VIEW: Obama’s Muslim connection — Saleem H Ali
Obama’s connections with Islam could be a means of improving America’s strained relations with the Muslim world through empathy and erudition. Sadly the American political landscape is still not ready to break the glass ceiling for a truly multicultural candidate
Never before has the middle name of a US senator gained as much print coverage as that of Senator Barack Hussein Obama of Illinois. For the past several months the US media has been obsessed with the potential connection between Mr Obama and Islam, even though he has adamantly declared his credentials as a Christian.
The auditory similarity between “Obama” and “Osama” has led to all kinds of jokes and media slips that are quite revealing of the continuing apprehensions about Islam that so many citizens continue to feel across the land. Of course, the US Congress now has a bona fide Muslim member, Keith Ellison, from the state of Minnesota, and his decision to take an oath on the Quran instead of the Bible created an uproar as well. However, the significance of Mr Obama’s Islamic connection is far more consequential because of his national prominence.
Obama is already the front-runner among the democratic candidates in terms of overall popularity, despite being dismissed by some conservatives as a political novice with “oddity appeal”. The roots of Obama’s Muslim lineage and its potential implications, if he were to become the next American President, have only received polarised coverage. His opponents have pounced on the connections to discredit him while his supporters have been quick to dismiss the lineage as remote and of little relevance.
The reality is perhaps more complex and Muslim countries and Americans should have a more mature approach to understanding his multicultural identity.
Barack Obama’s paternal lineage is important for us to consider as it clearly has played an important part in the crafting of his personality. Mr Obama’s father was a Kenyan Muslim who separated from his American mother when the senator was only two years old. However, his mother soon remarried another Muslim, from another corner of the world — Indonesia. Obama’s stepfather Lolo Soetoro, was an important presence in his early years, specially since the family moved to Jakarta. His longing for a connection with his cultural roots, and his sense of loss at being separated from his father is perhaps best articulated in his first book (written twelve years before his presidential aspirations), which is titled Dreams from my Father.
However, because of the political rumblings, the poor senator has been cornered into distancing himself from his connections with Islam and pandering to pristine patriotism. The mere possibility that he might have attended a madrassa in Indonesia at the tender age of six suddenly became more important than his Harvard law degree.
In his recent book The Audacity of Hope, Obama presents a more secular cadence about his early years: “During the five years that we would live with my stepfather in Indonesia, I was sent first to a neighbourhood Catholic school and then to a predominantly Muslim school; in both cases, my mother was less concerned with me learning the catechism or puzzling out the meaning of the muezzin’s call to evening prayer than she was with whether I was properly learning my multiplication tables.”
While such a resolute commitment to objective knowledge on his mother’s part may well be commendable, the exposure to foreign cultures and traditions which Obama experienced should always be considered an asset by all. Indeed, his connections with Islam could be a means of improving America’s strained relations with the Muslim world through empathy and erudition.
Sadly the American political landscape is still not ready to break the glass ceiling for a truly multicultural candidate. In the last election, the complex African-Portugese lineage of Senator Kerry’s wife Teresa Heinz Kerry became the talk of the town. At least as a result of the Kerry caper, a large number of my fellow Americans were able to locate Mozambique on a map.
America is not alone in its fear of minority dominance. Pakistani politicians are always suspicious of non-Muslims climbing up the ladder in political circles, which is just as unfortunate. Occasionally we may have individuals such as Jamshed Marker or Justice Cornelius rising to major posts of authority. The same occasional nontradiational outliers in the US government, such as Zalmay Khalilzad or Shirin Tahir-Kheli may also be found. However, nationalism is still the game of dominant players in most polities.
In Israel, there was divisive rhetoric this week hurled against the first Arab member of the cabinet, Raleb Majadele, who remains without a portfolio because of entrenched discrimination. India’s ceremonial President Abul-Kalam has frequently been questioned by the conservative Hindu establishment for his Muslim allegiance which he feels obliged to wash away with champagne cheers.
Sadly, we are still living in a world where credentials are constantly being filtered through ethnically determined innuendoes. Beyond the platitudes of ‘diversity requirements’ in US colleges or corporate training programs, it is high time that multiculturalism becomes an essential credential for leadership rather than being a liability.
Dr Saleem H Ali is associate professor of environmental planning and conflict resolution at the University of Vermont and a senior fellow at the United Nations mandated University for Peace. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org