Institute of Strategy and Policy Internationa
This op-ed was published by
Barack Obama's reluctance to open up about the Muslim
context surrounding himself and America's place in the world signals a lost
opportunity to steer the debate away from fearmongering and sensationalism By
Javeed Akhter, June 26, 2008
Back of the bus
The claim made by two Muslim women that they were declined seating behind
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama at a recent rally in Detroit
because they were wearing the Muslim hijab (headscarf) is entirely believable.
It is also true that the incident may not reflect official campaign policy.
Nevertheless there is increased sensitivity in Obama's campaign to keep him far
away from having any Muslim connection. It is a sad but understandable attitude
given the negative - almost radioactive - climate surrounding Islam in our
country. Much of it is based on misconceptions and lack of knowledge.
For example, well known writer Edward Luttwak recently suggested in the New
York Times that Obama would be considered an apostate by Muslims, and therefore
would fail to mend relations between US and the Muslim world - clearly one of
the more far-fetched theories ever postulated.
Obama has never been a Muslim, practicing or otherwise. He was raised by his
Christian mother and grandparents as a Christian. His past affiliation with the
Afro-centric Chicago church, Trinity United Church of Christ, made him a devout
Christian. That was long before he showed any desire to run for any office.
Another misconception is that being born to a Muslim father makes Obama a
Muslim. Islam, like Christianity, is a confessional belief system and paternal
or maternal faith is not necessary to being a Muslim. Although most children
born to Muslim parents grow up Muslim, what is required at some point in life
is a confession of faith in front of two witnesses that "God is one and
Muhammad is the Messenger of God." Obama has never made that confession
and why would he? He is a confessed and baptized Christian.
His biological father may have haunted his memories but had little influence on
his upbringing. The words and actions of his father, as recorded by Senator
Obama in his autobiography, Dreams from my Father, betray little interest in
Islam. His stepfather, an Indonesian with whom he spent some of his childhood
years, comes across as equally non observant. Neither appeared to have
attempted to school him in the concepts and tenets of Islam. It is not unusual
that Obama's biological and stepfather were both Muslim only in name. As in
every faith, there are Muslims of many different stripes. This is analogous to
C&E Christians, Sunday Christians and others who are Christian in name
Nevertheless, Obama, unlike all of his opponents, actually lived in a Muslim
majority country (Indonesia), has a Muslim relative or two, and has had Muslims
as friends. He has recently traveled to African countries with substantial
Muslim populations. To him, Muslims would not be the alien other. One would
expect that he have an understanding of the diversity among Muslims, a sense of
the rich texture of Muslim history and tradition and at least a rudimentary
appreciation of the hopes and aspirations of Muslims. He would not imagine and
stereotype Muslims in the fantasy-filled manner in which some in our country
Given the fact that the US and parts of the Muslim world are in conflict, a
leader who understands the Muslim world and has at least some inkling of its
political aspirations and cultural imperatives would be advantageous. His
knowledge of Muslim societies would be an antidote for the cultural ignorance
that is partly responsible for the current Iraq misadventure.
But presidential campaigns are a different type of pressure cooker. He has had
to shoot down innuendo that the Indonesian school he attended as a child is a
madrassa. Similarly, he had to battle the insinuation that pictures of himself
in Somali attire, donned as a courtesy to his hosts, proved that he is a
crypto-Muslim. But the insinuations do not go away.
In his desire to put as much separation between him and his Muslim connections,
however tenuous they might be, Obama may lose a potential advantage he has over
his opponents of understanding and contextualizing Muslim issues. Instead,
Obama's political needs may prevent him from taking thoughtful initiatives on
foreign policy issues that affect the Muslim world. That would be a shame.
Javeed Akhter, a physician,
is a founding member of the The International Strategy and Policy Institute, a
Muslim American think tank.