The New York Times reports that during President Obama’s upcoming visit to India, he will not visit a Sikh temple because he might be perceived as Muslim. The idea of president as professor and president as uniter is now officially dead. The mere fact that such a consideration would come into play tells us how much we fail to adequately talk about religion except as a political tool.
Since the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama’s supporters have consistently said that he is not Muslim, but so what if he is. The Constitution promises freedom of religion, which means there is no requirement of religion, or even religiosity, in order to be president. After becoming president, rather than seizing the pulpit to educate people about religion, he is caving to political cowardice.
Sikhism is a distinct religion from Islam, and the Golden Temple is one of the holiest sites in the religion. In one fell swoop, Obama insults Sikhs, Muslims, and the multiculturalism of India, the world’s largest democracy with the second largest population of Muslims in the world. Nikki Haley, Republican gubernatorial candidate in South Carolina, is now a Christian but of Sikh descent and still goes to temple with her family. Although she is referred to as a “raghead” by other Republicans, she is very comfortable in denouncing the characterization, without insulting other religions.
Of course, the idea of wearing religious covering as a sign of respect is not new for politicians: both Laura Bush and Condoleezza Rice did it. For some reason, the Democratic establishment is having a hard time with simple courtesies, let alone dealing with religious bigotry.
Rashad Hussain, special envoy to the Organization of Islamic Countries, has already been thrown to the wolves. He is prevented from doing his job because the right-wing attack machine. Farah Pandith, Special Representative to Muslim Communities for the State Department, must now say that the U.S. is a wonderful place for Muslims, but the White House does not want to go to a Sikh temple because it might seem respectful to Muslims. And on the domestic front, what is the Adivsory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships going to do? Talk about the important role of religion as long as it is only Christianity?
President Obama needed to lead at this moment. He needed to become Professor Obama. He needed to do what Colin Powell did for him. He needed to say that Sikhs and Muslims have different religions. There is nothing wrong with being either and there is nothing wrong in showing respect in a house of worship. He could have talked about the Sikhs in America being the victims of hate crimes because they were confused with Muslims. That hate is not an American value. He could have taken this moment to educate us. Instead, he did not just miss the opportunity, but he ran from it. He is encouraging the continued vilification of certain religions—it’s not just Islam, but Sikhism, Buddhism, and certain types of Christianity—by not having us have the same conversation on religion that he started about race in this country.