Calling Obama “Muslim” Isn’t Accurate, But It’s Not An Insult Either

During the course of the presidential campaign, many of the candidates – and their staffers – on both sides of the political aisle have behaved in a way that has left Muslim citizens of this country feeling like a fifth … Read More

By / March 3, 2008

During the course of the presidential campaign, many of the candidates – and their staffers – on both sides of the political aisle have behaved in a way that has left Muslim citizens of this country feeling like a fifth column; as if Muslims do not belong here unless we cower and feel ashamed about our faith.

It started with Tom Tancredo of Colorado suggesting that he would be willing to bomb Mecca and Medina, sites considered holy by each and every American-Muslim. Then Mitt Romney stated that he couldn’t conceive of a reason why a Muslim might ascend to a cabinet position. Then Mike Huckabee implicitly compared Muslims to dogs. Then John McCain essentially said that Muslims were not qualified to run for President. Then one of Rudy Giuliani’s people said that Muslims – “all Muslims” – should be chased “back to their caves.” Then, early on, early Clinton’s staffers were fired for forwarding disinformation against Senator Obama. All of this occurred with terms like “Islamofascism” and “Islamic terrorists” flying about without nary a concern for accuracy or consequence.

Every time someone says Obama is a Muslim, he and his people label it a smear. Before a Jewish group in Cleveland, he analogized it to getting swift-boated. He has gone to great lengths to minimize the religiosity of the Muslims he has encountered in his life, as if the fact that his father was agnostic will somehow dull the underlying prejudice that Americans have against Muslims. I have a message for him.

Dear Senator Obama: there is nothing wrong with being a Muslim. It is not a smear. It is not akin to swift-boating. There is nothing nefarious about it. There are millions of Muslims in America, contributing to its welfare just as you and the other presidential candidates aspire to do.

When people say that you are a Muslim, I don’t want to hear you or your people say that you are being smeared. It is, I repeat, not a smear to be a Muslim. Instead, I want you to say that your opponents are lying, since, after all, you are a Christian. In fact, your response should be: “I am not a Muslim, nor would it matter if I were.” The second half of that statement is crucial.

My ideas are not anything new. In fact, Martin Peretz, editor of The New Republic, and a prominent Jewish intellectual, advised you to do the same in an article where he touted you as a good candidate for American-Jews. You have gone to great lengths to defend your association with Jewish-Americans — why can you not do the same for American-Muslims?

Unless you yourself come out and say both parts of the aforementioned sentence, the suspicious emails that follow you around, the rumors that suddenly besiege you in a primary state, the whispers that surround you right before a debate, will continue. You will continue to give fuel to the right-wing whisper campaigns. The reason that rumors can continue about you is because you do not crush them and, just as importantly, do not challenge the prejudice that undergirds them.

Not only that, but you fail as a leader when you fail to take on the Americans who do find the very idea of a Muslim human being repugnant. Right now it seems that you are counting on the self-hate and political timidity among American Muslims – who have kept their heads down since 9/11 – to simply avoid taking you to task.

How long will your evasiveness continue? This is not good leadership. This is not the politics of hope. You are essentially saying: no, you won’t.

No, you won’t remind the American public that being the President has nothing to do with religion.

No, you won’t remind the American public that there is nothing intrinsically malicious or frightening or nefarious about Muslims.

No, you won’t remind the American public that you are not Muslim, nor would it matter if you were.

So far, all you've done is looked out for your interest. I am glad, because I do want you to win. However, there is more to leadership than self-interest; I learned that from you.

I understand that you are in a tough position. Unlike John F. Kennedy, who was looked upon suspiciously for being a Catholic, you are not being demonized for your own religion, but the religion people say that you are secretly. However, that’s exactly what makes this matter so much more pernicious. That same JFK – to whom you take great pleasure in being compared – said that the politics of suspicion needed to be opposed no matter what religion they were directed against. He said:

For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew–or a Quaker–or a Unitarian–or a Baptist. It was Virginia’s harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that helped lead to Jefferson’s statute of religious freedom. Today I may be the victim — but tomorrow it may be you — until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril.

Senator Obama, this year the finger of suspicion is directed at Muslims. I, an American-Muslim, intend to cast my vote for you as President of the United States. Will you, as my candidate of choice, remind the world that in America, we are all identified, recognized and respected on the basis of our shared status as Americans — and not on the basis of our religion?

UPDATE: Over the weekend, speaking to 60 minutes, Senator Obama said that the smear emails were offensive to Muslims as well.

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