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I was recently conversing with a local schoolteacher, a thoughtful woman I admire, when she exclaimed, “I would love to talk to you more when we have time! I mean, I’d love to know what you think about Obama, since he’s black and, oh, well, Muslim.”
I’m afraid my face must have communicated the sudden blankness of my thoughts. Obama may be black, but he’s not Muslim. I am Muslim, but I’m not black. My momentary lack of response reflected the disconnect in the logic of her statement.
I do understand, as a troubling number of Americans do not, that Barack Obama has never been Muslim. Merely living in Indonesia does not cause metamorphosis Islamica, some (imaginary) loathsome disease to be contracted from environmental contact. Wearing Somali dress in a laudable attempt to show multicultural respect is not proof of religious convictions. Attending a madrasa as a child does not a Muslim make, since madrasa is simply the Arabic word for school and, as such, can be applied to Harvard Law School with as much accuracy as it can be applied to a Taliban religious school.
I understand all these points. That is why I admit to difficulty understanding why the hazy suspicions surrounding Obama’s connection to Muslims have not dissipated. To be a Muslim, it is absolutely necessary to believe in this declaration of faith: “There is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God.” The first phrase signifies belief in one God, the God, as opposed to many gods. The second phrase indicates belief that Muhammad, the prophet of Islam who died in 632, was the messenger of God who brought God’s word to his fellow humankind.
Obama has unequivocally stated that he is not a Muslim. If he does not believe in the declaration of faith, then he cannot be Muslim.
Amongst the many flying rumors is one that goes like this: because Obama’s father was Muslim, Obama is Muslim, too – no matter what he personally believes. But this is not true. In Islam, there is a presumption of faith based on parentage. In pre-modern societies of all faiths, religion was one of many factors that contributed to identity and citizenship.
Therefore, there were rules regarding religious adherence. But it is only a presumption. It is rebuttable by faith itself. The definition of a Muslim is not “someone whose father was a Muslim.” Rather, the definition of a Muslim is someone who believes that there is only one God and that Muhammad was the messenger of God. Obama does not fit this definition.
What I find most troublesome about this entire subject is the xenophobia involved. After all, even if Obama were a Muslim – which he has repeatedly denied – why would that be so catastrophic?
As an Indian-American, Muslim, female, corporate lawyer and author, I typify American Muslim women far more accurately than the do the images of the black-clad, oppressed Muslim women featured in the media. I am just as American as my Irish-Catholic best friend. I speak English with a standard West Coast American accent. I have no first-hand memories of the country from which my parents emigrated. Yet, I was recently asked by a new acquaintance whether I would “go back” to the Middle East, since I was Muslim.
Well, I am not from the Middle East. I’m from Southern California.
This attitude does enable me to empathize with the probable feelings of Victorian English Catholics. In 19th century England, English Catholics paid an extra tax for the privilege of remaining Catholic and not belonging to the Anglican Church. They were often viewed as treasonous because of suspicions that their allegiance would belong to Catholic France or Catholic Spain rather than to England, the country in which they were born and raised.
American Muslims are already integrated into American society. We don’t get much of a voice in the media, but we are, as a group, middle class and mainstream. Only about 15-20 percent of us attend the mosques in the U.S. – not because we’re unobservant, necessarily, but (in many cases) because mosques since the early 1980s have come under the influence of Saudi-type Islam, which is just not what most American Muslims are about. The Pew Research Center notes that we are “decidedly American in [our] outlook, values, and attitudes.”1 Moreover, our allegiance is not to the country our parents or grandparents emigrated from, but to the United States – our own country.
During World War II, Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps because they were presumed to be loyal to Japan (no matter how many generations their families had lived in America). The destruction of the World Trade Towers was a type of Pearl Harbor, casting suspicion on American Muslims this time instead of Japanese Americans. But al-Qaeda is no more representative of Islam than the Ku Klux Klan is representative of Christianity.
So even if Obama were a Muslim, he wouldn’t be any less American or any less intelligent or any less competent. The unabating furor reminds me of how John F. Kennedy’s Catholic faith was considered a factor in his presidential campaign.
Obama’s childhood years in Indonesia are a factor in his campaign, too. But why a negative factor? Should we not wish for a president with global understanding? The President of the United States interacts not only with Americans, but also North Koreans, Russians, Iranians, and people of all faiths and nationalities. Should we not aspire to bridge cultural gaps and elect a president who views the world through a big-picture, worldwide, multicultural lens rather than through a narrow one limited to his own faith and background?
Several of my acquaintances have tried to convince me over the years that I should send my children to Catholic schools. “No,” I say, “we have good public schools; I’d rather just send them there.” Someone actually said to me in response, “Well, going to mass and taking religion classes won’t force your children to be Christian or anything!”
Yet the thought of Obama attending both Islamic and Catholic schools in Indonesia strikes fear into some hearts. Instead, it should give us hope that finally we might just have a president who would know how to communicate with the leaders of both Muslim and Christian countries. It is not civilizations that are antithetical and which must clash – it is the misunderstandings of those civilizations that cause clashes. Perhaps, in Obama, we might have a president who would know better than to characterize post-9/11 military actions as a “crusade.”
The tendency to disbelieve Obama’s unequivocal statements that he’s a Christian reminds me of what Norman Daniel writes in his history of Western perceptions of Islam: “It was with very great reluctance that what Muslims said Muslims believed was accepted as what they did believe.”2
Of course, Obama isn’t Muslim, so I guess that analogy doesn’t apply.
SUMBUL ALI-KARAMALI grew up in California frequently answering difficult questions about Islam and its practices posed by friends, colleagues, and neighbors. (“What do you mean you can’t go to the prom because of your religion?”) She holds a B.A. from Stanford University and a J.D from the University of California at Davis and earned a graduate degree in Islamic law from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. She has served as a teaching assistant in Islamic Law at SOAS and a research associate at the Centre of Islamic and Middle Eastern Law in London. She is the author of The Muslim Next Door: the Qu’ran, the Media and That Veil Thing.
1 Pew Research Center, “Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream,” May 22, 2007.
2 Norman Daniel, Islam and the West: the Making of an Image (Oneworld 1960), p.291.