Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May-June 2008, page 47

Special Report

Attacks on Barack Obama Reinforce Anti-Muslim Sentiment

By Jack Shaheen

When we look at race, religion and gender in American politics, we have made considerable progress.

Voters elected John F. Kennedy as the first-ever Catholic president. We accepted Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, as a viable Democratic party vice-presidential candidate. In the 2008 campaign we have accepted a Mormon, an African-American man, and a woman as serious presidential candidates.

The majority of American voters accepted these previously unrepresented office-seekers as legitimate contenders in our political process. But there remain many signs of a darker side in our voting public.

The Tennessee Republican Party issued a news release featuring a photograph of Sen. Barack Obama dressed in turban-topped Somali tribal garb with the headline “Anti-Semites for Obama,” then referred to him as “Sen. Barack Hussein Obama.” Nationally syndicated radio talk show hosts Bill Cunningham and right-wing pundit Debbie Schlussel also have smeared Obama. Schlussel’s on-line article, for example, began: “Barack Hussein Obama: Once a Muslim Always a Muslim.”

E-mails have circulated warning that if Obama wins the presidency and we “lose” the war in Iraq, America will become Arab-land. Some of these e-mails include pictures that reproduce a fake cover of Playboy magazine displaying veiled playmates from Afghanistan; Burger King becomes a Falafel King; McDonald’s becomes McHammed’s—with the caption, “Billions and billions oppressed.” The final picture in the e-mail shows green, onion-shaped domes perched atop the White House.

Why do some Americans promote this big lie? The answer is obvious: they believe that by falsely proclaiming that Obama is an Arab Muslim, they can destroy him.

No political candidate or member of the media has addressed this nation’s deep and dangerous anti-Muslim sentiments.

On CBS’s “60 Minutes” TV program, reporter Steve Kroft asked Sen. Hillary Clinton if she believed that Senator Obama was a Muslim. Clinton answered: ”No, no, there is nothing to base that on, as far as I know.”

Why such a vague reply? Why didn’t she say the truth: “I know for certain that Senator Obama is a Christian; we have attended many White House prayer breakfasts together.”

How refreshing it would have been had Clinton added: “Even if Barack had been a Muslim, which he is not, what difference would it make? This is America; we respect people of all faiths, no matter where they pray, whether in a church, a synagogue or a mosque.”

In spite of the distance we have traveled since a Catholic was elected president, the unfortunate fact is that in our 2008 election, no political candidate or member of the media has addressed this nation’s deep and dangerous anti-Muslim sentiments. This absence of media or political dialogue explains why Islamaphobia and Arabaphobia persist as two dangerous evils in our culture.

When CNN’s Glenn Beck interviewed Keith Ellison (D-MN), the first Muslim ever elected to Congress, he did not congratulate the new congressman. Instead, Beck attacked Ellison (an African American who converted to Islam). “Sir,” he barked, “prove to me you are not working with our enemies. I’m not accusing you of being an enemy, but that’s the way I feel, and I think a lot of Americans will feel that way.”

As long as media commentators like Beck and others “feel that way” about America’s Muslims, the false connection of “Arab equals Muslim equals Terrorist” will continue to poison the hearts and minds of the American public.

Islamophobia and Arabaphobia will continue to fester until courageous movers and shakers begin saying, repeatedly, and in loud clear, voices: “There is nothing wrong and everything right about having Americans of all faiths and colors seek the presidency of the United States.”

This year the Democrats are selecting as their nominee either a white woman or an African American man, both of whom are Christians. In the future, we may be choosing from among candidates who are Hindu, Muslim, Jewish or Christian. May that day come soon. Then we can rejoice that we are truly a nation of equals.

Jack Shaheen is the author of Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, and Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs after 9/11, both available from the AET BookClub.