Obama’s Muslim Problem—And Ours

I have told the story of my own twisted feelings about Negroes here, and of how they conflict with the moral convictions I have since developed, in order to assert that such feelings must be acknowledged as honestly as possible so that they can be controlled and ultimately disregarded in favor of the convictions. It is wrong for a man to suffer because of the color of his skin. Beside that clichéd proposition of liberal thought, what argument can stand and be respected?

—Norman Podhoretz


In Norman Podhoretz's 1963 essay, "My Negro Problem—And Ours," [Commentary, Feb., 1963] we have the musings of an earnest white liberal, fingering the contours of his racial imagination and of ours; struggling, but determined to put the hard won liberal conviction that bigotry is wrong ahead of the racism he imbibed like mother's milk.

Barack Obama has a "Muslim problem." His problem is our problem—an American problem. By all accounts, Obama finds anti-Muslim bigotry offensive. Yet, his behavior during the current presidential campaign leaves a bad taste in the mouth of Muslims and in the mouths of us who believe that openness to the religious others is what America must mean. Though the free exercise of religion is inscribed in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, religious pluralism understood as openness to the religious otherness of the other is a dream. The America in which the dream of religious openness becomes a reality must be achieved.

We, the American people, need to be honest about our sick and twisted feelings about Muslims. We see them through the prism of Orientalism about which Edward W. Said wrote so powerfully. As Said describes it, Orientalism is a distinctively Euro-American, that is, Western way of constructing the other—the Oriental. This construction occurs through an interlocking set of practices: forms of academic knowledge, authoritative descriptions, often stereotypical of the very being of the Oriental, and military domination and colonial administration. These practices presuppose, produce, and sustain a "vicious," that is, closed hermeneutic circle in which Muslims are stereotyped as cruel, intolerant, misogynistic, lecherous, apostates from the "one true god," and as potential terrorists. This is the dominant ideological frame regarding Muslims. It prefigures our perceptions, our discourse, our very "common sense" regarding Muslims. Everyone knows that black people are disposed to criminality and that Muslims are terrorists-in-waiting.

Contemporary anti-Muslim bigotry recalls earlier forms of American, religious bigotry such as anti-Catholicism and anti-Mormonism, the latter of which continues to fester in residual form. Without discounting his political and, perhaps, his personal flaws, Mitt Romney's membership in the Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter Day Saints was an obstacle in his presidential campaign that many bigots could not surmount. And Obama finds himself struggling to win the office of president of the United States within a sea of atavistic and unselfconscious anti-Muslim bigotry.

Item: Obama rejects Minnesota's Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison's offer to campaign with him at an Iowa mosque. Ellison is the first Muslim member of Congress; he caused an uproar when he took his oath of office on a Qur'an. Ellison is a black American Muslim. The first Muslims in America were enslaved Africans. There has been a renaissance of Islam among African Americans; indeed, African American Muslims are a large minority of the American Muslim population. Obama fumbled an opportunity to educate the American people, to complicate the image of who Muslims are, to accent their long, pre-Boston Tea Party, pre-revolutionary history in America. What better way to exemplify the new politics he claims to embody?

Item: Two Muslim women dressed in hijab (a traditional form of dress that leaves only the face and hands exposed) are barred from sitting behind Obama at a campaign rally by over zealous campaign volunteers. The women complain publicly about their ill treatment. After initial hesitation, and apparently at the vigorous insistence of the same Congressman Ellison he had earlier snubbed, Obama calls both women and apologizes.

Item: Obama's campaign complains about the special accent that some commentators place on his middle name—Hussein. In America, the West, and in the non-Muslim world in general, the name "Hussein" is most likely to evoke images of the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. But Hussein is Obama's middle name. He need not accent the name but he should not disown it either. There are tens of thousands, probably millions of Husseins in the world. It is an honored name among Muslims, and its popularity is rooted in the history of Islam. One wishes that Obama had embraced his name as have many of his supporters who have legally adopted Hussein as their middle name in protest against anti-Muslim and anti-Arab bigotry.

Item: Once again, Daniel Pipes, the pied piper of anti-Muslim bigotry has blown his bigoted pipe. In a recent article, dripping with intellectual dishonesty, entitled "Did Obama Have a Muslim Childhood,"Pipes suggests that Obama has unacknowledged ties to Islam. In his dark, ominous, and conspiratorial language, which is an anti-Muslim form of McCarthyism, "Islam" is the functional equivalent of "communist." It is a powerful signifier in an anti-Muslim "blood libel"; the leading edge of the "other" anti-Semitism. (Even though most Muslims are not of Arab descent, Muslim means Arab in the popular imagination.) An inveterate stigma-monger who has done everything he can to demonize Islam, Pipes suggests that Obama is lying about his Muslim identity. Should we impugn the honesty and integrity of Conversos, Marranos, and "New Christians," that is, Jews who protected themselves from the Spanish Inquisition by pretending to be Christian? The absurdity of this question is exceeded only by the absurdity of Pipes' logic. Our anti-Muslim Homeland Security regime is not the Spanish Inquisition but it does have inquisitorial effects. The evidence does not support Pipes' claim that Obama was a Muslim. The claim is a disingenuous crock—and I am not talking about butter! Daniel Pipes: mendacity is thy middle name. If only his middle name were Hussein, what a breath of fresh air that would be.

Item: When is a "rumor" a "smear?" Practically, if not definitively, rumors pertain to matters that are unflattering, to matters from which we would like to dissociate. Whether true or false, they contain information that cast the subject in a bad light. Mother may be rumored to be unfit; father, to be a deadbeat; the president, to be corrupt; clergy, to be pedophiles. The subject of rumors may choose silence in the hope that the rumors will just go away. Or they may choose to vigorously deny the rumor: "I am not a crook"; "I did not have sexual relations with that woman." Occasionally, the subjects of rumors involving misbehavior may acknowledge guilt and shame; cover themselves in "sackcloth and ashes," accept the consequences of their misbehavior, and seek to repair what they have broken. You have heard the rumor that Obama is a Muslim. Its status as a "rumor" owes as much to the Obama campaign's response as to the claim itself. The pernicious power of rumors, especially when they are false, depends heavily on the response. The wrong response suggests that the normative assumptions underlying the false claim are true. Whether true or false, a rumor can "smear" a candidate, in this case Obama, only if he accepts the normative assumption—that Muslims are bad, and that a Muslim president is unacceptable—that underlies the truthful denial that he is a Muslim. A politician need not be a philosopher to recognize this fact; any competent lawyer, as presumably Obama is, should know.

Obama would prefer not to speak about Islam at all. Can you blame him? The reflexive association of Islam with terrorism and of Obama with Islam is a burden his campaign cannot bear. The New Yorker satirized anti-Muslim disinformation and anti-Obama associations on its July cover. In the Oval Office, President Obama dressed in "Muslim" attire is fist-bumping Michelle Obama-qua-Angela Davis who has an AK-47 slung across her shoulder. In the background, on the wall, is a portrait of Osama bin Laden. Below the picture an American flag burns in the fireplace. Sixties Mau -Mauing and radical chic meets Islamic terrorism—a bigot's worse nightmare. This is great satire. But satire, like wit, is the most demanding form of humor. One must be literate and understand irony. But in these post-literate and post-ironic times, Obama rightly fears that many readers will see the picture and not get the joke.

Perhaps Obama's most distasteful act in this drama is his repetitive and vigorous denial that he is a Muslim. He is not a Muslim but saying so once should have been enough. After the first denial, which might merely be an effort to correct the factual record, to overcome the genuine ignorance of those who claim that he is a Muslim, subsequent denials only feed the bigoted efforts of stigma-mongers who persist in saying what they know is not true. Obviously, they have a pernicious agenda. However, Obama's repetitive denial that he is not a Muslim has the same effect as a white person who repetitively denies that she is a "nigger-lover," a liberal who denies that he is a communist, or a heterosexual who denies that he is gay. Such denials lend aid and comfort to the bigots who make them; repetitive denials serve a bigoted agenda. The goal of bigots is to stigmatize, to render certain groups illegitimate in their very being. They coerce their victims to say: I do not eat the babies of Christians; I am not a Christ-killing Jew; a witch, communist, Mormon—or Muslim.

Indeed, Muslims are our contemporary Mormons. Even when one reads histories of the times, it is hard to comprehend the magnitude of anti-Mormon bigotry in nineteenth and early twentieth century America. The paranoia, the rage, the attribution of the most outrageous behaviors to them; the sense that Mormons were a foreign body, a cancer that needed to be excised; a spirit that needed to be exorcised; a contaminant within the American social order that demanded violent decontamination—an apocalypse. This is how people speak of Muslims today as if they are an undifferentiated blob—singled-minded, with no individuality or distinctive features; an Islamic "Borg," controlled by Osama bin Laden or some other "Islamofascist." (This neologism invites us to believe that fascism is a constitutive, if not distinctive feature of Islam.)

There is a heteronormative and homophobic ritual that begins with the question "Are you gay?" or with the accusation "You're gay!" and ends with denial—"I am not gay." The courageous heterosexual male short-circuits the ritual by asking "Why does it matter? How is my sexual orientation relevant to my competence? Whose interest does the ritual—question, accusation, and denial—serve? What ideology underlies the ritual? Rather than responding on cue to the accusations and questions of the stigma-mongers, Obama should reject the invitation to ritualistic deny that he is Muslim. Again, to repetitively deny the bigoted accusation—"Barack Obama is a Muslim"—is to lend support to the stigma that generates the claim in the first place. Obama should challenge the very politics of the ritual.

In a republican form of government with popular elections, competing interests that have to be balanced, and where some interests must be sacrificed, if not denied, politics is all about power, prudence, and compromise; it's about rhetorical ambiguity and the judicious use of deception. It is often said that money is the mother's milk of politics. This is no doubt true but ambiguity and deception are the very oxygen of politics. Politicians lie for two principal reasons: one, its serves their perceived interests; two, "the people" their constituents sometimes prefer lies to truth. There is no politics without lies: whether noble or ignoble. The question for Obama is whether forthrightly confronting anti-Muslim bigotry is compatible with winning the presidency. Obama calculates that the two are not compatible. Unfortunately, I think he is right. Here is where the prudential realities of electoral politics puts real pressure on the kind of hard won liberal convictions that Podhoretz mentioned; before which, he argued, no bigoted claim can be respected.

In this regard, politics is like poker: you play the hand you are dealt. If you intend to win rather than merely play the presidential game (think Jesse Jackson and severed testicles), then you play by the conventions of the game. If you win, you might be able to change the rules; the rules, for example, that require one to hold Muslims at arms length. Prudential considerations in a primary campaign are different than those in a general election campaign; there are fewer voters to win, fewer compromises that must be made. The need for deception is less or, at the very least, the nature of the deception is different. In turn, governing is different than campaigning. We can hope that Obama's reticence regarding anti-Muslim bigotry is driven by the prudential realities of campaigning. But we can do more than hope; we can hold his feet to the proverbial fire. If he fails to do as president what the realities of the campaign would not permit him to do, then he deserves to be burned—metaphorically speaking.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *