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Birth, Language and Citizenship

The ‘birthing’ controversy is news again. Is the President really American? He doesn’t really look it! Or always act like he is: remember the Barrack-Michelle closed-fist salute?

I moved to the US from India fourteen years ago, and am still struck by the prejudices that persist in both these great democracies about those deemed natural citizens and those who repeatedly need to prove their credentials.

Two decades ago, in the controversy leading up to the destruction of a beautiful 16th century mosque in the north Indian town of Ayodhya, the Muslims of India were asked to demonstrate that they were truly Indian – by accepting ‘the Hindu ethos’ of the majority religious community. Less than ten years ago, a leading American political scientist, the late Samuel Huntington, asked something similar of Mexican immigrants to the United States. “There is no Americano dream,” he wrote. “There is only the American dream created by an Anglo-Protestant society. Mexican-Americans will share in that dream and in that society only if they dream in English.” (Who Are We, 2004)

A Jewish American, Hillel Levin, wrote in 2006 of how he was “always aware of my minority status within the dominant secular and/or Christian culture.” About the same time, John T. Molloy’s self-help manual, New Dress for Success, observed that the “model of success” in the country is “white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant”, and advised African Americans men to avoid “Afro hairstyles” and to wear “conservative pinstripe suits, preferably with vests”, and Latinos (men, again) to avoid “pencil-line mustaches”, “any hair tonic that … give(s) a greasy or shiny look”, and “any articles of clothing that have Hispanic associations.”

These examples serve to indicate the demands that continue to be made on minorities, not only Muslims in India and Latina/Latino migrants to the USA, but Jews, blacks, Native Americans and others. Even after many members of these groups have reached the point where they do not need to hide aspects of their caste or racial ancestry, the call for conformity to ‘mainstream’ norms continues to bedevil individual lives and careers – not excluding that of the American President.

The challenge extends from claims about Barack Obama’s supposed foreign birth to accusations that he is a closet Muslim, a traitor, even a supporter of terrorists. Thus Rush Limbaugh: “I have not (called him) Imam Hussein Obama…. Imam Barack Hoover Obama is the correct nomenclature.” “Why did I start calling him Imam Obama?” It was “the natural thing to do when he came out in favor of the mosque [the proposed private Muslim community center near Ground Zero in New York, which became notorious as the ‘mosque’ controversy]. It’s no different than calling it the Hamasque, because Hamasque [from Hamas] has come out in favor of the mosque.”

The number of Americans who believe the President is Muslim is increasing, writes Limbaugh. “Imam Obama is becoming more well-known and the media can’t protect him….” However much leftists, liberals and other ‘un-American’ types try to hide who they really are, he goes on to say, “the truth is eventually gonna surface.” More: “we are a great country at risk in a dangerous world. We have threats external and internal. And it is not a good sign. It is not something healthy for the American people to not know what religion their president is, … where he’s been and who he is, it’s not healthy, it’s not good.” “It is inconceivable,” as an editorial in one national newspaper put it, “that this campaign to portray Mr. Obama as the insidious ‘other’ would have been conducted against a white president.” (New York Times, April 28, 2011)

Consider one other example of this right-wing understanding of the ‘natural’ American, and the healthy and good society. In a book entitled The Roots of Obama’s Rage (2010) which drew praise, among others, from the erstwhile Speaker of the US House of Representatives and recent candidate for the Republican nomination for President, Newt Gingrich, Dinesh D’Souza declares that “America is being ruled according to the dreams of a Luo tribesman of the 1950s [Luo being the Kenyan tribe Obama’s father came from]. This philandering, inebriated African socialist, who raged against the world for denying him the realization of his anticolonial ambitions [sic], is now setting the nation’s agenda through the reincarnation of his dreams in his son.” One can understand President Obama, writes D’Souza, only “if (one) understands Kenyan, anticolonial behavior.”

The call is this: “Imam Barack Hussein Obama: take yourself, and your crazy, socialist ideas back to where you/they come from” – Africa, or Indonesia, or wherever. Not quite on par with the extremist Hindu right-wing’s demand of Muslims in India, “Babar ki santan/Jaao Pakistan ya Kabristan” (“Descendants of [the Mughal Emperor] Babar: go to Pakistan, or to the grave”). There is no parallel foreign country to which people of African descent in the US may be banished, even ideologically. Yet the attack is not altogether different in its effect.

The requirement of conformity persists, but to what is not always spelled out. It is important to uncover the implicit assumptions. To be ‘American’, and to be automatically recognized as American, we need to be white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, male and English-speaking. “There is no Americano dream,” as Huntington puts it. Nor any African American or Native American dream. “There is only the American dream created by an Anglo-Protestant society. Mexican-Americans will share in that dream and in that society only if they dream in English.” Between this, and the possibility of a composite, evolving American dream, the choice is ours.

Gyanendra Pandey is Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor in the Department of History at Emory University, 

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