OK, we get the point. Barack Obama is not a Muslim. He has made that clear, time and again.
As well he should: The rumors are baseless, maliciously spun by political adversaries with the intention of taking votes away from Obama’s promising presidential campaign run.
Obama is entitled to set the record straight. But that’s not the end of the story.
The broader issue is: What does this attempt to smear Obama say about our society?
More personally, what does it say about my newborn nephew’s standing in society? Is he entitled to the dreams of his Muslim father that the boy could grow up to be president if he works as hard as Obama and is as ambitious?
Obama has not gone far enough to challenge the notion that religious affiliation could disqualify Americans from serving their nation. Nor has Mitt Romney, a Mormon, Mike Huckabee, a Baptist, or any other candidate.
It’s time for all of them to be quizzed on the meaning of citizenship as preached and practiced in this great democracy. As a voter, I would much rather know their stance on equal employment policies than which church they attend.
Whenever I address young Muslim audiences that may be struggling with identity issues, I remind them that this is their country, too. I tell them they should observe their civic duties, vote and, if it behooves them, run for public office and help bring about the positive reform they often passively expect of others.
It goes against all that I advocate that the mere rumor of a person being a Muslim — let alone actually being one — could be a tool to destroy political aspirations. This in a nation that prides itself on being the heart of the free world.
When it comes to Muslims, the divisive rhetoric coming out of this year’s elections ranges from the exclusionary to the just plain bigoted.
John McCain has said he would prefer a Christian president and that the Constitution established America as a “Christian nation.” Before dropping out of the presidential race, Romney conceded that he would not appoint an American Muslim to a Cabinet position because Muslims are a low percentage of the population.
One of Huckabee’s campaign advisers, Jim Pinkerton, recently advocated putting a “cop in front of every mosque” in America “just for safekeeping.”
John Deady, co-chairman of the New Hampshire Veterans for Rudy Giuliani, told the British newspaper The Guardian in late December: “We need to chase [Muslims] back to their caves or, in other words, get rid of them.” Deady resigned during the subsequent controversy over his remarks.
In addressing the Muslim question that seems to haunt him, Obama has yet to convert it into an opportunity to boldly address a deeper question: Do American Muslims enjoy the same constitutional rights as their fellow Americans?
If elected president, how would he deal with one of the most important civil rights questions of his generation? Would he turn a blind eye to the current climate of exclusionary fear-mongering, or would he take a stance against religious prejudice and bigotry?
Let’s face it, those who hatched the Muslim Obama rumors would not have bothered had it not been for a political and cultural environment in which demonizing and marginalizing Muslims generally goes by uncontested.
I was recently asked on Fox News Radio which candidate impressed me most. “Obama,” I answered.
Was this, I was asked, because of his “youthful Muslim experience”?
I explained it was my understanding that Obama is a Christian and that was just fine with me. I said most Muslims appreciate Christian values, given that they are not much different from our own, and that Obama’s knowledge of Islam should count as added experience and not as a statement about his identity.
I am not drawn to Obama for any other reason but his political outlook, one that brings me hope that we can move beyond divisiveness and polarization and toward a new unity for the common good.
So it is not that I am offended as a Muslim that Obama would not want to be one; I couldn’t care less. I am casting a vote for the next president of the United States, not the next imam of my mosque.
It’s just that I was audaciously hopeful that Obama would be the candidate to finally break the silence on the political marginalization of American Muslims.
He could start by saying something like: “There is not a Christian America, or a Jewish America, or a Muslim America. There is the United States of America.”
[Ahmed Rehab is the executive director of the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.]