Obama's Cairo Speech 'The Beginning of a Dialogue with Muslims'

Dalia Mogahed, who advises US President Barack Obama on Muslim affairs, talks to SPIEGEL about her influence on Obama's speech in Cairo last week and its reception in the Muslim world.

SPIEGEL: Ms Mogahed, you are Muslim. You were born in Cairo. You are now advising the most important man in the world on Muslim affairs. What influence did you have on Barack Obama's Cairo speech ?

Dalia Mogahed: I am part of the Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, not a direct adviser. Our role is to provide ideas, mostly in the form of memos and reports. But yes, I played a role in making recommendations to the speechwriters.

SPIEGEL: What did you suggest?

Mogahed: I suggested three main themes. One is to continue building on the theme of mutual respect. My recommendation was to recognize that Islam has made and makes a positive contribution to civilization. The second major theme was that of cooperation and the idea of equal partnership. A third theme that I referred to was empathy: Even if we do not share their opinion, we should try to understand their point of view.

SPIEGEL: It sounds as if a big part of the speech was based on your recommendations.

Mogahed: Yes, I really felt very satisfied, because much of what we recommended made it into his speech. The president tried to heal a deep wound that Muslims have. But at the same time, he didn't deny what America stands for. His tone and his respect exceeded the expectations of most Muslims. He got a standing ovation in Cairo. People were yelling out: We love you, Obama. Actually, it reminded me of Obama's inauguration in Washington. It was the same excitement.

SPIEGEL: Was it an historic speech?

Mogahed: From the minute he came on stage, I knew that it was an historic moment, especially because he began the speech by saying (the Arabic greeting) "assalaamu alaykum." I knew that it has never happened before -- and perhaps it won't happen again -- that an American president addresses the people like this.

SPIEGEL: Obama also quoted three verses from the Koran  -- that was new as well.

Mogahed: That was a recommendation I made -- but not just me, others made it as well.

SPIEGEL: Obama never used the word terror in his speech. Instead he chose to use the term "violent extremism."

Mogahed: I recommended using that terminology. He framed extremism as a neutral threat and didn't connect it with Islam. He mentioned it as a threat that affects Muslims at least as much at it does the US, and he even mentioned that Muslims are the main victims of violent extremism.

SPIEGEL: Did Obama speak to the hearts of Muslims?

Mogahed: Definitely. We have carried out the largest, most comprehensive survey on Muslim opinions ever and that research and the conclusions from that research were conveyed and were taken into account in the formulation of the speech. All of my recommendations were based on the polls and studies at Gallup. It was in some ways a response to what people have said. The messages and the concepts in that speech were targeted towards what people think, rather than dictating to them what we want them to think. It was very much the beginning of a dialogue with Muslims around the world.

Interview conducted by Juliane von Mittelstaedt

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