Treating Muslim as pejorative sends troubling message

Pundits have been pointing fingers since a recent poll found that 50 percent of Mississippi and Alabama GOP supporters said they believe President Barack Obama is a Muslim (with an additional nearly 40 percent in both states saying they are unsure).

Some accuse Rep-ublicans of attempting to raise questions about Obama’s Christian identity. An editor at the Atlantic, David Graham, criticized the poll itself, arguing that simply asking the question ends up perpetuating the “pernicious” claim that the president is a Muslim.

Implicit in these arguments is that there is something wrong with adhering to Islam. And on this front, Obama and his aides are not much better than the president’s opponents.

This latest turn in the 2012 presidential election plot line underscores a widespread Islamophobic societal trend. During the 2008 campaign, the false gossip ranged from the extreme — Obama has secret ties to al Qaida! — to the benign, such as his having chosen to be sworn into Congress using a Koran.

Then and now, the Obama campaign has actively dismissed all such claims. But as former Secretary of State Colin Powell once asked, “What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?” Would something be wrong if Obama had been sworn in using a Koran, as was Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) in January 2007?

The answer should be no. But the president and his supporters make it seem otherwise by treating the “Obama is a Muslim” claims as both insults and accusations to be refuted.

Religious identity is important to Americans, especially those running for the highest office. This is a genuine concern for supporters of Obama just as it is for those behind Mitt Romney, who is seeking to become the first Mormon president.

The crux of this particular prejudice, however, is not

based in wanting to know what Obama’s religion is but wanting assurance about what his religion is not. Much of this probably stems from an American populace still dealing with the trauma of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, which were carried out by violent Muslim extremists, with implicit guilt by association tied to all followers of Islam.

By repeatedly insisting that Obama is not now nor has ever been a Muslim, the Obama campaign and the White House deliver a problematic message to the world, including the Muslim American minority –– 1 percent of America’s population, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life — and the 1.6 billion Muslims living outside the United States. The message: Muslims are unfit to be president.

Obama’s administrative staff, supporters and even some of his opponents continue to echo the mantra that Obama is a practicing Christian. Instead, the main message should be that it would not matter if Obama were a Muslim.

When his campaign in 2008 said it was a “smear” to be called a Muslim, and when his aides today fail to stress that there would be nothing wrong even if he were a Muslim, Obama is perpetuating the notion that there is something wrong with having a Muslim identity. Would false rumors that a politician were Jewish be considered an insult? What about being a Hindu or a Sikh?

During the 1940s, Nazi propagandists attacked Charlie Chaplin — his film “The Great Dictator” mocked Adolf Hitler — for being Jewish. Chaplin was a Christian, but he never denied the charge because he believed that to do so would play into the hands of anti-Semites.

Why hasn’t Obama taken such an approach? He’s had more than three years as president of the United States to stand loud and firm about how problematic it is to use the label “Muslim” as a pejorative.

The television sitcom “Seinfeld” dedicated an episode to this sort of hypocrisy, with Jerry and George denying being gay lovers –– each denial was followed by a quick “not that there’s anything wrong with that.” The sitcom was mocking the insincerity of those who preach acceptance of a minority group but display revulsion when mistakenly identified as a member of that group.

Ideally, perhaps, the president would follow Chaplain’s lead. But if he and his aides are going to make a point of responding to claims about his religion, the least they could do is give us some Jerry and George. Even a “not that there’s anything wrong with that” would be an improvement.

Aaron Hahn Tapper
is the director of the Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice at the University of San Francisco and the co-executive director of Abraham’s Vision, an educational organization working with Jews, Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians.