On September 2nd, 2008, my son Rafi was born at St. Mary’s Hospital in London, England. I remember at the time that the excitement over Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin was sweeping through the Republican National Convention and things were suddenly starting to look gloomy for Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama. As an Obama supporter, I was fortunate enough not to have to dwell on that. I was pleasantly distracted by diaper changes, Facebook birth announcements, and sleeplessness.
Like many American Muslims, I found myself gravitating towards Obama early in his campaign, when – ironically – some were starting to air their suspicions about his curious background. As the child of immigrants, Obama’s unique story mirrored my own story and that of my parents. Granted, it wasn’t a traditional American story, but it has become a more typical one. And as a Democrat, I was of course aghast at the past eight years of the Bush presidency (along with up to 80% of my fellow Americans).
Though the election is now over, it may take still weeks or months for many of us to grasp the enormity of what has just happened. I’m not necessarily referring to Obama’s victory, but to the relentless campaign by the Republican right wing of xenophobic imagery, inference, and conjecture – all intended to suffocate his campaign. Although Obama hardly seemed to blink (does he ever?), the Muslim-tinged attacks, accelerating to the last days, sent American Muslims into a state of quiet shock. It has been the most sustained and aggressive onslaught of anti-Muslim hysteria ever foisted on the American public.
Given the state of the economy and a sideshow of characters from Bill Ayers to Joe the Plumber, this war of attrition has not been obvious to most observers. Drenched in nuance, it took the nearly two-year length of the campaign and the extended primary season battle between Obama and Senator Hillary Clinton to begin to see a pattern. But when all the clues are pieced together, the resulting picture is damning.
Obama’s race and background were always destined to change the political game. But America has learned too much from its history of racial troubles for a campaign to indulge in the worst stereotypes. Instead, a subtext was employed to trigger the party faithful to reach into their sub conscience and remember the worst of post 9/11 stereotypes. Not hard when the public belief that Obama was a Muslim has never dipped below double digits.
And respond they did. Cries of “terrorist” and “kill him” from McCain-Palin crowds were studiously ignored. An emphasis on Obama’s middle name Hussein, though officially discouraged, reappeared many times at campaign rallies to evoke other notorious Husseins (i.e., Saddam). A description of Obama as an Arab at a rally is countered by McCain with a correction (“he’s a decent family man”) that raised as many questions as it answered. As late as last week, a poll found that 23% of Texans, for example, still believed that Obama was a Muslim (though 11% of those planned to vote for him anyway).
Beyond the campaigns, third parties with an interest in an Obama loss chipped in. The enormous expenditure to send free copies of a DVD called Obsession, which hyped a Muslim terrorist threat to America, to battleground states. The elusive producers of the movie argued incredulously that the time and manner which the DVD was distributed was only a coincidence.
And then, from obscurity, former Weathermen militant Bill Ayers was dredged up. Not because McCain cared about a “washed-up old terrorist,” but because invoking his association was a convenient way to combine the words “Barack Obama” and “terrorist” in the same sentence over and over again. Never mind that this “terrorist” palling around with Obama wanders the streets of Chicago a free man. The only “terrorists” people had to remember were the Muslim ones that automatically come to mind.
Curiously, a key strategy used by Clinton against Obama during the primaries – his association with the incendiary Reverend Jeremiah Wright – was barred by the McCain campaign after the conventions. Did Reverend Wright, through his long-standing relationship with Obama, not fit the Muslim subtext by emphasizing Obama’s Christian background? With the common Muslim thread between so many different issues, it seems plausible.
Only the grand “teachable moment” of former Secretary of State Colin Powell seemed to sink into the nation’s psyche. His endorsement of Obama and his repudation of anti-Muslim smears within the Republican party was so eloquent, few in the media or in the McCain camp could contest his words, even if the supporters who needed to hear the message carried on with their irrational fears.
By now, many American Muslims were wondering why Obama, like Powell, had not adopted a more principled defense of Muslims himself. He had demonstrated his ability to do this in his early defense of Reverend Wright, who he could “no more disown” than his grandmother (though he eventually did just that). Obama did acknowledge on a few occasions the “slurs” against Muslim Americans – and that he himself had been “derelict” in addressing them. But he has said little else since.
Giving Obama the benefit of the doubt, no one could have foreseen how the Muslim card would affect his campaign. To respond defensively to the associations and innuendo might have been interpreted as a point of rare vulnerability, encouraging further attacks. Ultimately, this noise would detract from Obama’s electoral strengths – addressing the dire economic situation and voter dissatisfaction with the Bush era. Realpolitik may have dictated that Muslims look at the bigger picture – getting Obama elected – and save the lectures for afterwards (erm, like now).
By the time an eleventh-hour attempt was made to link Obama to Palestinian-American professor Rashid Khalidi (who McCain called “anti-Semitic,” likening him to “neo-Nazis”), there was evidence that voters had had enough. Based in part on McCain’s own associations with Khalidi – including over $400,000 in contributions to a Khalidi-run project in Palestine through the McCain-led International Republican Institute – the story gained little traction, lost in the inevitability of an Obama victory.
That Obama was able to deflect these attacks speaks not only of his campaigning skills and steadfastness, but also of the ability of the American public to pull itself back from the edge of xenophobia. As a result, the electorate has arguably been innoculated against these tactics and will perhaps be more educated about anti-Arab racism and anti-Muslim bigotry and more open-minded about Muslim participation in the American political sphere.
It’s hard not to think of Powell’s words now that there is someone heading to the White House who my son could look up to in a way I never dreamed possible. Of course Obama is not a Muslim. We should all know that by now. But somehow, it matters that people considered for a moment that he might be. That is making all the difference.
Rafi may not grow up to be President of the United States (alas, he is not native born), but perhaps this experience will one day show him how far he can go as an American, a Muslim, and a citizen of the world. A transformational president like Barack Obama offers to inspire a transformational shift in the way Muslims in America, like the 7-year old Muslim American kids Powell referred to in his endorsement, view their country and the opportunities available to them.
In 7 years, my own son could be witnessing a second Obama term in office and wondering what he may grow up to achieve. At the very least, I know his new middle name – Hussein – won’t get in the way.
Zahed Amanullah is associate editor of altmuslim.com. He is based in London, England.