Foreign Affairs

Obama Comes Out of the Closet on Islam

During the presidential campaign it became forbidden to draw any attention to candidate Obama’s Muslim heritage. Obama himself attacked any suggestion he had Muslim roots.  Even GOP nominee John McCain publicly disavowed the use of Obama’s middle name, Hussein.

McCain’s refusal to talk about Obama’s Muslim background was somewhat understandable given that whenever conservatives mentioned it even indirectly they were lambasted in the media as bigoted fear-mongers or worse.  I was interviewed by the BBC last October and found myself in a half-hour shouting match because I dared to use the President’s middle name.  So much has changed since the campaign.  In the post-November 4 world, President Obama is emphasizing his Islamic heritage as if it were one of his greatest assets.     

But President Obama cannot have it both ways.  He cannot emphasize his Islamic roots when it suits him, and then label as beyond the pale those who mention his heritage when it might be a liability. Even more important, the American president must decide which role is more important to him, Apologist-in-Chief for the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims or Commander-in-Chief of the United States and advocate for American values abroad.  

Ahead of this week’s trip to the Middle East, a White House official briefed reporters on his Middle East trip and emphasized Obama’s Muslim roots. According to Jake Tapper of ABC, the aide said, “The president himself experienced Islam on three continents…you know growing up in Indonesia, having a Muslim father — obviously Muslim Americans (are) a key part of Illinois and Chicago.”

Perhaps Obama thinks Chicago’s large Muslim population is representative of the proportion of Muslims in the overall American population.  In a Wednesday interview on a French television station, the president observed that the U.S. “could be considered one of the largest Muslim countries in the world.”  

It could be if you counted Muslims in the 57 American states Obama claimed to have visited during the campaign. Where the seven extra states are located is still a mystery.  

The truth is that there are more than two dozen countries with Muslim populations larger than ours. And American Muslims represent about 1.5 percent of Americans, which makes them one of the smallest religious groups in the U.S. France, England, Germany, etc., are more “Muslim” than we are. In fact, there are more Muslims in the nation of Burkina Faso than there are in the United States.

The highlight of Obama’s trip was his “New Beginning” speech in Cairo, Egypt.  Again, he emphasized his Muslim background, talking about his family, which he said “includes many generations of Muslims,” as well as his time working with Muslims in Chicago.

To his credit, the president mentioned religious freedom, recalling his childhood years in Indonesia, where “devout Christians worshiped freely in an overwhelmingly Muslim country. That is the spirit we need today,” he said.  

But the president could have said so much more.  The suppression of basic human rights is a fact of life throughout much of the Islamic world, and Muslim nations make up a large percentage of the State Department’s list of the world’s most severe violators of religious freedom. That list includes Saudi Arabia, and its dictator, King Abdullah, whose “counsel” Obama sought earlier this week in a trip to Riyadh.

And though women are treated as little more than chattel across so much of the Muslim world, Obama chose to speak mainly of the supposed discrimination in the West against Muslim women who choose to cover their heads.  

In a certain sense, President Obama cannot be blamed for trying to ingratiate himself to Muslim leaders.  After all in much of the Islamic world, Obama would be guilty of apostasy as the Christian son of a Muslim man. As such, he would be a candidate for state-sanctioned execution.  

The remark that stood out most to me in Obama’s speech was his comment that “I consider it part of my responsibility as president of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.”  This line echoed a similar statement Obama made in a January interview with a Muslim television network.    

The remark predictably evoked rousing applause from his Muslim audience in Cairo.  Then Obama said, “That same principle must apply to Muslim perceptions of America.  Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire.”  

That line prompted only awkward silence; then strained applause.

The media’s mantra since Election Day has been that Obama’s inauguration would change the Muslim world’s view of America.  And though he received a cordial welcome throughout the Middle East, it seems most Muslims’ views of America have remained remarkably resilient to President Obama’s charm and eloquence.  

In a poll of Muslims in 11 Muslim countries conducted right before Obama’s Cairo speech, Gallup researchers found that while “approval of U.S. leadership,” was up slightly in some Muslim countries, it “remains generally low.”  In fact, the median public approval rating in Muslim nations of U.S. leadership is languishing below the “Pelosi line,” at 25 %.

On issues of faith, Obama’s messages have been mixed. He wants to be able to claim America isn’t a religious country, but then alleges it is one of the largest Muslim countries in the world.  He doesn’t want anyone to bring up his Muslim roots when they are talking to American voters.  But his Muslim heritage becomes the main selling point when it suits his purpose of finding “common ground” in the Middle East.  

As president of the United States, Obama has a duty to be an advocate for our democratic way of life and a champion of the citizens of the United States.  But in Cairo the president made clear he does not view democracy promotion as important.    

Somewhere lost in all of the hype over Obama’s outreach to the world is a sense that he stands most proudly as the American President.  It’s time for the president’s soaring rhetoric to be applied in support of this great nation and its Judeo-Christian heritage.