SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) – Pundits have been pointing fingers since a recent poll found that 50 percent of Mississippi and Alabama GOP supporters said they believe that President Obama is a Muslim (with approximately another 40 percent in both states saying they are unsure).
Some accuse Republicans of attempting to raise questions about Obama’s Christian identity. Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum insists he has said repeatedly that Obama is a Christian. But in January, during a town hall event in Florida, Santorum did not correct a woman who said that Obama “is an avowed Muslim,” responding to her false statement by saying that he agreed with some of the things she said. A few weeks later, in February, the Pennsylvania Republican referred to the president as adhering to a non-Christian faith — “some phony theology, not a theology based on the Bible.” Santorum later argued that he was suggesting Obama’s religion was secularism. But many observers weren’t buying it.
An editor at The Atlantic, David Graham, criticized the poll itself, arguing that simply asking the question ends up perpetuating the “pernicious” claim that the president is a Muslim.
Implicit in all of these arguments is that there is something wrong with adhering to Islam. And on this front, Obama and his aides are not much better than the president’s opponents.
This latest turn in the 2012 presidential election plot line underscores a widespread yet underlying Islamophobic societal trend that noticeably has been around since the last presidential campaign. During the 2008 campaign, the false gossip ranged from the extreme — Obama has secret ties to al-Qaida! — to the benign, such as his having chosen to be sworn into Congress using a Koran.
Then and now, the Obama campaign has actively dismissed all such claims, even ones that aren’t particularly negative. In 2007, then-campaign spokesman Robert Gibbs referred to claims that Obama is a Muslim as “malicious and irresponsible charges.”
One of the 2008 Obama campaign election websites stated: “Lie: Senator Obama was sworn into the U.S. Senate using the Koran. Truth: Barack Obama was sworn in using his family Bible.”
As former Secretary of State Colin Powell once asked, “What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?” Would something be wrong if Obama had been sworn in using a Koran, as was U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) in January 2007?
The answer should be no. But the president and his supporters make it seem otherwise by treating the “Obama is a Muslim” claims as both insults and accusations that need disputing.
Religious identity is important to Americans, especially those running for the highest office in the land. This is a genuine concern for supporters of Obama just as it is for those behind Mitt Romney, who is seeking to become the first member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to be president.
The crux of this particular prejudice, however, is not based in wanting to know what Obama’s religion is but wanting assurances about what his religion is not. Much of this likely stems from an American populace that is still dealing with the trauma of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, which were carried out by violent Muslim extremists with the implicit guilt by association tied to all followers of Islam.
By repeatedly insisting that Obama is not now nor has he ever been a Muslim, the Obama campaign and the White House deliver a problematic message to the world, including the Muslim American minority — 1 percent of America’s population, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life — and the 1.6 billion Muslims living outside the United States. The message: At the very least, Muslims are unfit to be president.
And it’s not just the denials. At one event in Detroit during the 2008 presidential race, the Obama campaign moved two Muslim women wearing headscarves away from the podium and out of the sight of the cameras. Throughout that campaign, Obama spoke at numerous churches and several synagogues, but never once at a mosque.
Yes, in 2009 Obama gave a widely watched speech in Egypt, the largest Muslim majority country in the Middle East, in which he cited many verses from the Koran, thereby showing respect to the Islamic tradition. Yes, Obama’s administration has sent out statements to Americans and non-Americans alike honoring annual Muslim holidays. Yes, in an interview with CNN’s Larry King, responding to the satirical cover of The New Yorker tying him and his wife to Osama bin Laden and black militancy, he said that this “is actually an insult against Muslim Americans … sometimes I’ve been derelict in pointing that out.” But Obama also added, “I wasn’t raised in a Muslim home and I pledge allegiance to the flag …” When did these things become mutually exclusive? Why the mixed messages?
Obama’s administrative staff, supporters and even some of his opponents continue to echo the mantra that Obama is a practicing Christian. Instead the main message should be that it does not matter if Obama were a Muslim.
When his campaign in 2008 said it was a “smear” to be called a Muslim, when his campaign and administration aides today fail to stress that there would be nothing wrong even if he were a Muslim, Obama is perpetuating the notion that there is something wrong with having a Muslim identity. Would false rumors that a politician were Jewish be considered an insult? What about being a Hindu or a Sikh?
During the 1940s, Nazi propagandists attacked Charlie Chaplin — his film “The Great Dictator” mocked Adolf Hitler — for being Jewish. Chaplin was a Christian, but he never denied the charge because he believed that to do so would play into the hands of anti-Semites.
Why hasn’t Obama taken such an approach? He’s had more than three years as president of the United States to stand loud and firm about how problematic it is to use the label “Muslim” as a pejorative.
The television sitcom “Seinfeld” dedicated an episode to this sort of liberal hypocrisy, with Jerry and George denying being gay lovers followed by a quick “not that there’s anything wrong with that” with each denial. The sitcom was mocking the insincerity of those who preach acceptance of a minority group but display revulsion when mistakenly confused as a member of that group.
Ideally, perhaps, the president would follow Chaplain’s lead. But if he and his aides are going to make a point of responding to claims about his religion, the least they could do is give us some Jerry and George. Even a “not that there’s anything wrong with that” would be an improvement.
(Aaron J. Hahn Tapper is the director of the Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice at the University of San Francisco and the co-executive director of Abraham’s Vision, an educational organization working with Jews, Muslims, Israelis, and Palestinians.)