What does it mean to be a Muslim?

Dalia Mogahed: I think there are many problems. If we look at what Muslims themselves are saying are their greatest problems, they really cite political and economic corruption very, very clearly. They are very critical of their own societies.

It’s really a myth to think that Muslims aren’t engaging in self-criticism. That’s simply not true.

And at the same time, admire what they perceive to be a great deal more justice that exists in the political system in the west. So the disconnect isn’t that democracy isn’t admired, but rather that Muslims believe that the democratic principles the west often preaches, they’re not practicing when it comes to their part of the world.

When Islam is used to further someone’s own political or social power, then that core message of serving only God and being true to a message of selflessness is therefore forgotten. So I think that in claiming superiority over other human beings, and in claiming a monopoly on the truth, that core message is lost and distorted.

The historical figure that I find most inspiring is, as a Muslim, the prophet Mohammad. Peace be upon him.

I think that the reason for that is because he brought to the world a message that could resonate with the young and the old at the same time, the rich and the poor at the same time, women and men at the same time. He brought a message that was so resilient and so flexible that it could thrive in societies as different as China and Nigeria.

And I think that one of the biggest challenges today is to rediscover that vitality and not allow Islam to become ossified as a rigid force.

In very basic terms, he brought a message that said that nothing was worthy of worship except God. And what that means; the implications of that simple message was that all humans were therefore equal. If no one could be worshipped except God, then no one was superior to anyone else.

In fact, exclusively he said that all human beings are as equal as teeth on a comb. So the way I understand that, it was a message of human liberation – a liberation from slavery from one human to another, and instead for all humans to serve God alone.

We actually have done some work on Muslim minorities in the west in London, Paris and Berlin. And we found some very interesting and very surprising evidence to show that Muslims are no more likely than the general public in these countries to feel alienated from the nation that they have chosen to live.

In fact, believe it or not, in London, Muslims are more likely than the general public to say that they identify strongly with the U.K. as their country. The general theme is that Muslims identify strongly with their nation, and at the same time also identify strongly with their faith. And we did not find any evidence to show that the two were trade-offs.

So for example, those who identified strongly with their faith were not more likely to identify less strongly with their nation; that the two were mutually enriching, not mutually exclusive; national and religious identities mutually enriching, not mutually exclusive.

Where Muslims in these countries and the general public differ most was on issues of social morality. So what Muslims actually mirrored where we would expect to find conservative American Christians. So where thought that things like abortion, extramarital affairs and these types of issues were morally wrong, whereas the general European social norm was that these things, of course, were non-issues.

So whereas Muslims identified strongly with their nation – and in fact were more likely than the general population to favor mixed neighborhoods; so they weren’t interested in isolating; they were different than the general population in social, moral outlook.

So the question really becomes, Is that difference an issue? Or are diverse societies always going to have differences in social morality? And I think that Europe could really learn by looking to the United States, where there is a huge amount of diversity in our own outlook as Americans as to social issues; but at the end of the day we’re still all American. And we don’t make it some kind of a litmus test in terms of cultural conformity to measure the amount of “Americanness” that one holds.

And that same concept, I think, needs to translate into many of these European societies so that they don’t alienate their Muslim citizens. We actually asked women in these countries, “Do you wear hijab?” And in both cases – when they said “yes” or “no” – we asked why. And what we found is that by far the most frequent response of why women do wear hajib was very simply that it was their religious conviction to do so. So nobody essentially said it was a statement in defiance of the culture of Europe, or was a political statement or a statement of defiance. An overwhelming majority just simply said it was their religious conviction.

At the same time, only about 2% said that it was something that a male relative asked them to do. So, at least according to our data, this is something that people are choosing to do. And they’re doing it just for the most simple reason ever: because they believe it is required by their faith.

And that brings us to the second point of, “What does it mean when it’s banned?” If people do believe in their own belief system that this is a requirement of their faith, and the state is prohibiting them from carrying out an aspect of their faith, how can we in a liberal society support such an act by the state to prevent the free practice of religion? Especially in a way where it’s simply not affecting anyone else. It’s how a woman chooses to dress.

I think what needs to be understood, and really what the data clearly shows, is that hajib; its meaning should not be overestimated as a political statement. It is simply an act of piety.

 

Recorded on: July 3, 2007.

 

Religious and national identities are not mutually exclusive, Mogahed says.

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