Obama Should Embrace His Muslim Heritage
By JUNAID M. AFEEF
Many Muslim voters love Barack Obama. They love him even if he doesn't seem to love them back.
One young professional I know credited Muslims' enthusiasm for Sen. Obama to a perceived promise of a "brand new, informed international perspective." Other Muslims are moved by a broad and empowering message of hope and change in a tumultuous time of trouble and strife. And many see a reflection of themselves in Mr. Obama – a person who looks different, has a funny name, a sense of the world beyond our borders, and at the same time is very patriotic. That is how most Muslims in America view themselves.
In most circumstances such a strong affinity would be embraced by a candidate. But an affinity with Muslims is perceived by his campaign as a liability.
Mr. Obama is another victim of Islamophobia. He is now facing what Muslims have been and still are struggling with: an irrational fear and hatred of Muslims. Polls show that as many as 25% of Americans admit to prejudicial feelings against Muslims.
Mr. Obama knows that Islamophobia has taken root in the U.S. Islamophobia hits very close to home for him because his father, from whom he also derives his black heritage, was a Muslim.
While his heritage may include Muslims, Mr. Obama is a Christian, and when his religion is incorrectly identified he rightly corrects the record. Now there is even a Web site called "Fight the Smears" that challenges the lie that he is a Muslim.
The problem, however, is the manner in which he corrects the record. He vociferously denies being a Muslim as if it were a slur.
Mr. Obama does not need to take this approach. He knows how to smash through barriers. He brought whites and blacks together in the primary, no small feat in a nation that still struggles with race issues.
As a great leader, Mr. Obama should take a principled stand on the issue of Muslims and Islamophobia. While anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. is substantial, it is not an insurmountable challenge.
The vast majority of Americans are sincere and open-minded; anti-Muslim sentiments are a product of fear and lack of understanding. These sentiments can be overcome.
If Mr. Obama simply said, "Yes, there are Muslims in my family, and while I am and always have been a Christian, I embrace my family's religious diversity," then surely the vast majority of Americans would move on to the real issues in his campaign.
This has not happened yet. Instead, his attitude and demeanor set a different tone. Last week, campaign volunteers in Michigan barred two enthusiastic supporters from being photographed with Mr. Obama because they were identifiably Muslim. While the campaign apologized afterwards, one has to wonder: Would Obama campaign volunteers discriminate against any other race or religion in this way?
Every time Mr. Obama is incorrectly labeled a Muslim, he is also handed a golden opportunity to burnish his egalitarianism by challenging Islamophobes and debunking their bigotry. This would serve the purpose of correcting the record. It would also serve to elevate Mr. Obama to a higher moral ground. This is the same moral high ground from which he eloquently spoke out against racism in a speech in Philadelphia last March.
In that speech, "A More Perfect Union," Mr. Obama said "we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction – toward a better future for our children and our grandchildren."
Mr. Obama: Muslims want a better future for their children and grandchildren, too. Just as racism stood in the way of a better future for African-Americans, Chinese, Latinos, Jews and others in the past, so too does Islamophobia stand in the way of Muslims today.
Independence Day is approaching. The Fourth of July would be a wonderful opportunity to liberate all Americans from what you described as "the kind of politics that uses religion as a wedge." The way to do that is to embrace your Muslim heritage with the same vigor and eloquence with which you have embraced your white and black heritage.
Mr. Afeef is director of public and government Affairs at the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago.
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