No, dont worry: As far as any of us know, Barack Obama is not a Muslim. Insinuations of the contrary, however, have led this election season down a fairly interesting, albeit hardly unique, track. America in the 21st century is often portrayed as a land of political correctness, where issues must be tip-toed around in order not to upset the proverbial melting pot. Yet this image has been decidedly cast aside in the storm of commentary surrounding the rumors of Obamas closet identity as a Muslim.
Society has reached a point where it is no longer appropriate to comment on an individuals race as a negative. This reality is apparent in the slew of incidents over the past few years including Don Imus crass description of female basketball players and Michael Richards onstage tirade against an audience member. Both of these instances, along with a number of others, have involved racial discrimination against African-Americans. Yet where one form of discrimination has been deemed deplorable, others remain fair game.
The controversy surrounding Obama has highlighted the fact that many Americans have no reservations in commenting on an individuals religious beliefs as a negative. Muslim-Americans have not yet faced the sort of discrimination that African-Americans suffered for centuries or a calamity similar to the internment of the Japanese. But is that what it takes for a minority group to earn dignity that is inherent? Are Americans truly afraid that Obama will become president and suddenly declare Islamic Shariah as the law of the land?
The idea is not only laughable, but absolutely implausible. So what are people actually trying to say with these Muslim rumors? I believe that the fears surrounding Obamas unlikely associations hint at the latest fashion in discrimination: Islamophobia.
The cover of the July 2008 issue of the New Yorker carried a truly amusing depiction of Obama styled in the stereotypical garb of a Muslim and his wife attired in camo with a machine gun slung across her back. What should have been seen as an excellent use of our freedoms as Americans, as well as a pointed criticism of this so-called controversy, was instead met by both Obama and McCain with the dismissal of irresponsible journalism. Though perhaps some concern over fueling these rumors forced Obama to give such a response, the satirical image could have strengthened his stance against those very rumors.
Obamas staunch opposition to such rumors is no doubt due to the damage they can cause. Both Obamas father and stepfather were non-practicing Muslims and Obama himself lived in Indonesia, the country with the largest population of Muslims on earth, from the age of 6 until he was 10 years old. Hardly a recipe for a Muslim. Yet, if Obama were truly the intelligent and change-seeking individual he has claimed to be thus far in his campaign, why couldnt he have spun these rumors into a positive? Is it so far-fetched an idea that his Muslim background, however insignificant, could be an asset to this nation? In an international arena that is plagued by misunderstanding between the West and the Muslim world, how could a candidate for the American presidency choose not to capitalize on his potential to change that reality?
For Muslim-American voters this season, it is clear that many of our fellow citizens not only fear us, but mistrust us. Unfortunately, where we would hope our nations leaders would speak on our behalf, there have only been attempts to debunk the rumors with little to no effort being made to address the nature of the alarmist and discriminatory rumors themselves.
Barack Hussein Obama will be hard-pressed to extricate himself from his nominally Muslim background, if at the very least by the Arabic in his name. It is up to him, howevr, to decide if there is anything he must extricate himself from. History has taught us that there will undoubtedly be new groups in the future that will be the subject of the fear-mongering that Muslims are experiencing now and that countless others have faced in the past. Perhaps there will be someone then who will have the integrity to stand up for them.