Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama is a Christian. As his official campaign biography notes, Obama worked as a community organizer in Chicago with a church-based group after graduating from Columbia, and he currently attends Trinity United Church of Christ with his family.
Yet at various points during his campaign, Obama has had to address questions regarding the Islamic aspects of his biography, which include a Kenyan-Muslim father, an Indonesian-Muslim stepfather, four years spent living in Indonesia during his childhood, and an Islamic middle name (Hussein). Earlier this year, with the help of investigative journalists, Obama debunked the rumor that he had studied at an Indonesian madrassa. Yesterday, amid whispers from supporters of Hillary Clinton, Obama again declared that stories regarding his “Muslim background” had been “misreported.”
These episodes questioning Obama’s “true faith” expose two disturbing trends. The first is the upsetting tendency of Obama’s opponents to invoke his “Muslim roots” as a weapon. Although this smear campaign is most pronounced on the Internet, it received a substantial bump last week, when former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey played the Muslim card while endorsing Hillary Clinton. “I like the fact that his name is Barack Hussein Obama, and that his father was a Muslim and that his paternal grandmother is a Muslim,” Kerrey said. News of Kerrey’s remark quickly spread to the Arabic press, where readers of the al-Arabiyya were outraged, commenting that the statements were “racist” and proved that “America is at war with Islam to build Zion.” Their anger—though surely not their bigoted retorts—is understandable. If it is wrong to take issue with Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith, then it is logically even more wrong to take issue with Obama’s non-Islamic faith, especially insofar as it demonizes Islam in the process.
But Obama’s responses to these spurious insinuations are also frustrating. Obama likes to have it both ways, severely downplaying his Islamic heritage while still claiming to possess a unique understanding of the Muslim world. In this vein, you won’t find “Hussein” anywhere in his officially produced campaign content, while he emphatically told an Iowa audience on Sunday that his Muslim father “wasn’t very religious.” Yet, in the same conversation, Obama claimed that living in Indonesia from the ages of 6-10 gave him “insight into how these folks think.” Where does this insight come from, if Obama is as removed from Islam as he claims? What kind of intense sociocultural conversations was young Barry Obama having with his classmates during recess in Jakarta that would meaningfully inform his thinking on the Muslim world four decades later?
Frankly, Obama’s response demonstrates that his experience in the Muslim world has taught him little about “these folks.” Indeed, if he truly understood the Muslim world, he would respond to future insinuations regarding his “Muslim background” by taking umbrage at the equation of Islam with evil, and declaring such sentiments un-American. Perceptions of Islam are critical to many in the Muslim world, and statements such as those made by Kerrey do little to assuage their concerns. Instead, Obama has fallen back on the selectively embellished version of his cultural biography, reminding us of his travels when he is unable to provide substance.