Exclusive: White House Faith Adviser Defends Sharia Remarks

Dalia Mogahed regrets going on an extremist Muslim TV show but stands by statements she made on it.

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By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

Dalia Mogahed, one of two Muslim members of President Obama's faith advisory council, has come under fire from conservatives for her early October appearance on a British television show connected with an extremist Muslim group. In a story headlined "Barack Obama adviser says Sharia Law is misunderstood," the Daily Telegraph reported earlier this month that Mogahed told the show: "I think the reason so many women support sharia is because they have a very different understanding of sharia than the common perception in Western media . . . . The majority of women around the world associate gender justice, or justice for women, with sharia compliance."

The television program, called Muslimah Dilemma, is hosted by a member of the Hizb ut Tahrir, a radical Muslim party in Britain. Mogahed, who is also the executive director for Gallup's Center for Muslim Studies, called in from the United States while another guest—a Hizb ut Tahrir representative—appeared in the studio. You can watch the episode above.

Since the Telegraph article two weeks ago, conservative American columnists and bloggers have attacked Mogahed's remarks on sharia, or Islamic law. "Such an individual is inappropriate as an adviser to the president," opined the Weekly Standard, "and can do great harm by providing an American seal of approval to extreme sharia ideology."

Now, in her first media interview about the episode, Mogahed says she regrets going on Muslimah Dilemma but stands by her remarks:

How did you get booked on the British program Muslimah Dilemma?

They called our office and asked if I was available. I saw I had been booked, and I had no idea that the show's host or the other guest was affiliated with Hizb ut Tahrir. Had I known, I never would have appeared on the show. When we first got the request, we checked the show with a PR firm in Britain who told us there were no problems with it.

I found out the affiliation on air, when the other guest was being introduced in the beginning. I am familiar with the party, and that was the beginning of my shock and discomfort. Right after the show, I wrote an E-mail to our media staff and said we need to check out who is going to be co-appearing on these shows.

Explain why you wouldn't have appeared on the show had you known the connection to Hizb ut Tahrir.

The group is a marginal but controversial extremist ideological group. Though nonviolent, it denounces Western democracy. As an analyst, I don't engage in ideological debates. I am always on programs to explain the views and opinions of others—in this case, Muslims around the world—not to discuss my own views. Being on a program with people who are representing ideological movements puts an analyst in a very awkward position, where they are unable to respond to objectionable comments because of the limits of our role as analysts. These groups use the data that we report to launch propaganda points.

So you were uncomfortable once you realized what kind of show this is?

It felt very uncomfortable. It began to feel that the data I was sharing was just being used as launching points for an ideological movement. Even when I would share data points that contradicted their rhetoric, they were dismissed or reframed. That said, what I did on the show was what I do everywhere, which is to report—not endorse—the views of Muslims around the world according to scientific survey research.

When I said that the majority of Muslim women want sharia law as a source of legislation, that's because that's what the data show. When I say that sharia is misunderstood and oversimplified by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, the reason is that according to our research, the majority of Americans say they know little or nothing about Islam.

When I say that Muslim women around the world associate sharia with gender justice, that says nothing about my point of view. I'm stating a fact. It's not to trivialize the very real abuses around the world in the name of sharia. It points to the possibility of many women disagreeing with that interpretation of sharia.

Why would so many Muslim women associate sharia with gender justice?

It's not up to me to reconcile those two views, that women around the world associate sharia compliance with gender justice and say it should be a source of legislation, with the abhorrent abuses done in the name of sharia. They seem contradictory. I can only offer a possible explanation, not a definitive one: that these women believe these abuses done in the name of sharia are misinterpretations and are done for political and cultural reasons and then labeled sharia out of expediency.

When you discovered the nature of the show you'd been booked on, did you consider just hanging up?

I was trying as much as I could to keep steering the conversation to reason and away from propaganda rhetoric. My thought was that I didn't want to create a stir or make this more of a story than it was. I assumed that very few people would watch this show but that doing something more dramatic would bring more attention. I wanted to get through the show and maintain my composure and get the facts out but not do anything that would get the propaganda more attention.

And that's the irony of this whole thing. What this group wants to do is look much more popular and high profile than they are. Hizb ut Tahrir is very marginal in the Islamic community and is largely seen very negatively. This show is hardly watched by anyone and would have never seen the light of day if it would have been ignored. So by giving it this much attention, we have given them exactly that they were anxious to get: a big microphone for their propaganda.

So no regrets about what you said on the show?

I don't feel that I have regrets about what I said. I did a fair job of reporting the data. My one regret is appearing on the show to begin with.

What parts of the conversation between the host and the other guest did you see as propaganda?

Their assertion that Muslims don't want liberty and the problems of liberty and democracy. The things the world most admires about the U.S. are liberty and democracy. And their assertion that there is some kind of utopian Islamic model that would prevent any societal ills that are observed today is ahistoric and ridiculous. Through Muslim history, these ills existed and are dealt with. They're embraced as human. It isn't this totalitarian situation where people aren't free to act incorrectly. It was the simplicity and the false generalizations around the denouncing of liberty that I felt uncomfortable with.

What has been the personal fallout of this episode for you?

I'm being portrayed as endorsing sharia for women or defending sharia for women or defending the abuses of sharia in regards to women, which is a complete mischaracterization of what I did. The idea that we're going to simply deny that there are people that have views with which we disagree is a bit ludicrous. If people have a problem with many Muslim women associating sharia with gender justice, they need to go talk to those women. I'm the messenger. This is a case of shooting the messenger.

The empirical data was ignored by both sides—Hizb ut Tahrir and by the blogs—to launch their propaganda. There are always going to be those who find the facts inconvenient, whether on climate change or public opinion.

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