On Barack Obama, Arabs, and Muslims

Things that have proved tricky for Mr Obama at home are a boon for him in parts of the Middle East. That his middle name, Hussein, is reckoned to be something of a liability in America is in turn seen in parts of the Middle East as evidence of American Islamophobia. Mr Obama’s first name also appeals to Arab speakers: Barack comes from the Arabic word for “blessing” (Mr Obama could perhaps reassure Jewish-American voters that it is also linked to the Hebrew “Baruch”). His opposition to the Iraq war stands him in good stead, too, in contrast to Mrs Clinton and Mr McCain. Some Arabs are less smitten. Anti-Syrian politicians and activists in Lebanon may worry about Mr Obama’s willingness to start talks with Iran, fearing that they could result in America “selling out” Lebanon in exchange for a deal elsewhere in the region. But, for now, he seems to be the candidate of choice among Arabs.

The view from afar,” The Economist, 5 April, 2008.

While I do not believe that, should Senator Obama become president, the magic surrounding his candidacy would survive very long after he took office (and it becomes clear that American policy in the region is not changing in any meaningful way), it is obvious that in the polls, and anecdotally (to my ears), that he is the candidate of choice for many Arabs and Muslims.

I want to address the issue raised by Republican and Clintonian strategists about his religious background. On the right it is fashionable* to posit (and on the Clintonian side to wink and smirk while passing along the email) that, because according to Islamic tradition Senator Obama was “born” Muslim (as are all individuals born to Muslim fathers), he committed apostasy upon “discovering” his Christian faith (in effect, converting). The penalty in most Islamic states (including America’s major Arab allies) for apostasy is death. Daniel Pipes likes to investiagate whether or not the Senator ever practiced Islam, which if true, could be damaging to him in the general election should he become the Democratic nominee, and verifies the claim that Obama is an “apostate”. Such claims, if raised loudly enough, could potentially be campaign and life threatening. Pipes and others who raise this issue do so under the guise that it is politically relevant for reasons of national security; as the apostate president, there is a potential death sentence on his head, and he might have difficulty while making state visits to countries such as Saudi Arabia, or even Egypt.

But none of this seems to be of any concern to Arabs or Muslims. American Muslims are enthusiastic about his candidacy and tend to ignore questions about his religious identity. “It doesn’t matter,” is a common refrain. A forty-something Pakistani immigrant who supports the Senator put it this way: “He is an adult, and he has had enough time to make his own decisions. If he grew up ignorant of religion, how can he be faulted for it?” No Islamic authorities have issued fatwas condemning him to death or calling for Muslims to boycott him. While some Muslims are uncomfortable with the way he has skirted identifying himself with his father’s Islamic heritage or how he has gone through great pains to disassociate himself from Arab and Muslim causes (some of which he had originally supported), there is a growing sense that Obama is the only candidate whose ear is open to Arab or Muslim voices.

And among those who have doubts about Obama, the issue of his alleged apostasy doesn’t come up. When the matter is brought to the fore, it is usually in response to the claim that the Senator’s background would tremendously improve America’s standing in the Muslim world, and even then as a larger critique, usually along foreign policy or economic lines.

Whether or not Obama’s popularity will be sustainable as president is not a function of his previous or present religious preferences. It is rather a function of the kind of policies he executes and the manner in which he does so. George W. Bush was widely popular among American Arabs and Muslims in 2000, having made promises not entirely dissimilar to some of those made by Senator Obama on the issues of civil rights and racial profiling. Not a year into his term he had squandered most of the good will he had earned within the community by invading Iraq and allowing various civil rights violations to sweep the nation. If he becomes the next president, Barack Obama, like other charismatic U.S. presidents, will be defined by his conduct in office and his star power, not his religion. John F. Kennedy is remembered as the country’s first Catholic president; but he is more notable for the Cuban missile crisis and his glamorously promiscuous lifestyle than his Papist convictions. Richard M. Nixon, a Quaker, is remembered neither for his pacificism nor his humility, but for his cunning and corruption. And Barack Obama will be remembered for his handling (or mishandling) of the Iraq War, his winning smile, and perhaps his impact on race relations.**

*[ Though not exactly politically correct, as seen in some of the responses to Iowa Congressman Steve King's remarks. Among the more cartoonish, though still popular, elements of the blogosphere it is especially keen to hurl insults at Obama's background, even going as far as to accuse him of having "Arab" blood (as if this were some kind of impediment). ]

**[ Whether his impact on race relations will be positive or negative is highly debatable (It could give Americans the illusion that their racial problems are over, especially among the upper middle and upper classes, from which Obama draws much of his support, and lead to the tabling of many important issues related to race and minorities. At the same time, it could give more prominence to issues facing non-black minorities such as Hispanics, Asians, etc. who are often ignored or overshadowed by black issues. The result in either case would not be favorable for black Americans. The notion that his presidency will bring unity across the racial spectrum is largely a white delusion and is tremendously superficial, serving to ally feelings of white guilt. It further ignores the rest of American race relations beyond blacks and whites. ). Nevertheless, the encyclopedic introduction to the first black president of the racially infatuated United States will likely read something like this: "Barack Hussein Obama was the forty-fourth president of the United States. He was the first African-American to be elected president of the United States . . ." ]

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7 thoughts on “On Barack Obama, Arabs, and Muslims

  1. “Whether his impact on race relations will be positive or negative is highly debatable … it could give more prominence to issues facing non-black minorities such as Hispanics, Asians, etc. who are often ignored or overshadowed by black issues.”

    Possibly, but like all presidential candidates who try to be electorally successful, I don’t see much changing with this election vis-a-vis race issues on the agenda.

    Just a sidenote: if you’re interested in this topic, check out Paul Frymer’s “Uneasy Alliances”. Despite some possible flaws in his theory, the basic idea is that because of their contentiousness and the electoral strategies of office-seekers, race issues are deliberately kept off of the agenda election after election.

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