US politics: A Muslim like Obama

You say Osama, I say Obama

“Sir, you make a mistake listening to people who tell you how much our stand alienates black men in this country. I’d guess actually we have the sympathy of 90 percent of the black people. There are 20,000,000 dormant Muslims in America. A Muslim to us is somebody who is for the black man; I don’t care if he goes to the Baptist Church seven days a week. The Honorable Elijah Muhammad says that a black man is born a Muslim by nature. There are millions of Muslims not aware of it now. All of them will be Muslims when they wake up; that’s what’s meant by the Resurrection.” – Malcolm X in a conversation with Alex Haley, Playboy Magazine, May, 1963.

The recent week has seen two major stories about the political baggage of “being Muslim” in United States. The first was Mitt Romney’s refusal to consider a Muslim as a Presidential advisor in his Cabinet – specifically to advise him on “jihadism” (apparently the only field in which a Muslim can claim expertise). On Nov 27th, Mansoor Ijaz, “an American-born citizen of the Islamic faith”, reported this exchange in the Christian Science Monitor:

I asked Mr. Romney whether he would consider including qualified Americans of the Islamic faith in his cabinet as advisers on national security matters, given his position that “jihadism” is the principal foreign policy threat facing America today. He answered, “…based on the numbers of American Muslims [as a percentage] in our population, I cannot see that a cabinet position would be justified. But of course, I would imagine that Muslims could serve at lower levels of my administration.

Mitt Romney denied that he expressed this as reported, but multiple sources have since emerged confirming Ijaz’s account. The story, as it was covered on right wing blogs received lots of comments that generally tended to agree with Romney. “Having a muslim in the cabinet would be like having a Japanese guy in the cabinet in WWII” said one. Another asked “Wait… how does this hurt Romney?!? From what I can see, he will get a bounce out of this! Much of middle America would strongly support his perspective and likely hold it themselves.”

The other story was one in the Washington Post:

Since declaring his candidacy for president in February, Obama, a member of a congregation of the United Church of Christ in Chicago, has had to address assertions that he is a Muslim or that he had received training in Islam in Indonesia, where he lived from ages 6 to 10. While his father was an atheist and his mother did not practice religion, Obama’s stepfather did occasionally attend services at a mosque there.

Despite his denials, rumors and e-mails circulating on the Internet continue to allege that Obama (D-Ill.) is a Muslim, a “Muslim plant” in a conspiracy against America, and that, if elected president, he would take the oath of office using a Koran, rather than a Bible, as did Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the only Muslim in Congress, when he was sworn in earlier this year.

We live in a rumor-based society where spurious flyers can derail campaigns and invented words like “swift-boating” scarcely raise a Colbert eyebrow. So it is no surprise that such internet rumors are given equal credence by the Post. The entire story is written with the “he said/they say/people claim” and the denials are restricted solely for the campaign – which “keeps a letter at its offices, signed by five members of the local clergy, vouching for the candidate’s Christian faith” – and for Obama – “If I were a Muslim, I would let you know”. At no point, does the Post sully itself by actually reporting that Obama is not a Muslim. Understandably, some are upset.

Still, it is perhaps no great shock to anyone that a healthy amount of Islamophobia exists in the current political and cultural climate. The absurdities of teddy bears named Muhammad are constantly played in our media as de facto expressions of an irrational and medieval faith – with nary a word on the political machinations behind the street protests.

These stories about Obama’s faith and Romney’s Islamophobia, however, cannot be lumped in with the more generic fear of a Muslim planet. They illustrate, much more starkly, the fear of hidden loyalties within a population that cannot ever be assimilated (birth in America being no benefit) and draw on a more a complicated history in America – a history of Islam’s arrival and subsequent life on American soil – which is intertwined with the history of slavery and an oppressed minority. Islamdom’s medieval encounter with Christendom has received ample historical and scholarly attention but the American continent has largely remained unexamined. Or if examined, it is noted for its obscurity.

Islam came to America with the Africans who were kidnapped, enslaved and shipped to the New World for labor. Here is an early Virginia Law from James City, 1682 covering Muslims (negroes, moores, mollatoes), mandatory conversions, and the continuance of the state of slavery:

An act to repeale a former law makeing Indians and others ffree.

WHEREAS by the 12 act of assembly held att James Citty the 3d day of October, Anno Domini 1670, entituled an act declareing who shall be slaves, it is enacted that all servants not being christians, being imported into this country by shipping shall be slaves, but what shall come by land shall serve if boyes and girles untill thirty yeares of age, if men or women, twelve yeares and noe longer; and for as much as many negroes, moores, mollatoes and others borne of and in heathenish, idollatrous, pagan and mahometan parentage and country have heretofore, and hereafter may be purchased, procured, or otherwise obteigned as slaves of, from or out of such their heathenish country by some well disposed christian, who after such their obteining and purchaseing such negroe, moor, or molatto as their slave out of a pious zeale, have wrought the conversion of such slave to the christian faith, which by the laws of this country doth not manumitt them or make them free…

And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid that all servants except Turkes and Moores, whilest in amity with his majesty which from and after publication of this act shall be brought or imported into this country, either by sea or land, whether Negroes, Moors, Mollattoes or Indians, who and whose parentage and native country are not christian at the time of their first purchase of such servant by some christian, although afterwards, and before such their importation and bringing into this country, they shall be converted to the christian faith; and all Indians which shall hereafter be sold by our neighbouring Indians, or any other trafiqueing with us as for slaves are hereby adjudged, deemed and taken, and shall be adjudged, deemed and taken to be slaves to all intents.

These Muslim “slaves, Africans, mulatto’s, moors and all” – unable to change their beings, whether converted or not – largely disappear from the main streams of American historiography, even as fears of rebellions, miscegenation and foreign loyalties plague the white American imagination.

The Ahmadiyya movement, the Babist movement and a world wide ‘resurgence of Islam’ were key anxieties for the American public at the turn of the century. Babist Propaganda Making Headway Here declared an alarmed New York Times in December 1904. Islam Gaining on Christianity; Missionaries Admit They Are Losing Ground Against the Teachers of the Koran was heard a decade later. The emergence of the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam in the 1920s and 1930s – led by Nobel Drew Ali and Elijah Mohammad – certainly crystallized these fears: Calls Negroes to Islam; Detroit Man Would Lead Exodus to Anatolia, Fleeing Color Prejudice. FBI surveillance, community policing and militia-formation ensued.

The rumors about Obama’s faith, then, are not just manifestations of a post 9/11 Islamophobia or a peculiar xenophobia about his African father. They are, in fact, uniquely American – based on our long history of mistrust and misapprehension of a faith that we associate with our own ‘Others’.

Last week, I signed my name to a public statement issued by Historians for Obama. I wasn’t too enamored by the statement itself, though I thought that historians could certainly demonstrate the historical import behind Barack Obama’s candidacy much more forcefully. I hope that historians who signed that statement will carry forward their impulse. I hope they write about the burdens of history hoisted upon Barack Obama as he moves towards the nomination.

Obama is certainly a unique individual – and uniquely placed – to force this nation to remember again and again what it constantly chooses to forget – its histories of oppression, fear and hatred. Barack Obama’s own personal history is a testament to a brighter future for our nation. We can certainly make that case to the American public on his behalf, and perhaps even counter some rumors.

Manan Ahmed, who is writing his dissertation in the history of South Asia and Islam at the University of Chicago, blogs under the sobriquet Sepoy at the group blog Chapati Mystery.

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