Wednesday, April 07, 2010

The dishonesty of Dalia Mogahed

Dalia Mogahed is an adviser to President Obama who was one of the two people behind a poll on worldwide Muslim attitudes in 2008 that spawned a very flawed book, "Who Speaks for Islam?"

She responds to a Lee Smith piece in Tablet that portrays her as very influential in the White House and also criticizes the poll. While I am qualified to comment on her influence with Obama, the other part of her response is interesting to me.

She cuts and pastes from a Gallup FAQ about her book:

In the book Who Speaks for Islam?, we define the "politically radicalized" as respondents who A) answered a "5" when asked to rate the extent that 9/11 could be morally justified on a 5-point scale, where "1" is "cannot be justified at all" and "5" is "completely justifiable," and B) said they view the United States unfavorably. A population-weighted average of 7% fit these criteria. We labeled those who said 9/11 could not be completely justified as "moderates." We further broke this group down into those who were pro-United States and those who were anti-United States.

The decision as to where to break out the "politically radicalized" from the rest was data-driven. It was based on several analyses of where the data clustered for a natural breaking point. The analyses showed that the people who responded with a "5" (completely justifiable) to the question on the justifiability of 9/11 as a group were distinctly different from the groups who responded with a "1", "2", "3" or "4." The idea here is not that we are judging who or what a "moderate" or "radical" is, but rather assigning labels to statistical groups that we clearly define.

The term "moderate" is more of a placeholder label than a value judgment. It is similar to calling one clustering in the data "group A" and another "group B." We simply used labels that a broad audience can easily understand and remember.

This is how Gallup justified calling people who thought that the 9/11 attacks were "mostly" or "partially" justified as "moderate."

It is the bolded sentence that is dishonest. Mogahed and Gallup are claiming that the word "moderate"is not a value judgment, and that they could have just as easily called the groups "group A" and "group B."

In fact the way that the poll was publicized in press releases shows that it was used exactly as a value judgment. Look at how Gallup synopsizes the research in its web page:

March 13, 2008
The authors of the book Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think examine what separates the “politically radicalized” from the moderate majority.

March 13, 2008
Experts react to Gallup findings revealing that views on politics, rather than personal piety, separate radical and moderate Muslims.

Clearly, Gallup is positioning the book as a referendum on who is a "radical" and who is a "moderate" with all the implications of those terms.

In addition, even though the authors and Gallup are claiming otherwise, it is impossible to separate the meanings of words with the purported neutral meanings that the authors claim for them. Using their standards, they could have called the two groups "extremely radical" and "somewhat less radical," or even "people who like daisies" versus "people who like roses." It is a self-serving and ultimately dishonest argument that the choice of appellations is somehow neutral when they have real meanings in the English language.

Perhaps Mogahed would not mind me terming all Muslim women who cover their hair and advise presidents of the United States as being "inveterate liars," as long as I clearly defined my terms ahead of time and say that calling her a liar is in no way a value judgment.

h/t zach