Note: Aziz will be returning soon. It has been a pleasure and an honor to fill in for him. If you enjoyed my writing (or didn’t and are looking for further avenues to lambast me), my own blog can be found at Notes from the Heart.
During the recent primaries in Mississippi and Alabama, polling of the residents in those areas showed that over half of the residents of those states still felt President Obama was a Muslim. More surprisingly, of the residents of President Obama’s home state of Illinois, 39% of respondents thought he was a Muslim.
After four years of intense public scrutiny and searching, not one credible news outlet has been able to produce a shred of evidence that President Obama is a Muslim. In fact, the Republicans ran a twin campaign against him in 2008; simultaneously suggesting he was a Muslim while attacking him for attending Reverend Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ for many years.
How does such a baseless rumor persist over so much time in our society? Many reasons have been postulated, but in my opinion, journalist Ali Abunimah hits closest to the mark:
“It’s socially acceptable to accuse him of being a Muslim because it’s not socially acceptable to hate him because he’s black. Politicians and the media in America today speak of Muslims in much the same way they spoke of Jews in Europe in the 30s and 40s, and I wish we heard people denouncing this as loudly as they have denounced anti-Semitic speech.”
Hatred towards President Obama has been stirred by partisans incessantly since he took office. Let’s be clear, similar hatred was stirred against his predecessor as well; there are no innocents here. Rumors have abounded of him being Muslim, born outside the United States, and even an avowed socialist. The root of such rumors lies in symbolic belief, a willing suspension of rational thought in the face of overwhelming emotion (an excellent example of is the poll taken of Democrats showing 35% of them believed George W. Bush had foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks).
The hatred some feel for President Obama, like all hatred, must find an outlet. Unfortunately, debate regarding actual policy is not a viable avenue, because it is inevitably fraught with nuances which render the argument unwinnable (have you ever tried to rationally debate with someone who just felt so strongly?). The best outlet, then, for this hatred is personal. He wasn’t born here, he’s black, he’s a socialist, or he’s a Muslim. Of these, the birther story was popular for a while, but it has been largely discredited and rendered moot. The socialist smear quickly devolves into policy discussions, and is thus untenable as an outlet for rage (though ironically it has perhaps the most footing). The racism argument, as noted above, is socially unacceptable to the point of being distasteful even to ones’ self, not to mention against social mores.
Thus, it stands to “reason”, that Obama must be a Muslim. Indeed, the proportion of people who believe he is a Muslim has gone up significantly since Obama released his birth certificate, in effect shunting the birther population over to the “Muslim argument”.
The real question about this poll was raised by Tucker Carlson, the self-proclaimed conservative on Fox News, of all places. He asked, rather facetiously I believe, why liberals were outraged at this finding; did they think the findings were a negative assessment of President Obama, (in his laughable words, are “liberals anti-Muslim?“). I have no doubt in my mind that, while the poll may have been conducted in a neutral fashion, most of those who incorrectly characterized the President as Muslim are doing so in perjorative way.
The only acceptable response to this poll by the President is a simple “So what if I was?”. Mr. Obama, as the President of the United States, has an onus and obligation to lead. True leadership is not to defend against these “allegations” with evidence of his Christianity. Nor does leadership lie in continuing to ignore them as he has, baseless though they may be. True leadership would be to challenge proponents of this theory to follow their line of thinking down to the next logical steps, and continue to challenge them at every step. Doing so would allow for destruction of their misconceptions about him and about Muslims in general, as well as a cathartic airing of grievances in the public square; only after that can true healing begin and the tacit acceptance of Islamophobia be gradually diminished.