Part 3 • Dalia Mogahed Interview on Understanding Polls & Surveys


SAHIL: Given your extensive work with polling,
I wanted to take this opportunity to help our audience understand polling better, as
numbers are throwing out all the time. Just a couple of years ago, the Pew Forum
polled Egyptians, and 64% said that the death penalty should be the punishment for apostasy,
leaving the faith, despite the neighboring countries have only about 5 to 10% who believe
the same thing. To make things even more complicated, the
same poll also shows 75% of Egyptians want complete religious liberty. Given this contradiction which really shows,
I would say, the lived experience of religious people, what are common mistakes or misunderstandings
people often have when they read or cite polls? DALIA: That’s a really good question. I’m glad you’ve asked about how to consume
polls in a critical way. First of all, when you’re looking at a poll,
the first question you ask is, “What’s the sample of representative?” In the case of Pew, the answer is yes, they
do very high quality polling and their samples are representative. The way you know a sample is representative
is not by how large the sample size is. This is a very popular misconception. People often say, “That’s just a sample of
1,000, and then this other poll has a sample of 80,000 so it must be more representative.” That’s completely wrong. Representation, actually has very little to
do with how large a sample is. It has to do with the quality of the sample
and how it was selected. A representative sample is one where every
citizen in the country has a chance, and an equal chance, to have been selected for the
survey. If my sample consists of people on Facebook
that just decided to answer the survey, that is not a representative sample because you
didn’t give every single person an equal chance of getting chosen for the sample. Not everyone saw your ad. Not everyone has Facebook. Not everyone has internet. Not everyone has electricity. It’s a terrible way to do it. Even if you have 80,000 people in your so-called
sample that’s not representative. What Pew does and what Gallup does, the company
I used to work for, and what a good polling firm will do, is they will use methods that
select households for interviews at random, therefore, everyone has an equal chance of
being selected so 1,000 people are more representative than 80,000 done on Facebook. That’s one thing to just always ask to begin
with. The second question I ask is, “How was the
question phrased?” What other questions in the survey help to
explain what people may have meant. Now, in the case of this question which gets
brought up quite a bit, especially by liberal Islamophobes. It’s interesting that as you said neighboring
countries don’t hold the same view. It’s something peculiar to Egypt. It’s not something peculiar to Muslims. That’s one thing to keep in mind is, is this
something I’m going to generalize over Islam, Muslims and everyone from the faith, or is
this something that we need to figure out what’s going on in Egypt. The question, I believe, was one of asking
people a theological question and then being interpreted in a very political way. As an Egyptian, I’m an Egyptian, we are taught
in our traditional Islamic education that anyone who leaves the faith, in theory, the
penalty is death, which sounds extremely…a violation of religious freedom, of course. I, personally, don’t believe that that is
the correct interpretation of Islamic law, but it is the conventional way that people
are taught. When they’re asked, they basically recite
what they were told or taught somewhere along the way. Now, is this actually ever implemented? Is that the law in Egypt? Do people actually get executed for leaving
a faith? They actually do not. This is also not something that happens to
people even in cases of vigilante violence against people. I’m not saying it never happens, but that
is not a widespread crisis that Egyptians are undergoing. It is a very theoretical response based on
how people have been educated according to a certain medieval, pre-modern interpretation. I will add that that interpretation is usually
understood in a pre-modern context where leaving the faith actually is assumed to mean an act
of treason, is joining an enemy force to fight against your previous community. It’s more of a political change of sides rather
than simply a question of freedom of conscience, but those two things have been conflated and
people are understanding it this way. I think this is a reflection of how Egyptians
are educated on this question rather than something that was deeply thought about and
is being acted on in any way, shape, or form. Now, as someone who holds a different point
of view in my own religious understanding, I would love to change the way Egyptians are
educated about this. I want a different conversation to happen
in religious circles and in religious educational institutions that reexamines this question
and re-understands it, in a way that I think is actually more authentic to the spirit it’s
in. “Am I going to succeed in trying to make that
happen by approaching this question with humility and compassion?” or, “Will I succeed in reforming
this understanding by ridiculing and demonizing these communities?” That’s where I really have a very hard time
with so-called liberalist Islamophobia because it is all about feeling superior rather than
any real concern for these communities. Demonizing and dehumanizing these communities
by putting out these poll findings so out of context does absolutely nothing to improve
the situation and does absolutely nothing to even empower the folks on the ground trying
to make change indigenously. All it does is to say, “We’re more civilized
and they’re barbaric.” In fact, hurts and feeds into reactionary
forces in the region. SAHIL: On a different note, what impact, from
your experience, have polls and other data metrics been in changing perceptions and attitudes. Does it change people’s minds or is it better
to deal with perceptions through relationships and personal interactions? DALIA: I don’t think it’s either/or. I absolutely think relationships and personal
interactions are very– SAHIL: Combination. DALIA: Thank the Lord polls do actually also
help to change perceptions. Otherwise, my whole life’s works is useless. SAHIL: I’m sure that’s not the case. [laughs]
DALIA: I certainly hope not. One study actually found that some of the
American public’s perception of Muslims and specifically the dehumanization of Muslims
was improved by reading an article which contained polling data that said that Muslims admired
certain things about American culture. After reading this article that contained
this data, people had a more humanized view of Muslims. So no, data actually can work. It actually can help bring people’s opinions,
perceptions to a more accurate place. Relationships are incredibly important as
well. I do think it’s both. SAHIL: Any final thoughts or advise you want
to give or you want to provide for better understanding and utilizing poll data? DALIA: I think that poll data always has to
be contextualized. I don’t think you can throw around a number
and think you understand a community. It’s important that polling data is interpreted
by people familiar with that community, familiar with its history, familiar with its modern
debates, so that it can be understood properly. I think that these numbers that you cite about
Egyptian culture are perfect example that where someone like Bill Maher or Sam Harris
throw these around as proof of Muslim barbarism without really understanding the full history
and the full background. SAHIL: In another poll from the Pew Forum,
around 24% of Americans self-identify themselves as non-affiliated, non-religious believing
in some form of spirituality and the divine but not really identifying with one particular
religion. Within that, if you’re under the age of 30,
interestingly, there’s a 66% chance you’re in this non-affiliated category. Why do you think there’s a sudden increase
in the non-affiliated group? DALIA: It’s a really good question. I’m not sure what the answer is. Interestingly, young Muslim Americans tend
to be, actually as likely as their elders to be religious or to claim that religion
as an important part of their daily life. What that means for them and how they practice
is a different story. They are less likely to attend the mosque
but they’re just as likely to say religion is important to them, unlike their peers,
their age peers or fellow generational peers, in other faiths where young people or non-Muslim
are far less likely than their elders to say religion is important. Now, why is religion losing importance in
the lives of young people in the general public? There’s lots of reasons I can think of but
it would all be speculation. I don’t really study that. What I do study are American Muslims. In that case, they are much more likely to
be alienated from a mosque but not from their faith itself. They, I think, at least compared to their
elders, remain devoted to the ethical framework of Islam even if the way they’re practicing
maybe different from their elders.

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