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU). While the structured and practiced speech of that evening was eloquently delivered, the closed-door discussion I had been invited to with CIS students was ultimately more enthralling, providing an opportunity to see a more human, candid side of our venerated guest lecturer. A group of five Masters students and an undergraduate sophomore in a corner of the CIS student lounge, leaned in close, hoping not to miss a word spoken by Mrs. Mogahed – a small but potent personality. 

In both the lecture and discussion, Mogahed explains how religious discourse in the United States has been weaponized to disorient the conscience of Americans. She reframes the context of her book, referring to both the problematic dichotomy between extremist and moderate Muslims. She further highlights the increasingly significant principles of “reform and renaissance,” encouraging Muslims, especially in the US, to become more visible and positively reshape narratives surrounding their community. Her dialogue and written work convince her audience to take advantage of current trends in socio-political mobilization to claim their own social platforms. Through her research at the ISPU, she seeks to clarify the misconceptions of Islam and establish, through concrete facts and figures, that Islam does have a place in modern society. A demonstrative example is Mogahed’s publication American Muslim Poll 2017: Muslims at the Crossroads, an impressive systematic consolidation of survey results providing a “well-rounded understanding of the American Muslim community.” Amassed from a total of 2,389 interviews, this publication – like many of Mogahed’s other works – summarize the top issues Muslim Americans face that are similar to those of most marginalized groups but have far deeper consequences. Through this fact-based approach, Mogahed and her colleagues have brought irrefutable evidence to the Muslim-side of the debate, giving this community the opportunity to demand their rights with the support of such verifiable truths. 

Mogahed is blunt in her argument: the issue is not that Muslims don’t have a platform to have their voices heard, it’s that when they have such an opportunity, they fail to adequately take advantage of it. She asks her audience to imagine, for a second, a future where we spoke up in the service of truth and justice, even when we make important people uncomfortable. She begs us to be truth tellers, even when we don’t feel oppressed, and to serve out of love and generosity, just as she strives to do. Mogahed did not give an impression that she is perfect, but was candid about her personal imperfections. She is honest about her naivety and mistakes, and becomes soft spoken when reflecting on the verbal abuse she has received from close-minded audience members. When approached by someone in such a state of vulnerability, humility, and courage, you are compelled to understand what in their lives has influenced her profoundness, accompanied by the tenacity in her discourse. 

While one may not agree with everything she says or stands for, to myself as a Muslim sitting in that audience, the strength of Dalia Mogahed’s presence and experiences gave me faith in the ability of ordinary individuals to affect extraordinary positive change. To me, her presence is important not because she is the token Muslim woman in politics, but because she has utilized her position to do what she requests of others: to use her access to people in power to influence their decisions and perceptions. 

Mogahed was one of dozens of faith-based advisors to the Obama administration, a position which, to her, sounds much more impressive than the work it warranted. Her title added more work but not more publicity, until the Arab media found their token woman in the White House.  She now had a platform, and how she yielded her voice and pen would had the potential to sway many public minds towards or away from support for the Muslim American community. To me, she’s done much to highlight the resiliency of Muslim Americans, though there is still much work to be done. To Muslims and non-Muslims alike, she serves as an example of how any chance encounter with an audience is an opportunity to speak your truth and intellectually challenge misconceptions. 

Unfortunately, through the typical media manipulation, this token became the alleged “terrorist in the White House,” launching Mogahed into infamy. She was attacked by multiple news outlets, claiming her advocacy for groups such as the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) evinced a direct link to and support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite these allegations, Mogahed prefers not to dwell on the absurdity of such publications but rather to sway their opinions in favor of Islam. Her background provides a unique combination, appealing to her audiences emotions through her public speaking and appealing to their logic through her publications.  

From giving the “gift of an idea” to a hostile audience to spurring a sociopolitical revolution grounded in intellectual publications, Mrs. Mogahed has led a movement to alter the Muslim and non-Muslim sub-conscious to tolerate diversity and accept differences and unfamiliarities. Her words convey messages of solidarity we often don’t realize we need to hear, and asks the question “What if we all spoke up in the service of truth to protect the vulnerable, even when we make important people feel uncomfortable?”

Dalia Mogahed’s rhetoric has helped fuel a renaissance of freedom struggles, one led by realisms founded upon fact-based research. The most inspiring aspect of this approach is that, while the data is meant to help policy-makers make informed decisions, it also serves as a catalyst for shifting Muslim self-narratives. To successfully shift perspectives in their favor, Muslims must first change how they see themselves – to eradicate an innate inferiority complex and a learned belief that we can’t change how the media sees us. Mogahed’s work, in both research and advocacy, drives the message that Islamophobic tendencies can be exlpained and therefore uprooted through a two-progned approach: the first is through positive exposure in our communities and in the media, and the second is through unassailable power of facts and figures. 

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