Obama and the Pesky Muslim Rumors

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Smear: Barack Obama is a Muslim.

Sen. Obama in his justifiable quest to correct the record, so unfairly distorted by viral emails and insidious propaganda, has launched a website titled ‘Fight the Smears.’ He is well within his rights to vehemently deny that he is a Muslim, when in reality he has always been a Christian.

But is it acceptable to insinuate that being Muslim is a ‘smear’? That is a question Muslims, many of whom are Obamaniacs, are asking.

What if Obama was a Muslim? Would it make his message less hopeful? Will it make his personality less charming? Will it make his candidacy less viable?

A recently released report by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, titled ‘U.S. Religious Landscape Survey,’ shows 70 percent of Americans affiliated with a religion or denomination said they agreed that ‘many religions can lead to eternal life’- a sign of progression towards a more inclusive and pluralistic society. And yet despite this progress, a Presidential candidate is being forced to go to unprecedented lengths to counter smears.

Last week New York Mayor Bloomberg speaking in front of a Jewish audience in South Florida stated that the deceptive campaign against Obama, ‘threatens to undo the enormous strides that Jews and Muslims have made together in this country.’ He went on to say, ‘This is wedge politics at its worst, and we’ve got to reject it – loudly, clearly and unequivocally.’ Despite the Mayor’s commendable efforts, one audience member was reported in the New York Times to say, ‘I still have doubts about him (Obama).’

Rumors often stick, which is why rumor mongering persists. Rumors are particularly lethal when they are easy to remember (Obama’s middle name is Hussein thus it is easy to insinuate his alleged Muslim links) and they exploit emotive stereotypes (Muslims are out to destroy America). Simply dispelling the rumor without addressing the stereotype that makes such rumors stick is like treating the symptom without isolating the cause.

Thus, potential for blowbacks continue to fester. Given that Obama has not vigorously challenged the inherent bigotry behind the ‘Muslim’ rumors, some of his supporters got the errant message that any association between Obama and Muslims is potentially damaging to his candidacy. At a rally in Detroit last week, volunteers from the Obama campaign, citing ‘a sensitive political climate,’ prohibited two head scarf donning Muslim women from sitting too close to the stage lest they be visible in photo and video footage. Obama, to his credit, later apologized to the women and his campaign put out a message that the volunteers were not carrying out any campaign policy.

Over the past couple of months, I have been lecturing across America to Muslim audiences about civic and political engagement. Over the course of my trips I found that American Muslims in general recognize the historicity of the moment and are genuinely excited about the upcoming election. However, they are appalled at their faith being exploited for political gains.

Most Muslims were dismayed by Obama’s clumsy denials. Many more were offended by his support for an undivided Jerusalem being the capital of Israel. Yet they are willing to look past them, partly because they perceive the alternative to be worse. They believe that Obama will restore lost civil liberties, is less likely to start a war and instinctively favors diplomatic resolutions to contentious foreign policy issues.

The second camp thinks that Obama will be so bloodied by the time he takes office that to prove his toughness he may swing to the right of Bush. They cite his comments that he may unilaterally send U.S. armed forces into Pakistan if he had actionable intelligence, as a grave concern. This group though small is prepared to sit out this election if their concerns remain unaddressed.

A recent Wall Street Journal article noted that while Muslims remain a small minority in the overall electorate, they are however likely to play a decisive role in the swing states of Michigan, Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Obama ought to reach out to the Muslim community much in the same way he has reached out to Evangelicals and Jews. His claims of a holistic attitude towards all faith groups require consistency in engaging all groups.

Obama needs to not only continue assuring people that he is not a Muslim but also challenge the collective conscience of this nation to not let their fears undo the progress we have been making towards racial and religious tolerance. His ultimate legacy will not only be judged by becoming the first person of color to be elected President but more importantly what he does after he is elected.

Obama’s vision of ‘One America’ needs to be more than mere rhetoric.

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