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Annette John-Hall: Muslim, American and proud

on Fri, Jul. 11, 2008

No doubt terrorism is a threat to our national security, but this presidential campaign has convinced me that ignorance may be our biggest affliction.

> Jesse Jackson is this week's hands-down winner for his vulgar chastisement of Barack Obama. Apparently Obama's caring enough to urge black fathers to step up sent Jackson into Operation Push-him-off-the-cliff mode, or was that just his own guilt talking?

> No doubt, as Obama has with others who have exhibited excessive hoof-in-mouth disease (big shout-out to Bill Clinton), he'll dispatch this one, too.

> He has more important challenges. It seems there's one ignorant smear campaign he hasn't been able to shake.

> God (the Christian one) forbid you come down with a case of Muslim. I always thought Muslims were devout followers of Islam, the religion most embraced around the world.

> But apparently it's also a sometimes deadly affliction.

> Even after more than a year of this presidential campaign, daily Internet blasts continue to insist that Obama remains stricken. Symptoms include arm and knuckles making secret terrorist fist pounds, chronic unpatriotic lethargy for continuous wearing of flag pins, and worst of all, unapologetic answering to an Arabic-sounding name that rhymes suspiciously with Osama, preceded by Hussein.

> According to the latest Pew poll, 12 percent of voters believe Obama's infected with Muslim.

> A disorder that since 9

11 appears to have no cure.

> Apparently there's no cure for ignorance, either.

> With numbers close to three million, Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the nation, its members productive citizens in all facets of American life.

> "When they hijacked those planes, they hijacked our faith," said Philadelphia author and activist Amin Nathari.

> Yes, an opinion from a Muslim, not that their faces or voices have been visible - or even mattered - as ignorant pundits and voters have dragged them through the gutter in this campaign.

> How do Muslims counter the notion that they're all, to borrow a favorite phrase of John McCain's, "Islamic terrorists"?

> Or, here at home, where TV anchors cavalierly describe cop-killers as wearing "Muslim beards" and "Muslim garb"?

> Well, by talking about who they are and what they do.

> They raise their families, pay their taxes, vacation down the Shore, and serve their communities - just like everybody else.

> In Philly, they are community activists and music moguls (Kenny Gamble, a.k.a. Luqman Abdul Haqq) and even police commissioners (Sylvester Johnson).

> They also write books, work in public relations, and advocate HIV

AIDS awareness, as Nathari, Aliya Khabir and Rashidah Abdul Khabeer do.

> And they vote.

> Problem is, the sinister campaign - and the smearing of Muslims - waged by the most ignorant of Obama detractors has created huge crevices on both sides of the fine line the presumptive presidential nominee has been forced to walk.

> Which, not surprisingly, has led to missteps. Last month, Obama personally apologized to two Muslim women wearing head scarves because campaign aides had banned them from sitting behind the podium during a rally in Detroit.

> Obviously not the unifying message he is trying to convey.

> So what does Obama do?

> What he continues to do. Proudly speak of his faith - which is Christian, by the way - but sensitively dispel fear-mongering attempts to define Islam.

> "When you're the first and only in anything, you stand with a target on your back," says Khabeer, 57, a nurse who converted to Islam in 1982.

> Khabeer practiced hijab (hair and body cover-up) at a time when there were few, if any, Muslim women visible in the workplace.

> "It's a risky business," she says. "You ask yourself, 'If I wear my hijab, can I get a job? If I interview uncovered and get the job and then come in on my first day covered, are they going to keep me, or fire me for being deceptive?' "

> Khabeer's brave act 25 years ago blazed the trail for Khabir, 28, who doesn't think twice before wearing a hijab to work.

> While they believe Obama's volunteers could use some sensitivity training - "a lesson in Islam 101," Khabir says - they also understand the need to do their part to educate the ignorant.

> "It's part of our responsibility as Muslims to denounce [misconceptions]," says Nathari, 44, whose collection of essays, A Message to the Grassroots for 21st Century America, lays out the challenges facing Muslims. "Practicing in isolation is just as dangerous as extremism. If you function in isolation, you allow a void to exist and allow certain extreme tendencies to define who you are."

> "In our desire to become good Muslims, we've disconnected from social activism. But I think that's starting to change. We're trying to be more vocal about what it means to be Muslim."

 

Contact columnist Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986 or ajohnhall@phillynews.com. To read her recent work: http://go.philly.com/annette.

 

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