- March 2, 2008
Attacks on Obama Highlight Racism and Islamophobia
The tide of Islamophobia in the U.S. has reached tsunami proportions and not just in the supermarket tabloids. Government officials who even interact with American Muslim leaders have had their loyalty questioned, and during the campaigning for the Presidential elections many candidates have jumped on the Islamophobia bandwagon.
I’m uncertain if going after Obama’s Muslim heritage is simply being used as a fortunate excuse to attack the first African-American to have a real chance of becoming President of the U.S. on something other than racial prejudice. Fortunate because prejudice against Islam and Muslims is currently acceptable where prejudice against African-Americans is no longer acceptable. This seems to be borne out by the fact that Obama is attacked on both sides – as a “closet Muslim” who attended a radical madrassa as a child and who was sworn in on a Qur’an, and as a Christian who attends a “racist” church. All of these are lies, but the fact that a new lie is raised every few days causes doubt to be raised in the minds of ordinary folks. The fact that whether he is a Christian or a Muslim he still isn’t quite suitable seems to point to racial prejudice. And, the fact that whatever the religion of his father, he clearly follows the religion of Christianity and yet is being accused of a Muslim connection also points to Islamophobia having taken on racist overtones. (Daniel Pipes contention that anti-Muslim racism is an oxymoron , and Dennis Prager’s contention that Islamophobia, racism, and anti-Semitism have nothing in common notwithstanding.) The race card is still being played.
An interesting historical sidenote is that this is not the first time such a “connection” has been misused in American politics. Back in 1964, William Haddad ran for a congressional seat in New York, and although he was Jewish (and born of Jewish parents), he was attacked because his father had been born in Cairo. The form of the attack was “… spreading rumors all over the district that Haddad is an Arab. Not only that; people were sending around anonymous notes about him (“Can you trust an ARAB to fight for the interests of Jews and for Israel?”). Even worse, said Haddad, Farbstein was going about telling folks that Haddad was born an Egyptian, that he got married in the Protestant Episcopal Church and thus was a meshumad (an apostate from Judaism). In the 19th District, where 50% of the voters are Jews, such talk can ruin a politician.” Does any of this sound familiar?
As I noted in an earlier article: “Barack Obama has been criticized for a lot of things. He’s not black enough for some – not Christian enough for some. … The ever vigilant Robert Spencer accused him of being a Muslim apostate. Some have accused him of being a “radical, ideological Muslim“, and some have accused him of being a Muslim who is concealing his true faith. These are attacks on his perceived connection with Islam , and have nothing to do with his character or the political positions he might hold.”
Barack Obama, a Christian candidate for President who had the “misfortune” of having a Muslim father is taking wave after wave of Islamophobic flak for his “Muslim” connection.
The most recent waves have been a sartorial smear over a photograph and his middle name, and the fact that he doesn’t wear an American flag lapel pin. The photograph of Obama in Somali dress on a visit to Kenya proves nothing except that all politicians are ready to don local dress when they are traveling. It only takes a few minutes to turn up hundreds of photos of politicians in various countries doing exactly this. You can see Sen. Hillary Clinton dressed in a Hijab – President Bush in Chinese national dress, a Peruvian poncho, and participating in a Saudi sword dance – Laura Bush wearing hijab. Additionally, both African Christians and Jews wear exactly the same outfit. Obama’s middle name Hussein is no more sinister that Omar Bradley, or the 14 American Presidents with Semitic names, and in Obama’s case it is just a reference to his grandfather. The lapel pin thing is just plain silly, however I plan on buying stocks in an American Flag lapel pin company as I am certain they will now become mandatory for everyone involved in politics.
Obama has devoted a lot of time to defending himself against these charges that question his religious beliefs and his patriotism. The gist of this has been – I am not now and never have been a Muslim. I am a Christian and a patriot. And, other candidates have apologized for anyone in their campaign who might have intimated that Barak was a Muslim, or have denied being responsible for such statements.
The problem with this defense is that it seems to many American Muslims that what we are not hearing is an apology for the bigotry. The “defense” of Obama has resulted in the American Muslim community being “thrown under the bus”. When John Kerry apologized for “insulting” Obama by raising the issue of his Muslim heritage, I wrote: “As an American Muslim I believe that Kerry owes the American Muslim community an apology. In fact, he owes 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide an apology. Why? Because, what he is saying in his ‘apology’ to Obama is that referring to a Muslim heritage is “insulting”. Why is that? Obama is a Christian, not a Muslim. Is it an insult to have a Muslim ancestor? Is it an insult to be a Muslim? Is it a slur to say someone has a Muslim ancestor? Is “Muslim” an epithet or swear word? The fact that an apology is seen as necessary is an insult to Muslims!”
Ali Eteraz summed up the frustration of American Muslims very well: “I understand that you are in a tough position. Unlike John F. Kennedy, who was looked upon suspiciously for being a Catholic, and then stood up before the American public to remind them that his Catholicism didn’t prevent him from being a good American, you are not being demonized for the religion that you are, but the religion people say that you are secretly. I get the difference and I understand why you do not want to take the extra-step. However, that’s exactly what makes this matter so much more pernicious, because in the case of JFK, it was his religion that was being demonized, whereas in your case, it is the religion of 2.5 million of your country’s citizens. Yet, rather than putting a stop to this entire culture of paranoia, you have decided to shirk the responsibility of addressing its root causes. That same JFK – to whom you take great pleasure in being compared – in that same speech that we so clearly remember, said that the politics of suspicion needed to be opposed no matter what religion they were directed against. He said: ” For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew–or a Quaker–or a Unitarian–or a Baptist. It was Virginia’s harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that helped lead to Jefferson’s statute of religious freedom. Today I may be the victim — but tomorrow it may be you — until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril.”
This difficulty has also been noted by non-Muslims. As Lawrence Swaim, Executive Director of the Interfaith Freedom Foundation has pointed out: “There is a subliminal message in the campaign to slime Barack Obama. It is not true that he is a Muslim — but the e-mails also imply that American Muslims are inherently subversive. Thus, interfaith activists must be careful in combating them. Some people may be so anxious to denounce the lies that they play into the e-mails’ inherent bigotry. The interfaith response should probably go something like this: “The e-mails are false, because Obama is a professing Christian. But this smear campaign attempts to create a negative image of Islam for political reasons. We should judge politicians by their policies and character rather than their religion. And we must always reject religious bigotry, because it would destroy the American way of life.”
Although to expect Obama himself to defend the American Muslim community is probably too much to ask, as Firas Ahmed pointed out: Vocal Muslim support for Obama, if it happens, will likely be used as subtext for character attacks against his background and to fuel baseless rumors that he is actually a stealth Islamist who will subvert the establishment after taking power. As Don Imus can attest, racism and bigotry against African Americans is now largely unacceptable in public discourse. However, the same cannot be said of vitriol against Muslims. Attacking Obama for his pseudo-association with Islam is a far safer and more acceptable strategy for right-wing zealots than attacking him for being black. So if Obama has a campaign strategist worth his or her weight, we will never hear any serious public support or defense of Muslims from him or his campaign. For Muslims to demand anything from him simply demonstrates a misunderstanding of reality. Muslim support for Obama is akin to George Bush’s support for democracy in the Middle East. The mere association with the former will undercut the credibility of the latter. It is an analogy that Muslims should understand.
When Umar Lee (a Muslim) wrote an article entitled Letter From Obama which listed all the things Umar wished Obama would have said in response to the Muslim allegations, and posted the letter on his blog, this letter was circulated widely on the net and in emails without the note at the bottom that it was written by Umar and not Obama, giving the impression that Obama had written the letter, and adding fuel to the fire. So, we know what would happen if Obama went beyond denying the false allegations to definding the American Muslim community.
However, it is not just Obama who can’t seem to go beyond defending Obama to saying “so what if he was a Muslim”. Jim Wallis (who has taught at Harvard’s Divinity School and should know better) posted an article on Sojourners – Defending the Facts on Obama’s Faith in which he said he was “… going to defend my friend, Barack Obama, from an increasing number of ridiculous and scurrilous attacks on the Internet and in the media.” In this article he documented Obama’s Christian credentials. That is all well and good, but still very sad that even someone like Jim Wallis can’t see that calling someone a Muslim shouldn’t be considered a “scurrilous attack”.
Naomi Klein wrote an article on this subject of speaking out against the bigotry involved in considering Muslim to be a smear, and was called on the carpet by the Obama campaign who noted that some of Obama’s campaign workers had spoken up. Ms. Klein responded: “What I am suggesting needs to be said can only be said by the man himself, just as he has taken brave stances against racism directed at Latinos under the guise of fighting illegal immigration. Do not underestimate the message that his silence is sending, not just in the U.S. but around the world.” (Editor: emphasis mine)