Why Should Barack Obama’s Religion Matter?

By Ramzy Baroud

Whether Barack Obama is or, at one point, was a Muslim should be a trivial matter in any society governed by secular, democratic dictates that apply to all, on equal footage, regardless of race, gender or religion. But in a society that is taking a turn toward the right, the matter is anything but inconsequential.

According to estimates, there are anywhere between 1.2 billion to 1.8 billion Muslims worldwide, 8 million of whom are Americans. But Muslims feel threatened, and for good reason. After the tragic events of September 11, 2001, Muslim communities have been shamelessly branded as the "enemy" to the point that in mainstream media today, the term "patriot" is juxtaposed with "Muslim" as if the two terms are irreconcilable.

The events of 9/11 have indeed politicized faith like no other past event — in a country where faith is already a powerful player in political affairs. Chris Hedges writes: "Dominionism, born out of a theology known as Christian reconstructionism, seeks to politicize faith. It has, like all fascist movements, a belief in magic along with leadership adoration and a strident call for moral and physical supremacy of a master race, in this case American Christians."

Under these unfortunate circumstances, Obama’s faith matters greatly. The presumptive presidential candidate of the Democratic Party is vilified on the question of his faith, often accused of being a "closet Muslim" — thus, supposedly, bearing wicked plans to destroy this country from "within." His detractors accentuate the claim, knowing fully that they have an audience, large enough to cause the energetic candidate some trouble along the way.

"Summarized, available evidence suggests Obama was born a Muslim to a nonpracticing Muslim father and for some years had a reasonably Muslim upbringing under the auspices of his Indonesian stepfather. At some point, he converted to Christianity," concludes rightwing columnist Daniel Pipes, known for his ardent anti-Muslim views.

Such commentators seem entirely oblivious to the fact that by digging up the "dirt" of Obama’s past, as a third grader in Indonesia, to "prove" that at one point in his life he was raised a Muslim — thus should be disowned as a candidate of "change" in America — they compromise on the very nature of tolerance that America should be standing for.

They, although indirectly, envision their alternative view of the future of America, as one ruled by a religious fundamentalist intolerant group that would fight anyone who fails to adhere to their skewed ideology and preferred physical appearance. Also, considering how race and vote were intrinsically linked in individual party contests, one can conclude that being black, and a Muslim, are the antithesis of what these narrow-minded bunch stand for.

Obama, of course, is violating the very principles that he tirelessness preaches, by responding to "accusations" of his Muslim heritage as if he was warding off an incurable disease. Such claims are being deemed "smears" and "lies," and according to a debate on MSNBC, Obama declared that he had been "victimized" by such claims. He has been so tireless and fervent in disproving these "smears" that his very own religious intolerance and racism has been shamelessly disregarded.

"I’ve been to the same church — the same Christian church — for almost 20 years," he told a cheering audience last January. "I was sworn in with my hand on the family Bible." One of the many pieces of literature distributed by his campaign in past months featured photos of Obama praying with the words "COMMITTED CHRISTIAN" in large letters across the middle.

It says Obama will be a president "guided by his Christian faith" and includes a quote from him saying, "I believe in the power of prayer," according to an Associated Press report.

Speaking in a Florida synagogue, Obama tried to assure his Jewish audience that his name "Barack" has the same Semitic roots as the Hebrew name "Baruch." His supporters contend that the origins of the name are African, not Arabic. Even the clearly Arabic roots of Obama’s name are now explained based on "African" and — as of late — "Semitic" roots. Obama was responding to a member of the audience who exclaimed that he would be more comfortable voting for someone named Barry, not Barack. Instead of lashing out at the man’s bigotry, Obama once again, "fought off rumors" this time reinterpreting his own name.

As for being a Muslim, Obama has spent much time, energy and resources fending off the accusations, even starting FighttheSmears.com to prove — among other things — that he is not a Muslim.

Then on June 16, two Muslim women who attended an Obama event in Detroit were told they couldn’t stand behind the candidate. One was told her head covering was an issue, and another was told that for political reasons they didn’t want Muslims appearing with him on TV, reported National Public Radio.

Of course, this is anything but an identity crisis for the savvy Harvard-educated politician of "change." Obama must have comprehended, and early on, the implicit limits of tolerance in his country, and has decided to concede to the harbingers of racism and bigotry. Obama should have unapologetically responded to the speculation on his religion in a respectful manner, for example like this:

I would have been honored to be affiliated with the religion of Islam, one that is adhered to by one-fourth of humanity, and is the religion of my ancestors and millions of Americans.

But I am equally honored to be a member of a church, to be a Christian, a religion — like all great religions — that has taught me tolerance, peace and equality, principles that I will continue to cherish as long as I live.

-Ramzy Baroud (www.ramzybaroud.net) is an author and editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His work has been published in many newspapers and journals worldwide. His latest book is The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People’s Struggle (Pluto Press, London).

(The Palestine Chronicle is a registered 501(c)3 organization, thus, all donations are tax deductible.)
Our Vision For Liberation: Engaged Palestinian Leaders & Intellectuals Speak Out