Last week, Barack Obama, a freshman US Senator from Illinois and an African-American, decidedly took the Iowa caucues, winning by comfortable margins over his closest rival. Who would have thought that even Democrats in Iowa, an overwhelmingly white, rural, and homogeneous state would choose an African-American as their potential nominee to be President of the United States? It is truly a historic moment.
Barack’s victory is a testimony to the lengths that this country has gone since its days of slavery, where people can now come together to choose someone so different from them racially because of the merits of his message. Although the Iowa victory is a huge boost for the Obama campaign, the fight has only just begun. Winning in Iowa is no guarantee that the party will nominate him for the White House.
But this fight will bring out the anti-Muslim forces in earnest. We will once again hear the whispers that Obama is a “Muslim plant,” that he “trained at a madrasa,” that his first name sounds a lot like “Osama,” and his middle name is the same as Saddam’s. Those whispers will now become louder. If Obama continues to win, they will become shouts of alarm.
Cynics may try to “swift boat” Obama with his Muslim heritage and try to smear him with the sins of extremist Muslims. What they did with Senator John Kerry in 2004, they can do it with Obama in 2008. If they ran an overtly racist ad against Harold Ford in the 2006 Tennessee senate campaign, they can do something similar to Obama in 2008. Politics is a dirty business. If Obama continues to take state after state, the gloves will come off, and things will get ugly.
Herein lies the opportunity for Barack. If he truly wants to unite the nation, if he truly wants to be an agent of “change we can believe in,” then he should stand up – when the attacks about his “Muslim ties” come – and repudiate the attacks. But he should do it in a different way than he has in the past. Imagine a response like this:
Now, recently there have been some accusations against me that I attended a “madrasa,” when I was a young boy. Some have even accused me of being a “clandestine Muslim,” a “Muslim plant” seeking to capture the White House. Yes, my middle name is “Hussein,” and there is nothing wrong with this. Now, I have said many times that I am not a Muslim, I am a Christian, who is devout and proud of his faith.
Yet, this does not mean that there is something wrong with being a Muslim. Islam is an honorable religion, the basis of a glorious civilization that has given the world some of its greatest gifts. Muslims comprise one-fiftth of the world’s population, and millions of our fellow Americans derive comfort from the Muslim faith. Indeed, there are those who claim to be Muslim who have attacked our country, who have committed inhuman acts of violence in the name of their religion.
But, these people defile the religion of Islam, and they do not represent the overwhelming majority of Muslims, across the world and here in America, who are peace-loving, law-abiding citizens who want what everyone else wants: to live in peace and security. It is high-time that we as Americans, citizens of the greatest nation on earth, to repudiate and reject the politics of division, fearmongering, and hate. We can do better as a nation, and let us start today.
A bold statement like this would be a huge step forward for interfaith relations in America. It could deal a convincing blow to the forces of hatred and fear in America. If delivered with sincerity, people across the political spectrum would be receptive.
In his autobiography, The Audacity of Hope, Obama notes that “we are no longer just a Christian nation. We are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.” But when the whispers of his Muslim heritage first surfaced, Obama remained almost completely silent, and it was truly disappointing. An opportunity to encourage fellow Americans to be more open-minded was lost. When the whispers emerge once more, Barack’s opportunity should not be lost again.
Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and writer. He is the co-author of “The Beliefnet Guide to Islam,” published by Doubleday in 2006. His blog is at godfaithpen.com.