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TED2016

Dalia Mogahed: What do you think when you look at me?

February 15, 2016

When you look at Muslim scholar Dalia Mogahed, what do you see: a woman of faith? a scholar, a mom, a sister? or an oppressed, brainwashed, potential terrorist? In this personal, powerful talk, Mogahed asks us, in this polarizing time, to fight negative perceptions of her faith in the media -- and to choose empathy over prejudice.

Dalia Mogahed - Muslim studies scholar
Researcher and pollster Dalia Mogahed is an author, advisor and consultant who studies Muslim communities. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
What do you think when you look at me?
00:12
A woman of faith? An expert?
00:15
Maybe even a sister.
00:18
Or oppressed,
00:21
brainwashed,
00:23
a terrorist.
00:25
Or just an airport security line delay.
00:27
That one's actually true.
00:32
(Laughter)
00:33
If some of your perceptions were negative,
I don't really blame you.
00:35
That's just how the media
has been portraying
00:38
people who look like me.
00:40
One study found
00:42
that 80 percent of news coverage
about Islam and Muslims is negative.
00:43
And studies show that Americans
say that most don't know a Muslim.
00:48
I guess people don't talk
to their Uber drivers.
00:52
(Laughter)
00:55
Well, for those of you
who have never met a Muslim,
00:59
it's great to meet you.
01:02
Let me tell you who I am.
01:05
I'm a mom, a coffee lover --
01:08
double espresso, cream on the side.
01:11
I'm an introvert.
01:13
I'm a wannabe fitness fanatic.
01:15
And I'm a practicing, spiritual Muslim.
01:17
But not like Lady Gaga says,
because baby, I wasn't born this way.
01:23
It was a choice.
01:28
When I was 17, I decided to come out.
01:31
No, not as a gay person
like some of my friends,
01:35
but as a Muslim,
01:38
and decided to start wearing
the hijab, my head covering.
01:40
My feminist friends were aghast:
01:44
"Why are you oppressing yourself?"
01:47
The funny thing was,
01:51
it was actually at that time
a feminist declaration of independence
01:52
from the pressure I felt as a 17-year-old,
01:58
to conform to a perfect
and unattainable standard of beauty.
02:02
I didn't just passively accept
the faith of my parents.
02:07
I wrestled with the Quran.
02:12
I read and reflected
and questioned and doubted
02:14
and, ultimately, believed.
02:20
My relationship with God --
it was not love at first sight.
02:23
It was a trust and a slow surrender
02:29
that deepened with every
reading of the Quran.
02:32
Its rhythmic beauty
sometimes moves me to tears.
02:35
I see myself in it.
I feel that God knows me.
02:40
Have you ever felt like someone sees you,
completely understands you
02:44
and yet loves you anyway?
02:50
That's how it feels.
02:52
And so later, I got married,
02:55
and like all good Egyptians,
02:58
started my career as an engineer.
03:00
(Laughter)
03:02
I later had a child,
after getting married,
03:06
and I was living essentially
the Egyptian-American dream.
03:11
And then that terrible morning
of September, 2001.
03:18
I think a lot of you probably remember
exactly where you were that morning.
03:24
I was sitting in my kitchen
finishing breakfast,
03:31
and I look up on the screen
and see the words "Breaking News."
03:34
There was smoke,
airplanes flying into buildings,
03:38
people jumping out of buildings.
03:42
What was this?
03:45
An accident?
03:47
A malfunction?
03:49
My shock quickly turned to outrage.
03:52
Who would do this?
03:56
And I switch the channel and I hear,
03:59
"... Muslim terrorist ...,"
04:01
"... in the name of Islam ...,"
04:04
"... Middle-Eastern descent ...,"
04:06
"... jihad ...,"
04:08
"... we should bomb Mecca."
04:10
Oh my God.
04:12
Not only had my country been attacked,
04:15
but in a flash,
04:18
somebody else's actions
had turned me from a citizen
04:20
to a suspect.
04:24
That same day, we had to drive
across Middle America
04:26
to move to a new city
to start grad school.
04:31
And I remember sitting
in the passenger seat
04:36
as we drove in silence,
04:38
crouched as low as I could go in my seat,
04:41
for the first time in my life,
afraid for anyone to know I was a Muslim.
04:44
We moved into our apartment
that night in a new town
04:50
in what felt like
a completely different world.
04:53
And then I was hearing
and seeing and reading
04:57
warnings from national
Muslim organizations
05:01
saying things like,
"Be alert," "Be aware,"
05:04
"Stay in well-lit areas,"
"Don't congregate."
05:08
I stayed inside all week.
05:12
And then it was Friday that same week,
05:14
the day that Muslims
congregate for worship.
05:17
And again the warnings were,
"Don't go that first Friday,
05:21
it could be a target."
05:26
And I was watching the news,
wall-to-wall coverage.
05:29
Emotions were so raw, understandably,
05:32
and I was also hearing
about attacks on Muslims,
05:34
or people who were perceived
to be Muslim, being pulled out
05:38
and beaten in the street.
05:41
Mosques were actually firebombed.
05:42
And I thought, we should just stay home.
05:44
And yet, something didn't feel right.
05:47
Because those people
who attacked our country
05:51
attacked our country.
05:53
I get it that people were angry
at the terrorists.
05:58
Guess what? So was I.
06:01
And so to have to explain yourself
all the time isn't easy.
06:04
I don't mind questions. I love questions.
06:10
It's the accusations that are tough.
06:13
Today we hear people actually
saying things like,
06:16
"There's a problem in this country,
and it's called Muslims.
06:20
When are we going to get rid of them?"
06:22
So, some people want to ban Muslims
and close down mosques.
06:25
They talk about my community
kind of like we're a tumor
06:29
in the body of America.
06:32
And the only question is,
are we malignant or benign?
06:33
You know, a malignant tumor
you extract altogether,
06:37
and a benign tumor
you just keep under surveillance.
06:40
The choices don't make sense,
because it's the wrong question.
06:47
Muslims, like all other Americans,
aren't a tumor in the body of America,
06:51
we're a vital organ.
06:55
(Applause)
06:57
Thank you.
06:58
(Applause)
07:00
Muslims are inventors and teachers,
07:05
first responders and Olympic athletes.
07:08
Now, is closing down mosques
going to make America safer?
07:12
It might free up some parking spots,
07:16
but it will not end terrorism.
07:19
Going to a mosque regularly
is actually linked
07:21
to having more tolerant views
of people of other faiths
07:24
and greater civic engagement.
07:28
And as one police chief
in the Washington, DC area
07:31
recently told me,
07:34
people don't actually
get radicalized at mosques.
07:35
They get radicalized in their basement
or bedroom, in front of a computer.
07:38
And what you find
about the radicalization process
07:44
is it starts online,
07:47
but the first thing that happens
07:48
is the person gets cut off
from their community,
07:50
from even their family,
07:53
so that the extremist group
can brainwash them
07:55
into believing that they,
the terrorists, are the true Muslims,
07:57
and everyone else who abhors
their behavior and ideology
08:02
are sellouts or apostates.
08:06
So if we want to prevent radicalization,
08:09
we have to keep people
going to the mosque.
08:11
Now, some will still argue
Islam is a violent religion.
08:16
After all, a group like ISIS
bases its brutality on the Quran.
08:20
Now, as a Muslim, as a mother,
as a human being,
08:26
I think we need to do everything we can
to stop a group like ISIS.
08:29
But we would be giving in
to their narrative
08:35
if we cast them as representatives
of a faith of 1.6 billion people.
08:40
(Applause)
08:46
Thank you.
08:49
ISIS has as much to do with Islam
08:53
as the Ku Klux Klan has to do
with Christianity.
08:56
(Applause)
09:00
Both groups claim to base
their ideology on their holy book.
09:06
But when you look at them,
they're not motivated
09:12
by what they read in their holy book.
09:15
It's their brutality that makes them
read these things into the scripture.
09:17
Recently, a prominent imam
told me a story that really took me aback.
09:23
He said that a girl came to him
09:27
because she was thinking
of going to join ISIS.
09:29
And I was really surprised and asked him,
09:32
had she been in contact
with a radical religious leader?
09:34
And he said the problem
was quite the opposite,
09:37
that every cleric that she had
talked to had shut her down
09:40
and said that her rage,
her sense of injustice in the world,
09:43
was just going to get her in trouble.
09:47
And so with nowhere to channel
and make sense of this anger,
09:49
she was a prime target to be exploited
09:53
by extremists promising her a solution.
09:55
What this imam did was to connect her
back to God and to her community.
09:58
He didn't shame her for her rage --
instead, he gave her constructive ways
10:03
to make real change in the world.
10:08
What she learned at that mosque
prevented her from going to join ISIS.
10:10
I've told you a little bit
10:16
about how Islamophobia
affects me and my family.
10:18
But how does it impact ordinary Americans?
10:20
How does it impact everyone else?
10:23
How does consuming fear 24 hours a day
affect the health of our democracy,
10:25
the health of our free thought?
10:31
Well, one study -- actually,
several studies in neuroscience --
10:33
show that when we're afraid,
at least three things happen.
10:37
We become more accepting
of authoritarianism,
10:41
conformity and prejudice.
10:45
One study showed that when subjects
were exposed to news stories
10:49
that were negative about Muslims,
10:54
they became more accepting
of military attacks on Muslim countries
10:57
and policies that curtail the rights
of American Muslims.
11:01
Now, this isn't just academic.
11:06
When you look at when
anti-Muslim sentiment spiked
11:08
between 2001 and 2013,
11:13
it happened three times,
11:16
but it wasn't around terrorist attacks.
11:18
It was in the run up to the Iraq War
and during two election cycles.
11:21
So Islamophobia isn't just
the natural response to Muslim terrorism
11:25
as I would have expected.
11:30
It can actually be a tool
of public manipulation,
11:33
eroding the very foundation
of a free society,
11:37
which is rational
and well-informed citizens.
11:41
Muslims are like canaries
in the coal mine.
11:46
We might be the first to feel it,
11:49
but the toxic air of fear
is harming us all.
11:51
(Applause)
11:56
And assigning collective guilt
12:03
isn't just about having
to explain yourself all the time.
12:05
Deah and his wife Yusor
were a young married couple
12:09
living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina,
12:13
where they both went to school.
12:15
Deah was an athlete.
12:17
He was in dental school,
talented, promising ...
12:19
And his sister would tell me
that he was the sweetest,
12:24
most generous human being she knew.
12:28
She was visiting him there
and he showed her his resume,
12:30
and she was amazed.
12:34
She said, "When did my baby brother
become such an accomplished young man?"
12:35
Just a few weeks after Suzanne's visit
to her brother and his new wife,
12:40
their neighbor,
12:46
Craig Stephen Hicks,
12:48
murdered them,
12:50
as well as Yusor's sister, Razan,
who was visiting for the afternoon,
12:52
in their apartment,
12:57
execution style,
12:59
after posting anti-Muslim statements
on his Facebook page.
13:01
He shot Deah eight times.
13:05
So bigotry isn't just immoral,
it can even be lethal.
13:09
So, back to my story.
13:14
What happened after 9/11?
13:15
Did we go to the mosque
or did we play it safe and stay home?
13:17
Well, we talked it over,
13:21
and it might seem like
a small decision, but to us,
13:23
it was about what kind of America
we wanted to leave for our kids:
13:25
one that would control us by fear
13:29
or one where we were practicing
our religion freely.
13:33
So we decided to go to the mosque.
13:36
And we put my son in his car seat,
13:39
buckled him in, and we drove silently,
intensely, to the mosque.
13:41
I took him out, I took off my shoes,
I walked into the prayer hall
13:45
and what I saw made me stop.
13:50
The place was completely full.
13:53
And then the imam made an announcement,
13:55
thanking and welcoming our guests,
13:57
because half the congregation
14:02
were Christians, Jews,
Buddhists, atheists,
14:05
people of faith and no faith,
14:08
who had come not to attack us,
but to stand in solidarity with us.
14:10
(Applause)
14:16
I just break down at this time.
14:25
These people were there because they chose
courage and compassion
14:28
over panic and prejudice.
14:33
What will you choose?
14:36
What will you choose
at this time of fear and bigotry?
14:38
Will you play it safe?
14:45
Or will you join those who say
14:47
we are better than that?
14:50
Thank you.
14:52
(Applause)
14:53
Thank you so much.
15:07
Helen Walters: So Dalia,
you seem to have struck a chord.
15:12
But I wonder,
15:16
what would you say to those
who might argue
15:18
that you're giving a TED Talk,
15:20
you're clearly a deep thinker,
15:22
you work at a fancy think tank,
15:24
you're an exception, you're not the rule.
15:26
What would you say to those people?
15:28
Dalia Mogahed: I would say,
don't let this stage distract you,
15:30
I'm completely ordinary.
15:33
I'm not an exception.
15:35
My story is not unusual.
15:37
I am as ordinary as they come.
15:39
When you look at Muslims
around the world --
15:42
and I've done this, I've done
the largest study ever done
15:46
on Muslims around the world --
15:49
people want ordinary things.
15:50
They want prosperity for their family,
15:52
they want jobs
15:54
and they want to live in peace.
15:55
So I am not in any way an exception.
15:57
When you meet people who seem
like an exception to the rule,
16:00
oftentimes it's that the rule is broken,
16:03
not that they're an exception to it.
16:06
HW: Thank you so much.
Dalia Mogahed.
16:08
(Applause)
16:10

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Dalia Mogahed - Muslim studies scholar
Researcher and pollster Dalia Mogahed is an author, advisor and consultant who studies Muslim communities.

Why you should listen

As director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, Dalia Mogahed keeps her finger on the pulse of the Muslim world. She served on Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in 2009, advising the president on how faith-based organizations can help government solve persistent social problems.

Mogahed is a former director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, where her surveys of Muslim opinion skewered myths and stereotypes while illuminating the varied attitudes of Muslims toward politics, religion, and gender issues. Her 2008 book with John Esposito, Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, outlines these surprising findings.

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