Few American Islamists receive the kind of glowing media coverage given to Dalia Mogahed, executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, who is sometimes described as the "most influential person" shaping the Obama Administration's Middle East message.
Mogahed, who claims to have played an important role in the drafting of President Obama's historic Cairo speech to the Muslim world, was appointed to serve on the President's Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The council released its final recommendations last month.
When European Islamist Tariq Ramadan kicked off his U.S. tour last week at Cooper Union in New York City, Mogahed and two journalists joined him for a panel discussion. Her remarks emphasized polling data showing that Muslim Americans are more affluent and socially content than their European counterparts.
Muslim Americans are no more likely to support political violence than the rest of the nation, Mogahed said. The minority of Muslim Americans who do support attacks on civilians base this position on politics, not religion.
It's a message that Mogahed attempts to drive home at every opportunity.
She routinely is depicted as a scholarly analyst monitoring public opinion on subjects like anti-Muslim prejudice in the United States or global Muslim attitudes toward America. On other occasions, she is treated as a pioneering Muslim celebrity or portrayed as a victim of anti-Muslim "smears."
But the reality is much more complicated. Mogahed is not some apolitical social scientist chronicling political trends in the manner of George Gallup, founder of the parent organization for her polling center. While Gallup strived to maintain his objectivity, Mogahed has followed a very different course. As we will explain in more detail below, she works behind the scenes with radical Islamist groups to enhance their standing in the presidential council's activities.
Mogahed is a protégé of John Esposito, executive director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin-Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University and a longstanding apologist for the Muslim Brotherhood. The pair have worked together at the Gallup Center, and co-authored the book Who Speaks for Islam? What A Billion Muslims Really Think in 2007, which was subsequently turned into a film. Read the State Department website's coverage of the film premiere here.
Mogahed has been a tenacious defender of groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), both of which are tied to the Muslim Brotherhood. During a September 2008 appearance at the Religion Newswriters Association Annual Conference in Washington, D.C., she was asked about links between the two organizations and Islamic radicals. Mogahed replied that it would be unfair to have those groups "disenfranchised" because of "misinformation." Without offering evidence, she claimed "there is a concerted effort to silence, you know, institution building among Muslims. And the way to do it is [to] malign these groups. And it's kind of a witch hunt."
In CAIR's case, that "witch hunt" is rooted in the halls of the same government Mogahed now advises. It is the FBI's judgment, based upon evidence admitted in court in a Hamas-financing trial, that CAIR is a Hamas front and not "an appropriate liaison partner." Those Hamas connections appear to be the focus of an ongoing grand jury investigation into CAIR.
ISNA, like CAIR, was an unindicted co-conspirator in a terrorism-financing trial. Exhibits from the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF) trial showed that the North American Islamic Trust, an ISNA subsidiary, paid $30,000 to senior Hamas official Mousa Abu Marzouk and his wife, along with another $30,000 to the Islamic University of Gaza, a school long known to be controlled by Hamas. Five former HLF officials were found guilty of illegally routing more than $12 million to Hamas.
When the White House announced Mogahed's appointment in April, her selection was warmly welcomed by CAIR Executive Director Nihad Awad:
"Congratulations to Ms. Mogahed on this well-deserved appointment. Her knowledge and expertise will be an asset to this important council. The American Muslim community can feel confident that she will be a balanced and valuable resource on the vital issues the council must address."
Outreach to Islamists from White House
Since joining the White House council, Mogahed has worked quietly to ensure that CAIR and ISNA are active participants in its work. And she has reached out to radical Muslim groups like the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), the Muslim American Society (MAS) and the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) as well.
Viewed in isolation, these efforts may seem innocuous. But that line of reasoning ignores the harm that stems from such policies, which permit radical Islamist groups to ensconce themselves as the sole representatives of the larger Muslim community – to the exclusion of Muslims with alternative views.
Zuhdi Jasser, head of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD), says Mogahed's collaboration with CAIR, ISNA and other like-minded groups is harmful to Muslims seeking to provide a non-radical alternative for their co-religionists.
"The damage is immeasurable," he told the Investigative Project on Terrorism. Muslims "are going to say, 'Why bother?' "The government has chosen sides in the conflict."
Last May, Mogahed addressed the 34th convention of ICNA, an organization with long history of glorifying jihadist terror and radicalism. The conference was cosponsored by MAS, an organization founded as the U.S. chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has provided the ideological underpinnings for virtually all modern Islamic terrorist groups.
In early July, Mogahed worked behind the scenes before ISNA's 2009 convention to tape promotional videos for the White House faith-based initiative. She sent a letter to ISNA officials urging them to pass on "My informational letter to the Muslim American Community about the President's summer of service initiative," along with "The one pager from the White House about the initiative."
MPAC, which has a long record of engaging in hate speech and defending terrorists, posted a letter from Mogahed to Muslim "leaders" on its website urging them to participate in United We Serve by "telling the world what you've done." In September, MPAC boasted that it was invited to a Pentagon iftar (fast-breaking dinner) keynoted by Mogahed. Islamic Relief USA, a charitable organization backed by CAIR and other radical groups, boasted that Mogahed attended its community iftar along with officials from Agriculture Department, the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Institute of Peace. Also in attendance were representatives of CAIR, ISNA, MAS and MPAC.
Muslimserve's final report contains on its second page an introductory message from Mogahed thanking CAIR, MPAC, ISNA and Islamic Relief among others for their work on the project.
Page three shows the logos of those groups, along with ICNA, the Muslim Students Association, Life for Relief & Development and the Mosque Foundation, a Bridgeview, Illinois mosque with a long history of support for radical Islamists.
Page four consists of a letter from President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama touting the administration's efforts to encourage volunteerism.
The remaining 48 pages consist of free publicity for these organizations - articles, charts and pictures explaining various projects carried out by these and other groups under Muslimserve's auspices. In October, Awad announced that Mogahed and Imam Siraj Wahhaj would be featured speakers at CAIR's 15th annual banquet. After a brief firestorm of controversy, Mogahed withdrew from the CAIR banquet on grounds that speaking there would violate "longstanding" Gallup policy against speaking to advocacy organizations.
Rationalizing Jihad, Covering for Islamists
When it comes to Muslims and jihad, Mogahed has two major themes: that only a small percentage of Muslims are radicalized, and that any radicalism that does exist results from perceptions that the West is "hostile" to Muslims, as demonstrated by support for Israel, the war in Iraq, or a tough stance against Iran's nuclear weapons efforts.
In her July 4, 2009 speech to the ISNA convention, Mogahed cited polling data from Who Speaks for Islam? In the book, Esposito and Mogahed claimed that just 7 percent of Muslims worldwide were "politically radicalized." In her ISNA speech, Mogahed defined this 7 percent as Muslims "who said 9/11 was completely justified."
Her polling found that many of the Muslims who condemned 9/11 said their moral objection was "rooted… in their religious beliefs," she said. But none of the 7 percent who said the attacks were justified "quoted the Quran to justify that view." Mogahed said "this empirical evidence completely turns on its head the common assumptions that were driving our interventions and our policies that meant to secure our country" may have "actually made things worse rather than better."
Mogahed portrayed the supporters of suicide terror as frustrated seekers of freedom and democracy who felt culturally and militarily "threatened" by the West. She said her polling data showed that those "who sympathize with terrorism don't hate our freedom; they actually want our freedom."
What distinguishes this group from other Muslims is "their sense of threat." These supporters of terror "believe more than do the mainstream that their society, their faith and their way of life is threatened, militarily threatened and in some ways even culturally threatened by the West," she continued. "They're more likely to believe that there is a war against their faith. They are also more likely to say that moving toward greater democracy will help Muslims' progress."
"Aren't you glad that Dalia is advising the President of the United States?" effused moderator Aakif Ahmad at the conclusion of Mogahed's remarks. Ahmad informed the ISNA audience that Esposito "personally" gave a copy of the book to President Obama when he spoke in Turkey and asked him to look at it prior to his June speech in Cairo.
"So, [Obama] is well aware of the information that's in this book," Ahmad said. "And that's amazing to know where we've come in the last few years."
Semantic Games and Questionable Numbers
Mogahed denies any connection between radical Islam and terrorism. Speaking to the Religion Newswriters Association in September 2008, she said that "'Islamic terrorism' is really a contradiction in terms" to mainstream Muslims "because terrorism is not Islamic by definition." As for the countless terrorist attacks that are committed in the name of Islam, Mogahed suggested that the linkage was ridiculous: "My response to that is, you know, Cuba calls itself a democracy, but that's not what we call it."
Mogahed told the journalists that the very act of mentioning jihadist violence is "counterproductive" and a "gift" to terrorists. By even raising role of Islam, she said, we permit terrorists to be seen as "legitimate" and "as moral freedom fighters."
In a 2007 speech in Aspen, Colorado, Mogahed said terrorists seek "to exploit broadly felt legitimate grievances" to win new recruits. She also appeared to suggest that the Muslim Brotherhood might be a peaceful alternative to jihadists. (This idea is questionable in view of the organization's longstanding ties with the terrorist organization Hamas. Read more here and here.)
Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda's second in command, "wrote a very important book" criticizing the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt for "trying to make change through political means by being inside a corrupt system," Mogahed said.
She suggested the jihadists are trying "to give people hope in a non-diplomatic, nonpolitical way to change things" like forcing the United States out of Iraq and Saudi Arabia. "The only way that I think you can combat this is to empower people who are trying to make the same changes" by "nonviolent means and to show the world that this is possible."
Another recurring theme in Mogahed's narrative is that Muslims feel a profound sense of "humiliation." A "sense of humiliation" is "something felt very strongly among Muslims as a whole," she said in Aspen.
Perhaps her most controversial argument has been that the public in majority-Muslim nations around the world is no more likely to support terrorism than the American public. In her September 2008 speech to the Religion Newswriters Association, Mogahed claimed that polling data shows that "in every society there's a certain percentage of people that thinks targeting civilians is a great idea."
Six percent of the U.S. population, compared with 4 percent in Saudi Arabia, and 2 percent each in Iran and Lebanon and favor "targeting civilians," Mogahed said. "So, it's not sort of a Muslim anomaly, this idea of sympathizing with terrorism. In fact, Muslims are no more likely than anyone to hold this view - in some cases, slightly less likely."
But critics say the Mogahed/Esposito data is flawed – in particular by massively undercounting the percentage of Muslims who endorse terror.
In Who Speaks for Islam? , the pair claim that approximately 91 million people, or 7 percent of Muslims worldwide (the percentage who believe the 9/11 attacks were completely justified), can be referred to as "politically radicalized."
One huge problem, as Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy observed in May 2008, is that Mogahed and Esposito appear to have arrived at the 7 percent figure by understating by almost half the percentage of those who believe 9/11 was completely justified. And the pair completely ignored the additional 23.5 percent who believe 9/11 was partially justified.
When Satloff looked at their numbers more closely, he found that the percentage justifying 9/11 was closer to 36 percent, or more than 450 million people. That's about a third of the world's Muslim population.
The Pew Global Attitudes Project surveyed Muslims in the Palestinian territories and 15 countries, asking whether they viewed suicide bombings as "often or sometimes justified." The numbers varied widely - from lows of 8 percent in Egypt and 9 percent in Pakistan to 70 percent in the Palestinian territories. According to the survey, an average of 23.5 percent of Muslims supported suicide bombings in 2007.
Downplaying Brutality of Sharia
Mogahed has repeatedly sought to downplay the often brutal, coercive nature of Islamic law, or sharia. In a 2007 appearance on Link Television (an independent station based in San Francisco), Mogahed said that in virtually every country polled by Gallup, Muslims believe sharia should be "at least a source of legislation."
Interviewer Ray Suarez asked her about the fact that sharia often involves harsh punishments such as stonings, canings and cutting off hands. Mogahed replied that more Muslims associate sharia with "a more just society," "protection of human rights" and "rule of law" than with harsh punishments.
Muslims "primarily" believe sharia is "law that is going to make society more just, and that cannot be co-opted or thrown out at the whim of a despotic leader," she said.
During an October 2009 television interview in Great Britain, Mogahed joined a representative of Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) in touting the purported benefits of sharia to women. HT is an extreme fundamentalist movement that seeks to establish a global Islamic state and expresses support for terrorism.
The program host noted that "the media" raises "issues of oppression, injustice" and "second-class citizenship" regarding sharia. "Why then do you feel that so many women in your survey specifically support sharia as the source of legislation for their countries in the Muslim world?" she asked Mogahed.
Mogahed replied that many Muslim women "associate…gender justice or justice for women with sharia compliance" When the host asked why sharia barred women from becoming heads of state, Nawaz defended the ban by belittling the record of Pakistani President Benazir Bhutto, who was murdered by jihadists. Mogahed failed to rebut this comment.
Mogahed later said she would not have agreed to the interview if she had been aware of Hizb ut-Tahrir's role in the program. She suggested that another member of Hizb ut-Tahrir had "misled us" to score propaganda points.
"I don't regret anything I said" on the broadcast, Mogahed stated. "My regret is that I went on the show."
Some reform-minded Muslims are troubled by Mogahed's perceived influence with President Obama. Yemeni feminist Elham Mane'a objected to the fact that in his June 5 Cairo speech, Obama stated that the United States has litigated cases "to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab and punish those who would deny it."
Attributing Obama's statement to Mogahed's influence, Mane'a contended that the wearing of the hijab outside of a Muslim country is a sign of coercion rather than free expression.
Mogahed has not responded to Mane'a's concerns. But judging from her dismissive reaction to criticisms expressed by Aayan Hirsi Ali, Mogahed does not appear terribly sympathetic to women who are oppressed by Islamists.
Ali, a native of Somalia, obtained political asylum in the Netherlands and was elected to Parliament. She renounced Islam and later wrote the screenplay for Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh's film "Submission." After Van Gogh was murdered in 2004, Ali received death threats and went into hiding. She later migrated to the United States.
In her 2008 speech to the Religion Newswriters Association, Mogahed referred to Ali as "everyone's favorite pissed-off victim" and suggested she was part of a "vocal fringe" who believe that "adopting Western values will help their progress."