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December 12, 2007

The Obama Muslim Rumors
Posted by Shadi Hamid

I was reading about the Obama Muslim rumors again. I've dealt with this issue before, but it deserves to be raised again, since it's one of those things in American politics today that I find really, really irritating. First of all, Obama is not Muslim, and anyone who suggests otherwise is indulging in a smear-campaign. But, I guess the broader question is this: why does saying that someone is a Muslim, or is otherwise sympathetic to Islam, constitute a smear in the first place? What's so bad about being Muslim?

Well, actually, I kind of already know the answer, but I wish more people would be willing to say what they honestly feel on the matter. There is a sizable cross-section of Republicans who think that being a Muslim disqualifies one for higher public service (you can count Mitt Romney, who has been quite open in peddling anti-Muslim remarks, among them). I suspect that a good number of Democrats may feel similarly, but due to political correctness, would never openly say so - that being a Muslim, while we face a predominantly Muslim terrorist threat, would represent a conflict of interest and would bring about questions of "dual loyalty." If the dual loyalty smear sounds familiar, it should, as it is one of the more pernicious smears that can be leveled in American politics.

Maybe I'm in the minority here, but I suspect that someone who understands Muslim culture, religion, and politics would do a much better job of fighting the war on terrorism than someone who doesn't even know the most basic facts about this part of the world. And, no, Republicans aren't the only ones who are clueless. Chris Dodd, after all, gave one of the worst debate answers I have ever heard. Of course, no one picked it up, since making stupid - and dangerous - generalizations about the Muslim world is actually treated as a qualification for office rather than the opposite. And we wonder why we're losing the war on terror.


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I can't think of too many more foolish generalizations about the Muslim world than the use of "Muslim" as a synonym for "Arab."

Shadi Hamid has little grounds for complaint about any Presidential candidate in either party on that score, since he rarely even mentions non-Arab Muslims except when he needs to pad a list of grievances against the United States. I suppose on such occasions Iranians, Nigerians or Indonesians become honorary Arabs from some points of view, but from the standpoint of American interests there is one way above all in which greater sophistication about predominantly Muslim countries would be helpful, and this is it.

ok, i just looked it over, and nowhere did I conflate "Muslim" for "Arab." In fact, I didn't use the word "Arab" even once.

The emails with the Obama is a Muslim attack seem to be flying around briskly in my neck of the woods. Someone forwarded one to my wife yesterday. No doubt it is connected to the fact that Obama has successfully wiped out Clinton's lead here in New Hampshire, and the two are now tied.

I think that's all valid, and I think I agree with all of it. But there's an additional dimension to it as well. There are sects of Islam -- sects, I said; I'm doing my best not to generalize here -- that embrace ideas and values that make a pretty tough fit with the stereotypical American idea of liberal democracy.

A lot of what the average American learns about Islam is the stuff that's newsworthy, for lack of a better word. Theocracies in places like Iran, sharia law that to us sounds pretty brutal, ideas about the societal role of women that run counter to generations of American thought. When the average American hears "Obama is a Muslim," those are the associations that spring to mind.

They're not even totally invalid associations. That's what makes them so hard to un-wedge from the national consciousness. It's not like anybody can stand up and say honestly that NO Muslims are like that, because obviously some are. It's more difficult to change an opinion that's based even slightly on fact than it is to change one that's wholly false.

It's not that everything would go to hell if we had a Muslim President. It's that there are individual Muslims out there who, because of their particular set of religion-based beliefs, wouldn't make good Presidents for us at all. And saying that Obama is a Muslim conflates those two ideas.

"They're not even totally invalid associations."

Yes, they are invalid. Apparently, you're saying here that just because a tiny minority of Muslims are terrorists, therefore associating Muslims with terrorism is not "totally invalid." This is precisely the problem - that Muslims are judged as a collective entity, and are treated with suspicion from the get-go, and must therefore demonstrate their loyalty before they are bestowed with recognition as sufficiently "moderate." Muslims are considered potentially suspect (a "fifth column") until proven otherwise. I suspect it should be the opposite. If you're an American citizen - and happen to be Muslim - you should be assumed to be "normal" and "unthreatening" unless there is evidence suggesting otherwise.

No, what I tried to say as clearly as possible is that the fact that there are Muslims who subscribe to those values means nobody can say there aren't. Which makes the argument more complex than simply "is not/is too."

Also, I want this to be well understood: I didn't intentionally say anything about terrorism. I was talking about government policies and social values. I think it's pretty safe to say that terrorism doesn't occur strictly along religious lines, or in fact strictly along any lines at all. Bombings in Ireland, the Oklahoma City attack and 9/11 were all acts of terrorism, and they were perpetrated by people of dramatically different religions and cultures. Thinking that terrorist equals Muslim IS totally invalid.

I'm inclined to agree with you, Shadi. Actually, I think one positive step a new President could make would be to appoint a Muslim to a cabinet position (OK, so really, religious tests are bad, but all else being equal...). It would have two salutory effects: first, it would give the President a perspective from someone who is Muslim; and second, it would provide a very visable example of an American Muslim for the rest of the Muslim world to see. I don't know, of course, if any of the candidates are willing to do this (Romney clearly is not), but I think it would be a good step to take. And it's not as though there aren't qualified Muslims out there.

I think you can even point to an example on the Republican side of Muslims providing better performance. As Yglesias has pointed out, Zalmay Khalilzad has certainly made some mistakes but I'd say he's probably one of the few Bush officials to emerge with a relatively intact reputation.

A powerfull lobby is going on to elect a candidate who knows nothing about Muslim. This elected person will help continue and widen the war against Muslims. This Gog and Maggog will be killed in the land of

Shadi asks what is wrong with being Muslim? Nothing is. It's the reprehensible treatment of women by Muslims which is wrong. In Iran, women are buried to their neck and stoned to death for adultery. In Egypt, millions continue to be subjected to female genital mutilation (though this is not an Islamic practice). In countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the gang rape of women is blamed on women. In Afghanistan, women are denied education, forced into child marriages, and prevented from working. In all these societies, marital rape is legal and in many of them women are forced to veil against their will. Muslim women are legally considered second class citizens, their movement is limited, they are conidered the property of their male relatives, and massive violations of their human rights take place every single day. It simply doesn't matter that all Muslims do not agree with these social structures. The fact is the majority tolerate it in the name of religion. This is understandably frightening for non-Muslims. Until progressive Muslims reclaim their religion and societies from the misogynists who interpret this shameful treatment of women as "Islamic values", the entire religion will suffer. The best aspects of it, like egalitarianism and jusice, will be completely overlooked.

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