Mogahed spoke with Sunday’s Zaman in Doha, Qatar, and commented on a couple of topics, including the US approach to Muslims worldwide during the Obama administration, the state of democracy and religious freedom in the Muslim world and the contributions of the Gülen movement to global peace and understanding.
She continues to head the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies in Washington, D.C., as well as her advisory duty to Obama while focusing on inter-religious dialogue and cooperation, a task she has been carrying out for more than two months now. Members of the 25-seat council are appointed to a one-year term and work on recommendations in the area of their expertise which are then included in the annual report after being reviewed by the larger council and ultimately presented to the US president.
Specifically drawing attention to the movement’s emphasis on intercultural and interfaith dialogue activities, Obama’s advisor said this initiative is “highly admirable and impressive,” adding that the "followers of this movement have done a phenomenal job by working on interfaith dialogue.”
For the last 20 years, the Gülen movement has been active in delivering humanitarian aid to various parts of the world, establishing trade relations between businessmen worldwide, opening healthcare institutions and carrying out dialogue activities between peoples of different cultural and religious backgrounds. However, its primary focus is on education. Teachers and businessmen inspired by the teachings of Gülen, which emphasize the importance of educating young generations with the idea of peaceful coexistence and mutual understanding, have opened education institutions of various forms; from elementary schools to universities to language courses in over 100 countries so far. Some 700 students from 115 countries receiving a high-quality education in these institutions participated in the 7th Turkish Olympiads, organized a week ago in Turkey and watched by millions in the country.
“I think the Gülen movement offers people a model of what is possible if a dedicated group of people work together for the good of the society. I also think that it is an inspiration for other people and Muslims for what they can accomplish,” Mogahed said, commending the movement. She noted that “this initiative has a lot to teach to other people and Muslims, but it needs to broaden its membership profile.” She then elaborated on her advice to the movement. “It has moved beyond Turkey in its very benevolent projects and it serves people from all around the world of all backgrounds, but it is still made up mostly of Turks. That is what I feel is in need of expanding,” she said. When reminded that some speculate the movement has a hidden agenda, Mogahed told Sunday’s Zaman that she usually does not attach any importance to such allegations put forward without evidence. “And I have not seen any evidence so far,” she said.
Talking about the most fundamental change from previous US administration to the current one in terms of America’s approach to the Muslim world, Mogahed argued the language Obama uses stands at the center of transformation in that regard which, she said, saw a “dramatic change” compared to the George W. Bush era. “Obama’s language is respectful and conciliatory. He speaks to Muslims directly in an empathetic way and not over their heads to his own base in the US,” she said.
Speaking in Cairo last week, Obama gave a historic address to more than 1 billion Muslims worldwide and said he seeks a “new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world.” This speech, which Obama began by greeting the audience in Arabic and during which he cited verses from the Quran, making statements in line with its teachings, found a receptive audience and was praised by many. Experts say "this speech is not a new page in an old book but the first page of a completely new book," as was put by Sunday’s Zaman columnist Kerim Balcı only minutes after the historic occasion, speaking on a TV program. Mogahed stresses the significance of this speech as well and also voiced her hopes for concrete steps, which she believes will follow the rhetoric. “I think the most important change that has occurred is the conversation is back, talking about politics, political differences or political alliances that Muslims have with the US rather than the conversation being one about a war against the Islamic world. I believe there is a great opportunity [for normalization of relations between the US and the Muslim world] which may never come again.” She further asserted that Obama adopted this discourse despite “tremendous” political pressure and that “he has no benefit for himself in making those statements.”
‘Giving religious freedom to people strengthens the state’
One of the key issues Obama highlighted in his Cairo speech was religious freedom and letting women wear headscarves if they wish to. Mogahed underlined the significance of this principle as well and said: “The US is a world leader in religious freedom. Giving religious freedom to people does not threaten the state; in fact, it strengthens it.”
The US president rebuked some Western countries who impose restrictions on women who want to cover their head for religious reasons. Turkey is a well-known and notorious example in that regard. With long-standing debates having borne no fruit at all because of staunch opposition coming from some groups in Turkey, women are still not allowed to attend school or work in the public sector while wearing a headscarf. Turkey’s population is 99 percent Muslim. Mogahed finally touched upon the state of democracy in the wider Muslim world and stated that democratic governance is not very strong there. “There is very little reason to be very hopeful that it will dramatically improve in the next four years,” she argued. Asserting that specific values, such as the rule of law, strong institutions and a separation of powers between them, protecting the rights of minorities, equality before the law and freedom of expression and religion, have to be at the foundation of any democracy, Obama’s only Muslim woman advisor concluded that “the Muslim world has room to grow.”
MUSTAFA EDİB YILMAZ DOHA, ANKARA