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Leadership, Inclusion and the World Around Us

July 29, 2016 Matt Norquist

What is our role as business leaders in creating peace, bringing diverse populations together, and addressing exclusion, particularly religious exclusion? Corporate society increasingly has an opportunity (and some believe a responsibility) to impact how we as a culture look at diversity, difference, and inclusion. Take the debate over Target’s decision to allow transgender individuals to use whichever bathroom corresponds with their gender identity for example.

As a business leader, I think every day about my role in making a difference, creating lasting impact, and what factors in my environment will ultimately contribute to our success. And I know from recent research by McKinsey (and others) that diverse populations of people and teams operate at the highest levels of performance.

Today, inclusion is often associated with gender, race, and sexual orientation. And even there, it is often relegated to a quota and number reported somewhere in a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) report. Lately, we’ve also heard a lot about religious isolationism. How does this burgeoning topic factor into the larger ideals of inclusion in business and in society?

Recently, I connected with my friend and former colleague, Dalia Mogahed, an author, advisor, and consultant who studies Muslim communities. She is the Director of Research for the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a research firm that supports American Muslim community development, has a popular TED talk, “What do you think when you look at me?” and has appeared on countless national programs including The Daily Show, NBC News, and more. She also recently delivered remarks to thousands of mourners at Muhammad Ali’s Islamic prayer service and is co-author of the book Who Speaks for Islam? What a billion Muslims really think. Additionally, President Obama appointed Dalia to the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in 2009.

I had the opportunity to ask Dalia about the role that business leaders can play in creating inclusive, safe, and high-performing businesses. An abbreviated version of our conversation follows, where she addresses some culturally held beliefs about Muslims and the impact that our thinking has on how we lead organizations today.

(MN) Dalia, while I know it’s not your job to speak for all Muslims, your book Who speaks for Islam? covers this topic in-depth as the largest research study of its kind. Is violent extremism a Muslim belief?

(DM) I think we can take a step back, and look at some results from research. When Muslims are polled globally, we see they respond with the greatest rejection of religious violence. In fact, in the Middle East, where violence is most prevalent, people of the region are the least supportive of violence. And, those who purport to be more religious are less likely to condone violence. Even those who do support violence, when we ask them why, none of them quote the Quran [the prominent religious text of Islam]. They give us reasons for violence that are “faith neutral”.

Conversely, people who condemn violence cite religious reasons for their condemnation of violence. The counter narrative for ISIS is Islam. I was talking to an Islamic leader who was speaking with a young woman who was very angry and considering moving abroad to join ISIS. He was able to convince her to stay and become rooted in a community here and deal with her anger spiritually versus through physical violence. When we hand ISIS the legitimacy of speaking for Islam, we hurt our own ability to attack ISIS, and we give them more power than they’d otherwise have.

(MN) I read and hear so much about ISIS today. I see headlines on the news like: “Maybe not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslim.” However, when I look up acts of terror, the facts seem different. That acts of terror are not confined to any particular group. Why is there such a disconnect here?

(DM) Duke University did a study of domestic fatalities by ideological terrorists—and the majority of those throughout history were done by hate groups, supremacists, and anti-government groups. I have some theories—creating enemies makes America easy to control. But that enemy can’t look mainstream. Negative news about “dissimilar” groups and fear mongering makes people more susceptible to suggestion and authoritarianism. For instance, today, most Americans report being against the Iraq war, but most supported it in the run up to our invasion, which coincidentally occurred at the same time that Anti-Muslim sentiment was at its highest. That sentiment didn’t spike with terrorist attacks, but with policy agendas.

(MN) As a business leader, why does this matter to my organization?

(DM) It matters for several reasons. You probably have some Muslim employees. To be inclusive, you’ve got to treat people based on their merit, not their religion. We live in a global marketplace—you’ll have clients who are Muslim, or other non-majority religions. Many people say that Muslims face the greatest discrimination in America today. When you look historically at policies that make the workplace better for minorities, women, etc.—these policies make the workplace better for all employees, too.

Prejudice and fear, nationally or at our organizations, hurts our performance. Anyone feeling like they can’t bring their whole self to work has their performance and engagement compromised. I’ve always felt able to bring my whole self, but many aren’t so fortunate. But that is because of the great places I’ve gotten to work and great leaders I’ve gotten to work with.

I recently met a woman who was asking for advice/guidance. She’d met with a colleague who was very openly anti-Muslim. She went from wearing a hijab to wearing this little hat, which not only didn’t solve the problem (people still asked), but also it made her feel like she was hiding and being unauthentic. Think about how that may have affected her productivity, her vitality at work, and you begin to see why inclusion in organizations has bottom line outcomes.

(MN) We had a client project scheduled to start in Paris the week of the horrific attacks in December. I was angry and saddened by the tragic loss of life. And was also conscious that this had a very real impact on our business. It got me thinking: What can we, as leaders, do to fight violence and to help stop extremism?

(DM) Well, that’s kind of like asking, “What can we do to fight crime?” I believe one approach that prevents isolation and extremism is to help people to not feel a divide between their faith and their country. Where we go wrong is when we “fight terrorism” by reporting “suspicious behavior” that is typically innocent, like praying before getting on a plane or asking for people speaking Arabic to get off of a plane.

(MN) What are the most progressive companies doing to encourage religious inclusion in the workplace? How do successful organizations create a culture that goes beyond tolerance and is authentically welcoming and embracing?

(DM) I think it’s organizations that can honestly celebrate diversity; and, the attitude of celebration versus tolerance. Tolerance, by definition, is “putting up with an irritant.” No one wants to simply be tolerated. We want our uniqueness and differences to be celebrated, valued, and rewarded.

(MN) Dalia, what other questions should business leaders be asking—particularly as it relates to creating cultures of religious inclusion?

(DM) If you have a strongly practicing person of any religion in your organization be curious about their preferences—diet, time for prayer, etc.

Create opportunities for the group or organization to socialize and bond in different ways. Often a lot of socializing occurs in the presence of alcohol—this can feel excluding to people who don’t drink, or who aren’t extraverted. Think about creating or adding activities that help people connect, get to know each other, and easily invite participation from a diverse group. Ending exclusion in our workplaces is one of the best ways that business leaders can contribute to supporting security and peace.


(MN) So, tell me: in a world gone crazy with religious exclusion, how is that impacting our teams and our organizations today and how can we address this? I encourage you to think about the impact that you can have in your role and in your organization. For me, this means considering:

  1. How can I become more curious about religious difference in my workplace?
  2. How can I do a more active job diversifying the types of socializing and company events we do to be more inclusive of all interests, values, and beliefs?
  3. I can reject bigotry (whether passive or active) in any part of our business environment.
  4. I can look for opportunities to celebrate difference in thoughts/feelings/behaviors, expressions and performance.


Dalia Mogahed will join us as a keynote faculty member at Linkage’s Women in Leadership Institute, in Dallas, Texas this November 8-11, 2016. She will address how to succeed in integrating new and different ideas into existing, unchanged workplace environments.

Dark haired woman watches from audience of conference event

Women in Leadership Institute

NOV. 13–16, 2023 | Orlando, Florida, or Virtual
A 4-day immersive learning experience designed to equip women leaders with actionable strategies to overcome the hurdles women often face in the workplace.

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