JOHN MCWHORTER AUGUST 26, 2010
Who cares whether one in five people think Barack Obama is a Muslim?
Yes, that’s even more people than a couple of years ago, based on results from a Pew Research Center poll last week. But even so, though this misconception is a personal insult to a president many of us think warmly of, does it really matter? In the grand scheme of things?
Because the grand scheme is what should be on our minds, not score-settling and mud-slinging in the present moment. The foot-stomping frustration over the notion of Obama as Muslim—complete with the now-standard verbal footnote “And what would be wrong with it even if he was!”—is giving too much attention to the mere.
The Obama-as-Muslim issue is not the only one of late in which too many who ought to know better are yielding to the temptations of the mere. As it happens, the other Muslim-related issue in the headlines these days, the Ground Zero mosque controversy, is another one of them. Indeed, all arguments against its construction capitulate to the mere, and the mosque—sorry, Center—must be built.
The notion of the mosque in question is actually viscerally unpleasant to me to an extent. I dislike that some Islamists may interpret it as a Muslim victory flag in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. But I know that this sentiment is mere, and cannot inform my considered opinion on the matter. As a nation truly devoted to plurality, we can make no gesture more dignified and even superior than a mosque near Ground Zero, asserting our distinction between Islam and the murdeous perversion of it espoused by a pathetic few.
Will some of the fans of those few see the mosque as a victory flag? We can be sure of it. Is the mosque’s imam Feisal Abdul-Rauf, “moderate” though he is, categorically contemptuous of the terrorist actions of Hamas and like-minded others? Probably not—i.e. he likely wouldn’t pass the stringent test Reuel Marc Gerecht proposed in these pages. But the man is seeking to not entirely alienate more radical Muslims; inevitably he will round off some corners in his public utterances. But that is a matter of present-day cultural politics, while the mosque and the larger statement it makes will live on. As to 9/11 victims’ families opposed to the mosque, are they in an emotional position to dissociate the mosque from fanatic Wahhabism? Understandably not—but as such we cannot use them as counsel on an ecumenical gesture based on the abstraction of overarching principle.
Which brings us back to Obama’s supposedly being a closet Muslim, in that here, too, the overarching issue is what ought to concern us rather than the follies of the moment. Over what, precisely, do they arch, these follies? For one, it’s unclear to me why anyone is surprised that people have a way of believing what they want to believe. Those who think Obama is a Muslim are primarily conservatives, according the poll data, and thus the Muslim canard is linked to a general dislike of the man and/or his policies.
So: people who don’t like Obama are fond of the idea served to them by right-wing media that he is lying about his religion. Shocking indeed! But not, actually—when he also happens to have spent some years of his childhood in a Muslim country and has an Arabic middle name. Indeed, not so long ago there was the publicity over his membership in Jeremiah Wright’s church, and Wright does not exactly go about titling himself Imam. Yet if you are fond neither of Obama (nor of thinking a whole lot at all), you might make a lazy equation between the reverse racism of Wright’s sermons and those of Louis Farrakhan and suppose that a Black Muslim might feel at home at Trinity United in Chicago.
Try to put yourself in the head of someone like this. How likely will that person be dissuaded by some functionary blandly asserting that Obama prays to God daily? After all, that person is as reflexively skeptical of the media as anyone.
But I’d argue that these people simply don’t matter. Most people who think Obama is a Muslim are vanishingly unlikely to vote for him. Even among Independents, how many will vote for Mitt Romney in 2012—or even a Republican congressional candidate this year—out of pique at Obama’s having turned out to be a Muslim, as opposed to his decisions on much more important issues, like the economy?
To wit: what historical imprint will people who think Obama is a Muslim have? Granted, to many of them, “Muslim” is an insult, associated with reductive views of Islam just as much of the opposition to the Ground Zero mosque is. But the insult and the feelings behind it are mere—in current as well as future significance.
In seeking an analogy, it occurred to me that almost certainly, there must have been widespread rumors that Franklin Roosevelt was Jewish. Legions hated him as passionately as many today hate Obama and often even more so. In Roosevelt’s time, the Jewish charge would have been the precise equivalent, in implications, of the Muslim one today.
And wouldn’t you know, it turns out there was exactly such a rumor—which didn’t matter one bit in terms of Roosevelt’s legacy. It was a product of ignorance a long time ago. Today we’re dealing with some more ignorance, a hallmark of this thing called humanity. But today will be a long time ago before we know it. The Obama folks are to be applauded for their relative lack of interest in “combatting” this silly rumor. The rest of the media should follow suit, and Obamaphiles at functions and play dates should find something to share disillusionment about that actually matters.
In fact, ideally Obama would go as far as to do something he has studiously refrained from in public: speaking Indonesian. He spoke it as a child and certainly can hold a conversation in it now (the most authoritative discussion on this is here). He is one of our few presidents to be fluent in a second language: Martin Van Buren was raised in a Dutch-speaking home when Dutch was still a home language of many New Yorkers and slipped into it when angry, and Herbert Hoover could speak some Mandarin—and now we have an Indonesian-speaking President.
Almost certainly we never see it because Obama feels that speaking it would fuel the fires of the Muslim rumor. Well, he should care little enough about such foolishness as to go ahead and speak a good paragraph of it with cameras rolling. It would mean that he is comfortable showing America and the world that he spent formative years in a Muslim country, was integrated deeply enough into it to speak its language, and is aware enough of the impotence of the rumor that this makes him a Muslim to feel no need to hide any of this. The clip would roll on assorted chatter sites as further evidence that he is a Muslim—the quintessence of the mere. Meanwhile Obama could continue in the larger, and realer, task of leading the free world.