When Obama came into office, he appointed Dalia Mogahed to his advisory council on faith-based partnerships and gave her a seemingly impossible task: improve Muslim perception of the United States. In 2009, the U.S. was fighting two wars in Muslim countries, imprisoning hundreds of Arab men without charge at Guantánamo Bay, and another Israel-Gaza battle had ended with Palestinian civilians bearing most of the casualties. U.S.-Muslim relations seemed irreparably bleak, but Obama promised to be different.
At the end of her one-year term, Mogahed, who moved from Cairo to Wisconsin when she was five, contributed recommendations on Muslim outreach for a final advisory report to the President—but with some limitations. Anything to do with foregin policy was off the table. Instead, she advised the administration to travel the country, meet with Muslim-Americans, and use their feedback to shape engagement with the wider Muslim world.
Mogahed, who at the time headed Gallup’s Center for Muslim Studies, was one of only two Muslims on the council. (“The last two actually, we’ve never been replaced. I guess we’re the only two vett-able Muslims ever,” she joked.) She left the White House in 2010, and now works as director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. She met me for coffee (though, she opted for tea) for a discussion that was aimed at answering one big question: Has Obama lived up to his promise to the Muslim world?
Jessica Schulberg: In 2009, Obama went to Cairo and made this big speech about seeking a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world. And it’s not clear if that really happened.
Dalia Mogahed: I wrote a memo on themes I thought would resonate and the kinds of points I thought he needed to address in that speech.
JS: And did you see some of those points mentioned?
DM: Absolutely. I saw Ben Rhodes later at an iftar at the White House and he told me my memo was the most useful thing he got.
JS: What were some of the themes?
DM: I was really pushing this issue of respect. This was born out of the research that we had done at Gallup. Whether we were talking to someone in Morocco or Malaysia the same theme kept coming up. What is the one thing the U.S. could do to improve relations with a Muslim majority world? And over and over they’d say, “Show greater respect.” Muslims around the world want a relationship based on partnership, not paternalism. So it has to be about mutual interests, it has to be about treating them as equals.
JS: And there are a lot of shared interests in terms of counterterrorism, free flow of oil, general regional stability—
DM: Exactly. But they don’t want to be seen as something to be fixed or managed. The other main point is that you can’t address this issue as just a misunderstanding. It’s not that Muslims don’t understand our intentions or our policies. It’s that there’s real reason to be mad in many cases. There are civilian casualties. There is torture.
JS: Based on your polling work, have you seen Muslim perception of the U.S. change since Obama took office?
DM: It initially improved across the board. In 2009, right as he was starting, people had lots of hope. They improved even a little bit more after the Cairo speech.
JS: What numbers are we talking about?
DM: Well, we saw single digits in the Middle East go up to double digits, which is about as much as you can hope for. In some cases, even a majority were approving of the President, which hadn’t happened since Clinton.
But year after year, it kept plummeting. And then something interesting happened. In the countries where there was, at least initially, a successful revolution during the Arab Spring—so Egypt, Tunisia—there was a slight improvement.
JS: Libya too?
DM: Libya as well, of course. Yemen to some degree. But especially Tunisia and Egypt, where it was mostly peaceful. It seemed like this perfect, beautiful, romantic revolution. In those countries, things improved in reference to the United States. Most people actually saw President Obama as having stood with the people against a tyrant. Maybe not fast enough, but eventually.
JS: A tyrant who the U.S. was pretty closely allied with.
DM: Absolutely. That meant something. My first visit to Egypt after the revolution was in March of 2011 and I saw this ad for Mobinil, the cell phone company, in the airport. It had this picture of this little boy with the Egyptian flag painted on his cheek and it said, “'We must teach our children to be like Egyptian children.’ ~ President Barack Obama.”
I don’t think the President actually said that. But the point was, Egyptians thought he said that. And they were proud.
JS: What about last year? When Sisi took over and Obama wouldn’t call it a coup.
DM: No, now it’s absolutely dismal. The Egyptian people are incredibly polarized. It’s literally 50/50. The side that saw it clearly as a coup, or saw reality as it was, were mad that he didn’t stand with the Egyptian President [Mohamed Morsi].
Then the side that saw it as a revolution and thought the military was saving Egypt from terrorists didn’t think Obama went far enough in supporting Sisi. They’re furious at America for not respecting their national security concerns.
JS: That sounds like a lose-lose situation. What should Obama have done?
DM: As someone who has a soft spot for democracy, I think he should’ve called the coup a coup, and done what we would have done with any other country that had a military coup.
JS: Cut military aid?
DM: Yeah. And even if we weren’t going to do that, after the massacre in Rabaa—historians have said that it far exceeds Tiananmen Square. And yet there was such a deafening silence. Because the identity of the people who were being slaughtered weren’t poster-worthy. Weren’t the kind of people that we should have compassion and sympathy for.
JS: Because they were Muslim Brotherhood?
DM: Because they were perceived to be. But even if they were, they’re still humans that were slaughtered—killed by a military in a sit-in, burned alive in their tents.
There was no way to win public opinion 100%, so we should have just stood with our principles. We compromised our principles in order to secure our interests, and I think we honestly lost both.
JS: Shifting over to Iraq and Syria, does the coalition make the U.S. fight against ISIS more legitimate in the Muslim world?
DM: For some people I don’t think it will ever be legitimate. The coalition does help, but I think the problem is that a lot of our credibility has been eroded by the fact that we sat by and watched Assad slaughter his people for so long. I understand the people that say as brutal and disgusting as ISIS is, they have just killed far fewer people than Assad has. So shouldn’t we be addressing both problems? And isn’t ISIS’s existence the direct result of sitting by while Assad killed his people?
JS: Well, also an oppressive government in Iraq, that was propped up by the U.S.
DM: And the Iraq situation. But this extremist ideology doesn’t attract recruits if there isn’t this flagrant conflict happening. Allowing that kind of bloodshed to go and not thinking there’s going to be some kind of terrible consequence—it’s just bad strategy.
JS: In a conference a couple weeks ago, a reporter asked Michele Flournoy [the former under-secretary of defense] if the U.S.’s unconditional support to Israel has exacerbated tensions in the Middle East and contributed to the growth of groups like ISIS. Flournoy said that radical groups use the U.S. relationship with Israel for propaganda purposes, but that if there was a viable two-state solution tomorrow in Israel and Palestine, there would be no change in extremist groups’ recruiting or operations. What are your thoughts?
DM: Wow. I mean that’s the standard response from anyone in government. No one will ever acknowledge that it might be an issue. But, the polls are very clear. In the Middle East specifically, we’ve seen over and over that when asked, if the U.S. were to take a more balanced approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, would you improve your opinion of the United States? And the vast majority say yes.
JS: Is the U.S.-Israel relationship is a legitimate grievance in the Middle East?
DM: It’s our stated policy to be unconditionally supportive of Israel. So then, the question becomes: Is it humanly possible for any nation state to transgress the limits of justice? The answer is usually yes, because we’re all humans. So is it possible that Israel could have done something that is seen as aggressive? And if we’re always supporting that 100 percent, how is that not going to be a legitimate grievance? It’s illogical to deny that. We don’t even unconditionally support our own policies. We don’t unconditionally support anything.
JS: Were you surprised by how Obama’s Israel policy unfolded?
DM: I was surprised because his initial policy was to push for the halting of illegal settlements. And that was kind of a big deal, because yeah, other presidents have said it, but it was something that was concrete. And then he completely backed out on it. Now he’s not even trying to pretend to be even-handed.
JS: If you were to sit down with the President tomorrow, what advice would you give him on how to better engage with the Muslim world?
DM: I think the key piece of advice is to remember just one truism: We ultimately will serve our interests better if we stand by our principles.
This interview has been edited and condensed.