It’s been said many times: this is an election year of firsts. The first viable woman presidential candidate. The first viable black presidential candidate.
But the first Muslim presidential candidate?
One in 10 Americans believes that Illinois Sen. Barack Obama is a Muslim, according to a Pew Research Center News Interest Index survey taken in March.
Mr. Obama is, in fact, a practicing Christian, as underscored by the debate over the controversial sermon delivered by his pastor after Sept. 11, 2001.
The same survey found that 79 percent of the general public had heard rumors that Mr. Obama is Muslim, while 38 percent had heard “a lot” about it.
Indeed, rumors have circulated on blogs and comment boards since the fall, spurred by pictures of Mr. Obama in a turban, by talk of childhood time spent in Indonesia — a Muslim country — and by his middle name, Hussein, among other things.
Some experts say that such rumors are based in multi-layered bigotry.
“We never asked what religion the other candidates were, and that annoys me,” said Diane Boone, who publishes Melanian News, a local newspaper marketed toward blacks. “I think it’s an excuse. It’s an excuse to use other than race.”
Ms. Boone said she believes this excuse resonates across racial lines, however. She has encountered blacks in the community who say they are not voting for a Muslim rather than say they are not voting for a black man.
Confounding race and religion in this way is not a new way of thinking, said Paul C. Taylor, an associate professor who specializes in critical race theory at Temple University.
“This is the way race thinking works,” he said, “I don’t, of course, mean to talk about just black people, the Irish were racialized in certain ways.” He was referring to the first Irish immigrants. The groups may have changed, but biases remain.
“You can’t stand up in American society and say you don’t want an African-American president,” said Rebecca Alpert, an associate professor of religion at Temple University. “We claim to be color blind, so we can’t reveal our prejudices in public. Yet it may remain acceptable in some quarters to say no to a Muslim president, she added. “We get scared because, unfortunately, Islam was introduced dramatically on 9/11 to our society.”
Then there are those who say anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States is spreading.
“There is a growing anti-Muslim feeling in our society which is moving anti-Muslim bigotry into the mainstream,” said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington-based advocacy group.