Dalia Mogahed on Inside Islam

Senior analyst and executive director for the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies Dalia Mogahed is on campus for Islam Awareness Week, presented in part by the Lubar Institute of the Study of Abrahamic Religions. Dalia is also involved in the Muslim West Facts Project, the largest survey of religious attitudes of Muslims world-wide. The findings were published in the book “Who Speaks for Islam?” For background on this book and on the project more generally, check out a couple of entries that we have published here on Inside Islam. Today, Dalia joins us here on Inside Islam to answer a couple of questions about her work.

What are the origins of the Muslim West Facts Project and why did you decide it was important to be a part of it?

The mission of the Muslim West Facts Project is to disseminate Gallup’s independent research on Muslim and Western attitudes to leaders and the public in Muslim and Western communities.  It is a partnership between Gallup and the Coexist Foundation, a UK based charity focused on engagement between the Abrahamic faiths through education.  Gallup and the Coexist Foundation felt that the global conversation on the relationship between Muslims and the West was often dominated by a vocal fringe and that ordinary people around the world were being shut out.  To help leaders and the public understand this silenced majority’s views and therefore make more informed decisions, The Muslim West Facts Project was created to tell the world what the people really think.

Did you and the rest of your team meet any resistance in countries where the Gallup poll isn’t an established and reputable institution?

It’s interesting how much resistance we expected to have from respondents, and how little we actually found.  We were told by everyone, U.S. officials, local intellectuals, journalists, that people would not talk to us, that these were closed societies who didn’t trust anyone with their opinions.  We found a very different reality.  Our biggest challenge was getting people to let us leave their homes.  Our interviewers, all locals, found a very receptive respondent group.  Our response rate in the Muslim world is much better than it is among the American public in fact.  Respondents often told us that no one had ever asked their opinion about the issues our questionnaire discussed.  They were excited and honored to participate and we felt humbled and privileged by their trust.

As for the local officials, that was a different story.  In some countries we did hit some resistance and delays in getting our questionnaire approved.  We continue to face difficulties in some countries but will continue to work on giving everyone a voice despite these difficulties.

Can you gauge the reception of this book in Muslim communities and the impact it has on mainstream audiences since it was published in 2008 as you see it?

I think the book’s reception has been very positive.  It is a best seller in Malaysia for example, interestingly right after Obama’s book and right before Hillary’s on one list.  It has been translated into languages spoken in Indonesia, Malaysia, Bosnia, the Arab world, and even China and South Korea, The Netherlands, and the list goes on.  The book’s popularity has provided a factual foundation to the conversation about Muslims and the West.  It is quoted by prominent leaders in this field, such as Queen Rania, Anwar Ibraheem, Tony Blair, Saad Eddin Ibraheem, and many others.

If you had to give a world survey about Islam to Muslims today, would the questions change?

Our research is ongoing.  We just fielded a questionnaire at the beginning of this year and are just getting the data back now.  Our topics are very diverse and ask Muslims about everything from their satisfaction with their access to healthcare to their opinion of Barack Obama.

What kind of future projects could you see this producing if any?

The on-going research has already been integrated into several important projects.  One example is the “Changing Course” policy report issued last fall giving recommendations on U.S. -Muslim engagement.  The research was the factual foundation of the deliberations so in a very real way, the voices of the people were present in the conversation about the future of U.S.-Muslim relations.  Another growing project is called MOST (Muslims on Screen and Television), a resource center for the creative community providing factual information about Muslims and Islam to help Hollywood and the creative community produce more nuanced and accurate depictions of this community.  We are working closely with The Alliance of Civilizations’ media fund focused on more accurate media depictions across cultural lines.  I also serve on The President’s Advisory Council for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and I hope to contribute to this important effort with our research.

And finally, who does speak for Islam?

A billion Muslims do.  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.

Dalia Mogahed also joins us for a live radio interview today on Here on Earth: Radio Without Borders. Click here for more information and to find out how to listen. We also invite you to help us answer the questions above and to generate others. What do you think of the Muslim West Facts Project, and who speaks for Islam? Please leave your thoughts in a question below or send it along via email.

Update: April 19, 2009: the producers of Here on Earth: Radio Without Borders posted this impromptu video chat with Dalia Mogahed. The video was taken shortly after the live radio broadcast. Enjoy!

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