Published on
the Boston Globe

Holding Muslims at Arm's Length

Derrick Z. Jackson

I wish Barack Obama were a Muslim. Better that than having supercilious staffers whisk women in Islamic head scarves out of photo-ops. Better that than telling Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota, the nation's first Muslim congressman, not to come help Obama in Iowa and North Carolina.

Better that than wooing red states by wobbling before the modern equivalent of the Red Scare. In his year-and-a-half-long run for president, Obama has visited churches and synagogues, but no mosque. This has the musty feel of light-skinned African-Americans passing for white, paranoid over daylight visits from dark-skinned relatives.

Obama's campaign has been far more inclusive than John McCain's. Yet as of late, Obama's handlers are so bent on passing their biracial, binationally-raised man as a pure-blooded American - a new commercial plays up his "values straight from the Kansas heartland" - that they are reinforcing the perception that Muslim Americans are impure.

Asked what he would say to Obama if he had the chance, Bilal Kaleem, executive director of the Boston chapter of the Muslim American Society, said, "It's a tough question, and it's sad that it's a tough question. . . . I would suggest that he might have to do the same thing [on Islam] that he did on race. He addressed it head-on in a landmark speech. He gave his speech in a mature way. If he could speak in the same way to that, it could be inspiring for our country and the world."

It is understandable why Barack Hussein Obama and his handlers suffer from PTSD - post-traumatic smear disorder. Political woodpeckers hammer falsehoods from the right. Fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton, when asked whether Obama is a Muslim, tackily peeped, "there is nothing to base that on, as far as I know." Despite nearly hitting the third rail over his former Christian pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, only 58 percent of Americans think Obama is a Christian, according to a Newsweek poll in May.

It has been so outrageous that Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York, an independent and a Jewish American, said the "whisper campaign" was "wedge politics at its worst." Kaleem said of Obama, "We feel sympathy for him because it's not just him who should be called out; it is also the people in the media and politics who made a cottage industry out of him being a wolf in sheep's clothing and that all Muslims are subversive."

But the sympathy may be short-lived as Obama's "Fight the Smears" part of his website has some Muslims feeling betrayed by an over-the-top effort to denounce every Obama-is-a-Muslim claim as a "lie" and saying, "Senator Obama has never been a Muslim, was not raised a Muslim, and is a committed Christian." How about something like, "Senator Obama is a Christian who, having lived in the world's largest Muslim country [Indonesia], having traveled in Pakistan and having many Muslim friends, appreciates American pluralism like no other candidate in US history"?


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A more positive approach by Obama of affirming Muslims while affirming his Christianity actually fits the nation's values. A new Pew Research survey finds Americans more open than ever to a range of religious viewpoints. Muslim Americans themselves, according to a 2007 Pew survey, are "largely assimilated, happy with their lives," and "decidedly American in their outlook, values, and attitudes."

This obviously all came together for Ellison's election, as the Minneapolis Star-Tribune has noted that his district has more Lutherans than Muslims. Ellison this week told The New York Times about Obama, "A lot of us are waiting for him to say that there's nothing wrong with being a Muslim, by the way."

A lot of Muslims are waiting because, seven years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, an undercurrent of suspicion remains. In the 2007 Pew survey, a third of Muslim Americans said that within the last year, they had either been treated with suspicion, called offensive names, profiled by police, or even attacked. Kaleem, a graduate of MIT, said he sometimes is asked during grant proposals how radical his group is.

"In a way," Kaleem said, "it is good that these missteps have come out in public so we can start talking about the undercurrent, which is the real issue."

Obama himself has said "Christians and people of other faiths lived very comfortably" with each other when he lived in Indonesia. It is time for him to live comfortably with Muslims in his campaign.

In a 2006 trip to Chad, Obama issued the Muslim greeting for peace. A wise Obama would say "assalamu alaikum" at home, too.

© Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

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