Review of Dalia Mogahed’s Book: “Who Speaks for Islam?”

By Luke Wilcox, Engage Minnesota

luke_wilcox_pic2During my six months as a policy intern in Washington, DC, my days were filled with important tasks critical to national security, such as copying memos and creating Microsoft Excel sheets. Thankfully, I was also able to escape the office once in a while to attend some really great hearings and events. One of my absolute favorites – and one that is reoccurring here in the Twin Cities – was the book launch of Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think.


In the book, Dalia Mogahed of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies and John Esposito of Georgetown University draw on 6 years of systematic research conducted by Gallup. Rather than unfounded assumptions, 50,000 verbal interviews of Muslims back up Mogahed and Esposito’s claims. If you care about sound methodology – or if you want to hear, from Muslims, what Muslims think about the world – this is the book for you.


On Wednesday, November 5, Mogahed will present on the book’s conclusions at an event sponsored by the Islamic Resource Group and the Muslim Christian Dialogue Center of the University of St. Thomas. The huge sample size of the Gallup study, representing Muslims across the socioeconomic spectrum, of all ages, and both rural and urban, gives her conclusions a rigorous credibility that many have (unfairly) demanded from Muslims and defenders of Islam post-9/11.


This is a last-minute preview, but below are some of my observations and notes from Mogahed’s presentation in DC. It’s hard to believe, but all of these interesting facts and comparisons are only an excerpt of what you’ll be treated to if you attend the event this Wednesday.


From the Book Launch of Who Speaks for Islam? with Dalia Mogahed:


One of the big questions addressed by the book is the origins of extremism. What makes a radical? Is Sam Harris right in asserting that the cause is religion per se? One need only look at the widespread religiosity across the world-for example, 68% of Americans and 74% of Iranians say religion is an important part of their life-to see that pervasive religion does not necessarily translate into pervasive extremism. Using statistics to categorize extremists, the book reports that 7% of Muslims (approximately 91 million) believe that 9/11 was completely justified. The book terms this 7% the “politically radicalized” group (statistically they were an outlier in their responses to interview questions). Whereas those who condemned 9/11 frequently spoke of the loss of human life and often used religious justifications for their views, the 7% did not use religious arguments. The mainstream often quoted the Quran (e.g., killing one innocent life is like killing all of humanity), while the 7% focused on counter-hegemony, geopolitical arguments rather than theology. It is also interesting to note that the 7% were, on average, more educated and affluent than the mainstream.


What about President Bush’s claim that terrorists “hate our freedom” (September 20, 2001 speech)? When asked what they admire most about the West, Muslims ranked technology first and liberty and democracy second. They expressed widespread admiration for the freedom of expression and assembly, rule of law, and government accountability they see in the West. The politically radicalized 7% were significantly more likely to say moving toward democracy would help Muslims. When asked what they resent most about the West, neither radicals nor moderates said freedom; instead, both perceived a “race narrative” of disrespect. The most resented aspect of the West was the moral breakdown of society, but the second was perceived Western disrespect for Muslims.


Thus the number one response to the question of how the West can improve relations with the Muslim world was to show greater respect for Islam and Muslims. This perception of being regarded as inferior and the need for the West to respect Islam was shared around the world and across the political board, both among the 7% and the mainstream. Muslims consistently felt a powerful victimhood and perceived both hatred of their faith and racism. One respondent said, “They think we’re barbarians, that we’re backwards. They need to recognize that we’re human, too.” Among psychologists, this perception of humiliation has been called the “nuclear bomb” of emotions because of the response it can engender.


But what distinguishes the humiliation felt by the 7% and that felt by the mainstream? First, the 7% also felt threatened. While the greatest fear of the mainstream was crime and lack of security, the greatest fear of the 7% was occupation, U.S. domination, and imminent U.S. invasion of their country. The 7% perceived that they were being threatened and controlled. Second, the 7% was more likely to see the U.S. as insincere in its democracy promotion and to doubt the good will of the U.S. Thus they were also less likely to view better relations with the U.S. as a possibility.


In a more theoretical sense, the book identified three lenses, or “prisons of pain,” through which the U.S. is seen: 1) cultural disrespect, 2) political domination, and 3) acute conflicts such as those in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel and Palestine. The authors stressed that these overlap and reinforce each other; for example, the Abu Ghraib pictures represent both 1 (flushing a Quran down a toilet) and 2 (occupation).


Other interesting statistics and comments from Ms. Mogahed’s presentation:


  • The American public and Muslims around the world were just as likely to condemn or condone attacks on civilians. There was no statistical difference, for example, between the percentage of Americans and the percentage of Saudis who said attacking civilians is acceptable.


  • Starting with the premise that religion is important around the world, interviewers asked: what role do you want for religion in legislation? The majority of Muslims thought Sharia should at least be a source of legislation. Egypt desired implementation of Sharia law most strongly, with 65% saying Sharia should be the only source of legislation. Overall, gender was not a significant differentiating factor on the role Muslims wanted for Sharia in legislation. The book’s authors concluded that this call to give Sharia at least some role in legislation can be seen as at least in part a call for the rule of law in Muslim countries.


  • When the same question about religion and legislation was asked in the U.S., using the Bible instead of Sharia, the majority of Americans believed the Bible should have a role to play in legislation. Nine % said the Bible should be the only source.  


  • The majority of Muslims wanted no direct role for religious leaders in forming legislation.


  • In most countries, the majority of Muslims did not think the U.S. is serious about promoting democracy. In the Middle East and North Africa, Muslims widely believed that the U.S. will not allow them to fashion their own political future and that the U.S. is adamant about controlling the region.


  • Question: why do terrorists continue to use the language of religion if their main motivation is often about geopolitics and the structure of world power?


Ms. Mogahed: they know their audience, know that religion is important. In fact, it’s not only terrorists that use religious language-everyone does. You have to use the dominant social currency.


  • Question: why haven’t we heard more from Muslims condemning terrorism?


Ms. Mogahed: First, we have heard from them-there have been innumerable public condemnations-they just don’t get covered in the media. Second, we need to create some definitions: what does it mean to condemn something loud enough? If we try to isolate or “otherize” terrorists, to tell Muslims to condemn terrorists, we say to Muslims: you are all one group and you are thereby guilty by association. For example, we simply assume that Christians condemn and disagree with the KKK, so we should extend the same assumption to Muslims, for both moral and strategic purposes.


  • When Americans were asked what they respect most about the Muslim world, the top two responses were 1) nothing and 2) I don’t know. Increasing American respect for the Muslim world is critical.


  • Part of the problem of lack of respect is the asymmetry of information flow. For example, 24 is one of the most popular TV shows in Egypt and Western literature is a part of the curriculum in many Muslim majority countries. People there learn much more about us than we learn about them.

 Luke Wilcox recently graduated from Boston University with a Masters degree in International Relations and Religion and has published articles on civil society and human rights in Morocco. He is new to the Twin Cities.

About engagemn

A Voice for Minnesotan Muslims

Posted on November 4, 2008, in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. This was a great commentary on the book Luke, and it really helped me prepare for a presentation I am giving tomorrow.


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