Why the Muslim Smear is Bigger than Islam

The right wing smear campaign against Barack Obama is intensifying, with false claims that the Christian, patriotic Senator actually harbors a secret Muslim history and hates America so much he won't even say the pledge of allegiance. The effort has morphed from Internet rumblings and chain emails, as The Nation reported in October, to high profile attacks from the G.O.P. this month -- before Obama has even locked up the nomination.

In the past week, a state Republican Party used the smear in a press release titled "Anti-Semites for Obama" - which it later revised; a radio host raised the innuendo while speaking at a John McCain rally -- McCain swiftly apologized for the remark; and Republican Congressman Jack Kingston went on national television to falsely claim that Obama "would not say the pledge of allegiance." Kingston also whined that Obama does not wear an American flag pin, drawing an MSNBC anchor to note Kingston was also pin-less. "I will wear one and I have worn one!" Kingston retorted.

So far, the Obama Campaign has effectively battled the multi-pronged smear with several tacks. Obama often prebuts the charges in campaign speeches; his aides circulate fact sheets and ply voters with letters from clergy and generals; and his Internet team bought Google ads targeting smear searches, in order to draw the curious to a fact page with videos of Obama reciting the pledge on the Senate floor. The campaign's anti-propaganda ranges from the comically blunt, like a November announcement that "Obama Is a Patriot Who Loves His Flag and His Country," to fairly thoughtful offerings, like a video message from a minister at Obama's church, sharing her experience with confusion about his faith. The minister, Jane Fisler Hoffman, explains how she truth-squaded a woman who told a Muslim man that Obama was also Muslim:

"We overheard it and jumped in and said two things: First of all, there's absolutely nothing wrong with being Muslim. But second of all, Senator Obama does not happen to be Muslim. He's a Christian and he's a member of our church."

The "Fact Check" video drew over 55,000 views on YouTube, since the campaign promoted it last month. Hoffman closes by noting one predicament of rebutting the lies about Obama's religion: "We don't want to go around saying, 'heck no he's not a Muslim!' -- as if that was a bad thing. It's not a bad thing. There are great Muslim people, but he doesn't happen to be - he's a Christian." And apart from the smear, Obama also speaks out on bigotry against a range of groups, including Muslims and immigrants. In a major speech this month, for example, Obama criticized the exploitation of fear to "turn" people against each other. "Fear can cloud our judgment. And suddenly we start scapegoating gay people, or immigrants, or people who don't look like us, or Muslims -- because our own lives aren't going well," he said, urging the audience to change that climate by standing up for higher principles.

Thus it was surprising to read Naomi Klein's argument in the new Nation:

So far, Obama's campaign has responded with aggressive corrections that tout his Christian faith, attack the attackers and channel a cooperative witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee. "Barack has never been a Muslim or practiced any other faith besides Christianity," states one fact sheet. "I'm not and never have been of the Muslim faith," Obama told a Christian News reporter. Of course Obama must correct the record, but he doesn't have to stop there. What is disturbing about the campaign's response is that it leaves unchallenged the disgraceful and racist premise behind the entire "Muslim smear": that being Muslim is de facto a source of shame. Obama's supporters often say they are being "Swiftboated," casually accepting the idea that being accused of Muslimhood is tantamount to being accused of treason.

True, they have aggressively corrected the record. But as the above links demonstrate, from the candidate on down, this campaign has also emphasized that there is nothing wrong with being a Muslim.

Yet Klein believes Obama must go further. "What he has never done," she writes, is "denounce the attacks themselves as racist propaganda, in this case against Muslims." The smears are clearly bigoted and offensive, to Muslims and others, and I think the campaign has denounced them as racist propaganda. But even if people expect more, in good faith outrage, let's remember that this is also bigger than Islam.

Like other right wing character assassination, the smear campaign is not simply aimed at the portion of the public exercised about Islam or the pledge of allegiance, anymore than swiftboating was only for the Vietnam generation. (About half of Americans do say they would be "less likely" to back a Muslim for president -- a summer poll showed 7% think Obama is Muslim -- while half say the same about a candidate over 70.) But the larger imperative is to undermine the character, credibility and honesty of the candidate, developing a resilient narrative to poison media coverage and stoke fundamental doubts about anything the candidate says. Just as Gore was attacked as a "serial exaggerator" and Kerry was presented as a man who "misrepresents" his record, this smear suggests that Obama has something to hide. Just listen to the smear operatives. Long after CNN debunked a false story about Obama attending a Muslim school from Insightmag.com, a right wing website, its editor told The Washington Post that "Muslim heritage" was "not so much" the issue. The real issue, he claimed, was Obama's supposed "concealment and deception" about his youth. Obviously the editor, Jeffrey Kuhner, has no credibility, but the response previews the playbook here. In this context, it is understandable that the Obama Campaign is focused on responding as bluntly and unambiguously as possible.

Ari Berman is a contributing writer for The Nation, covering national politics and the 2008 election, and an Investigative Journalism Fellow at The Nation Institute.

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