Thursday, June 12, 2008

Fear, Loathing and Religion in the American Electorate: Islam

To say that there has been a buzz around U.S. Senator Barack Obama and his current bid for the Presidency would be a massive understatement. For many reasons, historical and otherwise, his candidacy has evoked intense interest, both from his supporters and his detractors. While his Trinity UCC pastor and former U.S. Marine Rev. Jeremiah Wright's soundbites have caused a fair amount of controversy, it is another religious angle that I am more interested in right now. While I'd like to be able say that Sen. Obama's deep influence from the eminent 20th century Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr is the talk of the American electorate, this is not the case.

Instead, there is a certain portion of the electorate that is convinced that Sen. Obama is actually a Muslim. He is not. But fear of a Muslim, a one-time Muslim, or a crypto-Muslim in the White House is enough to generate a lot of fear among certain sectors of the American populace. Like the 1950's cultural phantom of "Communism," "Islam" in the American psyche possesses a curious self-contradictory power--it is simultaneously superpowerful, able to drive its devotees to irrational frenzy and into the Presidency itself. Yet it is esoteric and hidden, like a sleeper cell, while being completely defenseless against rational investigation. This should not be too surprising, as cultural images in the U.S. equate Islam with Middle Eastern culture, even though the largest Muslim country in the world is Indonesia. Neither is it surprising for a mass culture with only two common images of Muslims--'Arab oil sheiks' or 'gun-wielding terrorists.' Surprising or not, it yields some curious insights into claims of cultural power.

As others have stated elsewhere, Senator Obama is not a Muslim. His Kenyan father was born a Muslim, but was an atheist himself. His mother, a tireless scholarly investigator and Christian, seems to have been the biggest religious influence, although by Senator Obama's own account, religion did not play that much of a role until his active conversion into the Social Gospel of the UCC. But again, let's focus on the implication of his alleged Muslim identity.

On the one hand, it has been argued that his exposure to Islam might be a good thing for diplomacy, as other countries with significant influence from Islam might consider him more open or friendlier to their positions. It is difficult to see why this would be so, since within Dar-al-Islam there are very strong oppositions between some Muslim governments and officials. To take this seriously, one needs to see worldwide Islam as one single community in its ideas and agendas. It most certainly is not. On the other hand, as some have argued, Obama might be considered a liability by these same countries--even an "apostate" worthy of killing to earn religious merit among fellow Muslims. As this reasoning goes, Islam considers anyone born to a Muslim father to be a Muslim. Therefore, once born, one can only be devout or apostate. As a convert to Christianity, Obama would be an apostate, and as everyone knows, the penalty for renouncing Islam is death...right? No.

Of course that too is not a serious proposition for several reasons. One, Obama's father was not born under Islamic law, which had no force or authority in the former British colony of Kenya. Second, while there are a few countries in which prosecutions of apostasy have occurred, these charges have been historically political in nature, and added to a laundry list of charges to prosecute political opponents accused of similar crimes such as treason or "insulting authority." The vast majority of Islamic countries do not criminalize apostasy, much less kill those who convert. And as should be clear now, there is certainly no consensus in worldwide Islam over the meaning and issue of apostasy, so it would be impossible for all (or even most) Islamic countries to see 'President Obama' as some perverted apostate. 

Unfortunately, U.S. culture and mass media is not capable of handling complicated questions of Sharia, Fiqh and Islamic legal hermeneutics. Nor is the American public as whole, which admits a staggering ignorance concerning the two religious lightning rods of the 2008 U.S. Presidential Campaign, Islam and Mormonism.  There is little room for that other than projections of fear and hope. Mostly fear.

The most intriguing attempt to capitalize on these continuously circulating rumors is a recent attack ad, featuring ominous music and a female voice charging Sen. Obama with deceptiveness and dishonesty regarding the now long-discredited claim that he attended a 'radical madrassa' in his youth, based on the early version of a later redacted Associated Press story. Showcasing a photograph of Senator Obama in tribal clothing, the ad associates that clothing with crypto-Muslim identity. The ad is the brainchild of Floyd Brown, who designed the infamous "Willie Horton" ad of the 1988 U.S. Presidential campaign season. Its quite amazing to see a political ad attacking a candidate's actions as a child, when people usually have the least say over what they do and who they are. Then again, the cultural figure of the 'child' is perfect projection screen for the power of Islamophobia (and to be fair, Islamophilia, which at this point is a neglible factor). Children are often seen as easily swayed and easily ideologically conscripted, like the children of Nazi Germany, yet seemingly innocent, hidden in plain sight.