The claim made by two Muslim women that they were declined seating behind Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama at a recent rally in Detroit because they were wearing the Muslim hijab (headscarf) is entirely believable. It is also true that the incident may not reflect official campaign policy. Nevertheless there is increased sensitivity in Obama’s campaign to keep him far away from having any Muslim connection. It is a sad but understandable attitude given the negative – almost radioactive – climate surrounding Islam in our country. Much of it is based on misconceptions and lack of knowledge.
For example, well known writer Edward Luttwak recently suggested in the New York Times that Obama would be considered an apostate by Muslims, and therefore would fail to mend relations between US and the Muslim world – clearly one of the more far-fetched theories ever postulated.
Obama has never been a Muslim, practicing or otherwise. He was raised by his Christian mother and grandparents as a Christian. His past affiliation with the Afro-centric Chicago church, Trinity United Church of Christ, made him a devout Christian. That was long before he showed any desire to run for any office.
Another misconception is that being born to a Muslim father makes Obama a Muslim. Islam, like Christianity, is a confessional belief system and paternal or maternal faith is not necessary to being a Muslim. Although most children born to Muslim parents grow up Muslim, what is required at some point in life is a confession of faith in front of two witnesses that “God is one and Muhammad is the Messenger of God.” Obama has never made that confession and why would he? He is a confessed and baptized Christian.
His biological father may have haunted his memories but had little influence on his upbringing. The words and actions of his father, as recorded by Senator Obama in his autobiography, Dreams from my Father, betray little interest in Islam. His stepfather, an Indonesian with whom he spent some of his childhood years, comes across as equally non observant. Neither appeared to have attempted to school him in the concepts and tenets of Islam. It is not unusual that Obama’s biological and stepfather were both Muslim only in name. As in every faith, there are Muslims of many different stripes. This is analogous to C&E Christians, Sunday Christians and others who are Christian in name only.
Nevertheless, Obama, unlike all of his opponents, actually lived in a Muslim majority country (Indonesia), has a Muslim relative or two, and has had Muslims as friends. He has recently traveled to African countries with substantial Muslim populations. To him, Muslims would not be the alien other. One would expect that he have an understanding of the diversity among Muslims, a sense of the rich texture of Muslim history and tradition and at least a rudimentary appreciation of the hopes and aspirations of Muslims. He would not imagine and stereotype Muslims in the fantasy-filled manner in which some in our country do.
Given the fact that the US and parts of the Muslim world are in conflict, a leader who understands the Muslim world and has at least some inkling of its political aspirations and cultural imperatives would be advantageous. His knowledge of Muslim societies would be an antidote for the cultural ignorance that is partly responsible for the current Iraq misadventure.
But presidential campaigns are a different type of pressure cooker. He has had to shoot down innuendo that the Indonesian school he attended as a child is a madrassa. Similarly, he had to battle the insinuation that pictures of himself in Somali attire, donned as a courtesy to his hosts, proved that he is a crypto-Muslim. But the insinuations do not go away.
In his desire to put as much separation between him and his Muslim connections, however tenuous they might be, Obama may lose a potential advantage he has over his opponents of understanding and contextualizing Muslim issues. Instead, Obama’s political needs may prevent him from taking thoughtful initiatives on foreign policy issues that affect the Muslim world. That would be a shame.
Javeed Akhter, a physician, is a founding member of the The International Strategy and Policy Institute, a Muslim American think tank.