I have been raised and educated in India, an exemplary model of friendly interfaith culture. The U.S. is just beginning to develop an intimate knowledge about this wonderful culture through the influx of Indians. This migration that is happening will foster pluralism and diversity in America as never seen before.
For the last four decades, the San Francisco Bay Area has been my home. My interfaith upbringing has helped me promote goodwill among Americans, locally and nationally. After 9/11, I have been invited to temples, synagogues, churches, and academic and religious institutions to explain differences between pluralistic Islam and radical Islam.
From the time Barack Obama came on the scene as a presidential candidate, religious understanding took a different turn. Regularly, my friends ask me, “Is Obama a Muslim?” “Tell me what is like to be a Muslim or a practicing Muslim.” An evangelist told me, “Obama will surely be watched very closely.”
Obama’s background opened up lots of questions about who Muslims are. His paternal family is Muslim, and, moreover, Obama has maintained his middle name as was given to him, Hussein.
But Obama is also very careful not to use his middle name, a name that will remind Americans of Saddam Hussein—an enemy of America. Moreover, the name Hussein, a Muslim name, might trigger images of “radical” or “extremist” Islam in this post-9/11 culture.
Obama has also categorically denied that he was ever a Muslim. On the contrary, he has on numerous occasions said, “I am a Christian and have never been a Muslim.”
During a Detriot rally, Obama volunteers went the extra mile to make sure that he did not get associated with two Muslim women in hijab, who were asked to move out of the camera’s view. Obama later apologized to the Muslim women—but it was clear that for Obama to be seen in the mainstream media standing in front of Muslim women would signal bad publicity.
Obama embracing Muslims or Islam would certainly be fodder for the hate-mongers and Muslim-bashers who dominate both the political parties. They use these tactics to instill distrust among voters. Cunning politicians and the mainstream media deliberately connect him to being a Muslim to reap political hay and demonize him.
GOP presidential candidate John McCain says America is better off with a Christian president and he doesn’t want a Muslim in the Oval Office. “I admire Islam. There are a lot of good principles in it, but I just have to say in all candor that since this nation was founded primarily on Christian principles, personally, I prefer someone who I know who has a solid grounding in my faith,” McCain says.
McCain’s statement goes against the philosophy of the U.S. Constitution that says, “Congress shall not pass any law establishing any religion, nor shall they pass any law prohibiting the exercise of any.” American values dictate judging an individual based on their actions and not finding someone guilty by association. I find this missing in practice when it comes to judging Muslims.
The justice department is considering letting the FBI investigate Americans without any evidence of wrong doing, relying instead on a terrorist profile that could single out Muslims, Arabs, or other minorities. So, on the pretext of rooting out terrorists before they strike, American Muslims could be unfairly profiled—a long history in discrimination made lawful.
There are forces that are collectively putting fear in the minds of voters based on race and religion. In this particular election year when America is at war with radical Islam, newspapers and media are using the religious card.
America is a country that is still evolving. Religious and racial tolerance laws are preserved in the Constitution—but when it comes to self-interest and politics, it is a different game.
The U.S. Constitution, which begins with “We the people in order to form a more perfect union,” did not include Jews, Italians, Irish, and African Americans. These groups had to fight for their rights. American Muslims are right now in a tight spot.
Iftekhar Hai is president of United Muslims of America Interfaith Alliance. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.