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Is Muslim Outreach Possible?


By Lawrence Swaim, Columnist, Southern California InFocus


You have to feel sorry for Barack Obama. His advisers decided long ago to play it safe where the Middle East is concerned, positioning their campaign in a never-never land of rightwing Zionism so extreme that even the Likudniks were embarrassed. The reasons are obvious: the campaign is beset by rumors that Obama was a Muslim, and a secret Muslim at that. So what kind of political shorthand do you use to blot out that image in the collective American imagination, especially among Jews? You make your candidate fanatically pro-Israel, a public figure who will say anything to please the Israel Lobby, a comic-book caricature of Ariel Sharon running for office in a U.S. election.


But by doing so, you give veto power to that same Lobby, including some very nasty neocons who are experts in using guilt by association to promote religious bigotry. That makes finding a Muslim to do national outreach in the Muslim community very, very difficult.


Does your outreach person go to a mosque? Then he must be a terrorist, because the mosque probably has some connection with the Islamic Society of North America, and every good neocon knows that the ISNA is a nest of Wahhabist vipers. Did he or she ever say anything remotely unkind about the Israeli government? Then he's a secret supporter of Hamas. Did your outreach person ever criticize U.S. foreign policy? He's un-American to the core, waiting to spread defeatism.


In other words, the only Muslim who wouldn't attract fire from the neocons would be one who regularly (and publicly) endorses Israeli apartheid, who attends only those mosques approved by the Heritage Foundation, who would love to see more U.S.-supported dictatorships in the Middle East, and who fervently desires more genocidal horrors like the occupation of Iraq.


That would please the neoconservatives. But how much credibility would such a person have in the wider Muslim community? Not much I'm afraid. And that defeats the whole purpose of outreach which may be why McCain's folks have shied away for so long from the whole idea of Muslim outreach.


And that, gentle readers, brings us to the root causes of Islamophobia in modern America. One thing I often hear from interfaith activists is that people of faith are all alike, because we all want the same thing. And they're right, of course Muslims want safe neighborhoods, good schools and a democratic system that allows people to speak their minds. But the Muslim worldview often contradicts some long-standing American prejudices which is, by the way, a very good thing for America.


For 60 years, the Arabic-speaking and Muslim worlds have been telling us that a terrible crime was committed against the Palestinians when Israel was founded, but we wouldn't believe them. Now Israel's own historians have told us the truth. Israel was never intended to be a state in which people of all races and religions could live in peace. It was always a state in which one race and religion predominated, with the others driven out and sometimes killed if they resisted. And that plan is still being implemented.


And Christians, who in the late 1940s were just beginning to struggle with their long history of anti-Semitism, decided to redeem their guilt by letting the Zionist leadership do to the Palestinians what the Christians had done to the Jews persecute, kill and marginalize them. It was a Faustian bargain, a classic deal with the devil. It caused many evangelical Christians to identify with Zionism as God's will, and it launched rightwing Zionists on their long march to dominate U.S. policy in the Middle East.


McCain and Obama may have to pretend that Muslims don't exist, because the American Muslim is by definition a prophetic figure, and politicians running for office concentrate on compromise rather than truth. Personally, I'm grateful that Muslims are in America, because their prophetic tradition must inform our national consensus if we are to avoid religious war. Too bad most political advisers can't see that.


Lawrence Swaim is the Executive Director of the Interfaith Freedom Foundation. He taught for eight years at Pacific Union College, and his academic specialties are American Studies and American literature. His column addresses current affairs from an American Christian and Interfaith perspective. <>






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