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What Do Muslims Want?

A White House adviser defends sharia.

12:00 AM, Oct 20, 2009 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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Dalia Mogahed has enjoyed a varied career. Born in Egypt, she was brought to America as a child and climbed a fairly ordinary professional ladder. She earned a master's in business at the University of Pittsburgh and pursued success in corporate life. But she became an American Muslim celebrity after joining Georgetown professor John L. Esposito, a tireless defender of radical Islam, in producing a controversial study, Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think. With its wildly overreaching subtitle, the volume was based on polling by the Gallup Organization, where Mogahed gained a post as Senior Analyst and Executive Director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies.

All of which was rather banal in Washington's subculture of Muslim advocacy, until President Obama named Mogahed to his Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Mogahed is now a prominent Obama satellite, and, as noted here last month, she appeared at a Pentagon iftar, or Ramadan fast-breaking event, alongside a noted Saudophile, James Zogby of the Arab American Institute.

Early in October, Mogahed gave a telephone interview to a British Muslim fundamentalist television network, IslamChannel. The program also interviewed Nazreen Nawaz, a female representative of the ultra-radical Islamist group Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT), or the Islamic Liberation Party, as a live guest. HT calls for a global Islamic regime (the "caliphate"), under sharia law, and the destruction of the West. The show was posted on Sunday, October 4, to HT's UK website here. While television debate between sharply-opposed individuals has become a dominant form of public communication all over the world, Dalia Mogahed made no effort, in her encounter with an extremist advocate, to establish any distance between their views.

Rather, Mogahed delivered a defense of sharia law, and, in particular, its application to women. She alleged that "the perception of sharia and portrayal of sharia has been oversimplified even among Muslims," and called for sharia to be viewed "holistically" (a meaningless cliché.) According to her, "the majority of women around the world associate sharia with 'gender justice.'" Presumably, her broad reference to "the majority of women," rather than Muslim women, was a slip of the tongue. But there is no doubt that in her perspective, sharia as public law guarantees Muslim women a dignity absent in the West.

Mogahed further declared that Muslim women support "universal values of justice and equality" but reject "Western values," which she associated with sexual promiscuity and male disrespect of women. As projected by Mogahed, the views of Muslims are either fundamentalist or confused. Their attitudes toward Islamic law are divided, in her terms, only between supposedly wanting sharia to be the sole source of governance and seeing it as one source of legislation among various canons. But for her, even this distinction is less important than proclaiming the satisfaction of Muslim women with sharia.

Mogahed cited "one woman in Malaysia" who "specifically" told the pollsters "she felt sorry for Western women because she felt that they always felt that they always needed to please men." As if choosing individual voices out of a putative billion were not absurd enough, Mogahed drew on another single citation to portray Muslim women abroad as complaining that Western women lack social status.

HT spokeswoman Nawaz endorsed the Esposito-Mogahed poll but then gave herself over to a wholesale attack on democracy and denunciation of "man-made law" as inferior to sharia. HT stands out for its anti-Jewish rhetoric, and is banned in some countries, such as Germany and Turkey, but operates legally in others, from the U.S. and Britain to Indonesia. HT has escaped wider suppression because it preaches, but does not practice, violence.

Mogahed described her role in the Obama administration as "to convey to the Advisory Council, to the president, and to other public officials what it is Muslims want." Mogahed presented herself as "simply a researcher" capable of offering "accurately, and in a representative way, the actual views of Muslims." But Mogahed also spoke benevolently of unidentified people, including non-Muslims, who favor "that the United States, and Britain, and other countries should be open to the concept of integrating sharia into law in Muslim-majority societies." She stated that "of course, most Muslim-majority societies do have sharia as a part of their laws already."

In reality, most Muslim-majority societies do not currently treat sharia as a part of public law, but as a separate corpus applicable only to exclusively religious matters. Sharia-dominated countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Sudan represent exceptions, not the rule.

Dalia Mogahed's interview was objectionable in several ways. Her defense of sharia law as, in effect, feminist, was bad enough, in that she presented the differences between the West and the Muslim-majority societies by turning a universally-acknowledged reality upside down. Sharia law is most often employed to oppress women, not to free them from the blandishments of the sinful West. The Mogahed approach discounts the widespread, moderate Muslim view that sharia, like other canons of religious law, should apply only to standards for diet, forms of prayer, and other strictly individual or personal options. President Obama has already indicated that he views Islam as a single undifferentiated phenomenon, of which radical ideology is a secondary, if not an irrelevant feature when compared with the typically-cited grievances of the Palestinians. In this view, Islam is more important as a whole than as a field of conflict between radicals and moderates; Iran is more important as a diplomatic counterpart than as a platform for Ahmadinejad; and Afghanistan is more important as a shelter for al Qaeda than as the gateway to Talibanization of Pakistan.

For Dalia Mogahed, the defense of sharia is not new, and has previously been framed in novel, if convoluted and bizarre terms. In a review of the Esposito-Mogahed polling tome in The Christian Century (here), Brian McLaren recalled that last year

"at a conference in Europe, Dalia Mogahed explained for me by analogy what Who Speaks for Islam? makes clear through research. Why, she asked me, did the writers of our Declaration of Independence refer to the Creator as the source of our inalienable rights? I replied that they probably did so in order to legitimize their revolution by using the same terms the monarchy used to legitimize its own authority: the rights of individuals come from the same God believed to grant divine right to kings.

"In the same way, she explained, shari'a represents to many Muslims a kind of declaration of independence, affirming that God wants to bring justice to all people and that God's justice is higher than the distorted and haphazard tyranny of modern dictators. However repressive shari'a might appear to Westerners, it is actually a major step up for many Muslims who suffer under systems with corrupt dictators in the capital city and crooked police officers in the neighborhood."

This is, undiluted, the outlook of Islamists in Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan and other countries threatened by fundamentalist tyranny, in which religious governance is posed as the sole alternative to secular dictatorship. Authentic democracy, which is Western in origin, and not "universal," is not an option, or is rejected as one of those corrupt Western practices along with free sex and male supremacy. But the Muslim countries, including those ruled by sharia, have no shortage of victimized women and abusive men. In Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, crimes against women, including forced marriage, forced divorce, and female genital mutilation, are protected by sharia. This is something the whole world recognizes and many Muslims repudiate. But while Muslims around the world are increasingly turning toward civil society, Dalia Mogahed offers the retrograde fantasy of sharia as liberating, even as comparable with the principles of the Declaration of Independence. Such an individual is inappropriate as an adviser to the president, and can do great harm by providing an American seal of approval to extreme sharia ideology. We should not be surprised to find that leftists are not the only people with an extreme ideology present in the Obama team.

Stephen Schwartz is a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.