February 29th, 2008 15:01 EST
Obama and the Muslim Question
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Opponents of Democratic presidential front-runner Barack Obama recently circulated a photo taken during his 2006 Africa tour that shows him in traditional Kenyan attire. The use of the image of Obama in a turban was clearly designed to make a visual link between the candidate and Islam, a political tactic that seeks to exploit existing anti-Muslim prejudice in our society.
Obama's supposed Muslim links - middle name Hussein, born to a Muslim father, spending part of his youth in Muslim Indonesia - along with the recent photo smear have been misused by those who would divide America along religious lines. On Internet hate sites, religious bigotry has become the latest form of racism.
Unfortunately, even Hillary Clinton's campaign has seemed unable to resist the temptation to play the religion card. To her credit, Sen. Clinton fired a campaign worker for circulating an "Obama is Muslim" e-mail and denied any involvement in the recent photo controversy.
However, she did not repudiate the anti-Muslim bigotry that gave legs to the religious attacks.
If Obama were Muslim or Mormon or Jewish or Hindu, would it diminish his chances of being elected president? The tenor of the current campaign speaks volumes about the state of religious tolerance in America.
Anti-Muslim sentiment is growing in American society.
A recent ABC News Primetime hidden-camera investigation showed a sales clerk refusing to serve a Muslim woman wearing a religious headscarf, or hijab. One customer who observed the incident remarked, "She wasn't dressed right." Another said, "If I was running the place I'd do the same thing." The silver lining: in the end, more people defended the Muslim woman than supported the abusive clerk. While some people remain comfortably entrenched in their bigotry, most Americas are tired of such divisiveness.
While Republican front-runner John McCain regularly rails against "Islamic extremism" as the greatest threat to world peace, he did at least repudiate a radio talk show host who warmed up a campaign crowd by referring repeatedly to "Barack Hussein Obama," using the senator's middle name three times.
Senator Obama undoubtedly faces a dilemma. "The only reason a candidate like Obama would not say something nice about Muslims is because he is making a clear political calculation," opined Islamica magazine deputy editor Firas Ahmad. "The votes he would gain from Muslims are far less than the votes he would lose from his association with Muslims."
If true, that is a sad reflection on our society and on Sen. Obama, who has been unable to challenge anti-Muslim bigotry in the same way he has challenged racism and anti-Semitism. His soaring rhetoric "There is not a black America and a white America, a Latino America, an Asian American, just the United States of America" ought also to be used to heal America's equally pernicious religious divide.
A study by the Pew Research Center concludes that the American Muslim community is "decidedly American in their outlook, values and attitudes." A 2007 survey by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) showed that American Muslim voters are young, highly educated and family-oriented.
Eighty-seven percent reported to have voted regularly and nearly one in two volunteer for non-denominational social institutions serving the general public.
Ninety-three percent feel that "women should have an equal role with men in running business, industry, and government organizations." Eighty-six percent said that attacks on civilians are "never justified." Three in four agree that "anti-Americanism in the Muslim world is a serious problem," just as "anti-Muslim prejudice is a threat to American Muslims."
A community as mainstream and as integrated American Muslims should not have to squirm every time Islam becomes the subject of America's political discourse.
Despite disappointment over the current discourse on Islam, American Muslims are enthusiastic about the election process and are hoping that a rising tide will lift all boats. Major American Muslim organizations have published voter guides outlining the candidates' views on issues of particular interest to Muslims.
Expect enthusiastic Muslim voter registration and get-out-the-vote campaigns this fall, even as Muslims remain bewildered at the reluctance of presidential candidates to challenge Islamophobic bigotry.
In the end, American Muslims will favor candidates who commit to ending the war in Iraq, who put a stop to warrantless wiretapping, restore habeas corpus, close Guantanamo's prison camp, and use sustained civic engagement as the way to improve America's standing in the Muslim world.