Dalia Mogahed came to Cal Poly’s campus Saturday preaching a message of unity, and the nearly 1,000 people who filled Chumash Auditorium responded in kind — engaging in a thoughtful two-hour presentation on the dangers of Islamophobia.
“It gave me goosebumps every so often,” said Eric Lin, a Cal Poly junior math major who said he is not Muslim.
Lin said he was deeply touched by the single piece of advise Mogahed said she would offer to Muslim students and members of other often-persecuted minorities: “Never allow those who dislike you to define you.”
Mogahed’s talk, “Islamophobia: A Threat to All,” came in response to concerns from Cal Poly’s Muslim student group that they have often felt marginalized on campus. Mogahed is an Egyptian-American Muslim scholar and researcher with the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and was an adviser to former President Barack Obama and co-author of the book “Who Speaks for Islam?: What a Billion Muslims Really Think.”
She came on short notice after hearing about some of the concerns Cal Poly’s Muslim students have had about not feeling included, Muslim Student Association president Rubia Siddiqi said.
“Every dean on campus has given money to support this event,” Cal Poly professor and Muslim Student Association adviser Stephen Lloyd-Moffett said in his opening remarks. “Literally every corner of this campus has come together to support our Muslim students today.”
Some incidents have included criticisms about how university officials handled a Muslim student conference last year, as well as anti-Muslim graffiti written on a plywood “Free Speech Wall” set up by the Cal Poly College Republicans.
Saturday’s event provided a contrast to a campus speech in January by Milo Yiannopoulos, a right-wing provocateur who has said Muslims are prone to “gang rape.” His Spanos Theatre speech drew a crowd of about 500, as well as protests outside.
Mogahed’s speech filled the Chumash Auditorium — with a capacity of 996 people — with no visible protests.
Siddiqi said the decision to bring in Mogahed came as her group searched for a way to counter Yiannopoulos’ often explosive rhetoric.
“We wanted someone who would be appealing not just to the Muslim community, but also the wider community,” she said, noting the event cost about $5,000 to put on, plus Mogahed’s transportation expenses.
Mogahed engaged the audience for about two hours, first delivering prepared remarks from a presentation and then taking questions from the audience, which were written down on note cards and moderated by Lloyd-Moffett. She used the story of her own experience with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to explain how Islamophobia, which she defined as prejudice against and hatred toward the religion of Islam and its practitioners, is a threat to all Americans.
Mogahed cited Pew research, showing that Americans’ perception of Muslims actually improved after the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. She credited that improvement in “responsible leadership” by then-President George W. Bush, who called Islam “a religion of peace.”
Mogahed said that when her family decided to attend mosque the Friday following Sept. 11, she was heartened by the presence of members of many different faiths in attendance.
She said that America recorded spikes in Islamophobic opinion during in the run-up to the Iraq War and the last three presidential elections. When two Muslim men were discovered to be responsible for the bombing of the Boston Marathon in 2013, Mogahed said, polling showed no appreciable increase in anti-Islam sentiment.
“You have an election more influential … than actual terrorist attacks,” she said.
Mogahed drew multiple rounds of standing ovations at the conclusion of her talk, something she said she was both surprised by and grateful for.
Reactions from many coming out of the talk were likewise positive.
“I loved her presentation,” said Leona Evans, minister at Unity of San Luis Obispo.