Friday, February 29, 2008

Obama, Being Called a Muslim Is Not a Smear

Finally! Someone said it! Thank you

Naomi Klein

posted February 28, 2008 (March 17, 2008 issue)

Hillary Clinton denied leaking the photo of Barack Obama wearing a turban, but her campaign manager says that even if she had, it would be no big deal. "Hillary Clinton has worn the traditional clothing of countries she has visited and had those photos published widely."

Sure she did. And George W. Bush put on a fetching Chamato poncho in Santiago, while Paul Wolfowitz burned up YouTube with his antimalarial African dance routines when he was World Bank prez. The obvious difference is this: when white politicians go ethnic, they just look funny. When a black presidential contender does it, he looks foreign. And when the ethnic apparel in question is vaguely reminiscent of the clothing worn by Iraqi and Afghan fighters (at least to many Fox viewers, who think any headdress other than a baseball cap is a declaration of war on America), the image is downright frightening.

The turban "scandal" is all part of what is being referred to as "the Muslim smear." It includes everything from exaggerated enunciations of Obama's middle name to the online whisper campaign that Obama attended a fundamentalist madrassa in Indonesia (a lie), was sworn in on a Koran (another lie) and if elected would attach RadioShack speakers to the White House to broadcast the Muslim call to prayer (I made that one up).

So far, Obama's campaign has responded with aggressive corrections that tout his Christian faith, attack the attackers and channel a cooperative witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee. "Barack has never been a Muslim or practiced any other faith besides Christianity," states one fact sheet. "I'm not and never have been of the Muslim faith," Obama told a Christian News reporter.

Of course Obama must correct the record, but he doesn't have to stop there. What is disturbing about the campaign's response is that it leaves unchallenged the disgraceful and racist premise behind the entire "Muslim smear": that being Muslim is de facto a source of shame. Obama's supporters often say they are being "Swiftboated," casually accepting the idea that being accused of Muslimhood is tantamount to being accused of treason.

Substitute another faith or ethnicity, and you'd expect a very different response. Consider a report from the archives of this magazine. Thirteen years ago, Daniel Singer, The Nation's late, much-missed Europe correspondent, went to Poland to cover a hotly contested presidential election. He reported that the race had descended into an ugly debate over whether one of the candidates, Aleksander Kwasniewski, was a closet Jew. The press claimed his mother had been buried in a Jewish cemetery (she was still alive), and a popular TV show aired a skit featuring the Christian candidate dressed as a Hasidic Jew. "What perturbed me," Singer wryly observed, "was that Kwasniewski's lawyers threatened to sue for slander rather than press for an indictment under the law condemning racist propaganda."

We should expect no less of the Obama campaign. When asked during the Ohio debate about Louis Farrakhan's support for his candidacy, Obama did not hesitate to call Farrakhan's anti-Semitic comments "unacceptable and reprehensible." When the turban photo flap came up in the same debate, he used the occasion to say nothing at all.

Farrakhan's infamous comments about Jews took place twenty-four years ago. The orgy of hate that is "the Muslim smear" is unfolding in real time, and it promises to greatly intensify in a general election. These attacks do not simply "smear Barack's Christian faith," as John Kerry claimed in a campaign mailing. They are an attack on all Muslims, some of whom actually do exercise their rights to cover their heads and send their kids to religious school. Thousands even have the very common name Hussein. All are watching their culture used as a crude bludgeon against Obama, while the candidate who is the symbol of racial harmony fails to defend them. This at a time when US Muslims are bearing the brunt of the Bush Administration's assaults on civil liberties, including dragnet wiretapping, and are facing a documented spike in hate crimes.

Occasionally, though not nearly enough, Obama says that Muslims are "deserving of respect and dignity." What he has never done is what Singer called for in Poland: denounce the attacks themselves as racist propaganda, in this case against Muslims.

The core of Obama's candidacy is that he alone--who lived in Indonesia as a boy and has an African grandmother--can "repair the world" after the Bush wrecking ball. That repair job begins with the 1.4 billion Muslims around the world, many of whom are convinced that the United States has been waging a war against their faith. This perception is based on facts, among them the fact that Muslim civilians are not counted among the dead in Iraq and Afghanistan; that Islam has been desecrated in US-run prisons; that voting for an Islamic party resulted in collective punishment in Gaza. It is also fueled by the rise of a virulent strain of Islamophobia in Europe and North America.

As the most visible target of this rising racism, Obama has the power to be more than its victim. He can use the attacks to begin the very process of global repair that is the most seductive promise of his campaign. The next time he's asked about his alleged Muslimness, Obama can respond not just by clarifying the facts but by turning the tables. He can state clearly that while a liaison with a pharmaceutical lobbyist may be worthy of scandalized exposure, being a Muslim is not. Changing the terms of the debate this way is not only morally just but tactically smart--it's the one response that could defuse these hateful attacks. The best part is this: unlike ending the Iraq War and closing Guantánamo, standing up to Islamophobia doesn't need to wait until after the election. Obama can use his campaign to start now. Let the repairing begin.

Postscript: Ari Melber criticized this column, citing a video the Obama campaign has been circulating featuring a minister of Obama's church who makes it clear that while Obama is not a Muslim, there would be nothing wrong with it if he was. I had the same clip sent to me directly from the Obama campaign and wrote this in response: "What I am suggesting needs to be said can only be said by the man himself, just as he has taken brave stances against racism directed at Latinos under the guise of fighting illegal immigration. Do not underestimate the message that his silence is sending, not just in the U.S. but around the world."

One more thing: now is the time when candidates are most open to pressure. For instance, Hillary Clinton just announced that she will co-sponsor legislation to ban the use of private military companies--exactly one day after my Nation colleague Jeremy Scahill revealed that both Clinton and Obama were poised to let the mercenaries stay in Iraq even if the troops come home. Pushing candidates on the issues during a campaign can have a real impact, so can we please move beyond superfandom? I have also heard from people who think that saying Arabs and Muslims are worthy of exactly the same rights and protections as other minorities is just too high-risk a position for Obama during the campaign. If that's the position, so be it, but don't pretend the campaign is doing something it is not. It is precisely because he has been so strong on other issues of discrimination and racism that his trepidation on this issue leaps out.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Our Obama problem

With presidential candidate Barack Obama's surge ahead of Hillary Clinton in the nomination process, American Muslims are now asking how you root for a candidate who doesn't want you to root for him?

By Firas Ahmad, February 20, 2008

One of us?

As Obamamania continues to capture the imagination of the United States, parts of the American Muslim community are no less overcome by the Illinois Senator's charismatic and overpowering vision for change. It makes sense. He is a man of diverse ethnic background who seeks dialogue over war, who can credibly represent change given his independence from establishment politics and whose life story suggests an intimate understanding of the Muslim world. In many ways he represents more than Muslims could have hoped for given the radioactive nature of Islam in America over the past several years. Someone who seemingly has a sympathetic ear and background that could build bridges.

But for many reasons, Muslims are one constituency Obama does not want to court. With a wink and a nod, Obama's Muslim supporters continue to work for a candidate who cannot afford to wink back at them. Given his perceived "closeness" to Islam, and the fact that he shares a name with a former Iraqi dictator, it could be strategic suicide for the Obama campaign to vocally acknowledge organized Muslim support. At a time when endorsements are worn like badges of honor, no major candidate is looking for the Muslim vote.

No doubt if Obama wins the nomination, the Republicans will exploit this issue far more than Bill Clinton attempted to manipulate race in South Carolina. McCain will never have to say a word, the "hit job" will be manufactured and executed by his friends on Fox News, via the airwaves with Rush and Hannity (who would have overcome their issues with McCain by then) and through tabloids like the New York Post. Vocal Muslim support for Obama, if it happens, will likely be used as subtext for character attacks against his background and to fuel baseless rumors that he is actually a stealth Islamist who will subvert the establishment after taking power.

As Don Imus can attest, racism and bigotry against African Americans is now largely unacceptable in public discourse. However, the same cannot be said of vitriol against Muslims. Attacking Obama for his pseudo-association with Islam is a far safer and more acceptable strategy for right-wing zealots than attacking him for being black. So if Obama has a campaign strategist worth his or her weight, we will never hear any serious public support or defense of Muslims from him or his campaign. For Muslims to demand anything from him simply demonstrates a misunderstanding of reality. Muslim support for Obama is akin to George Bush's support for democracy in the Middle East. The mere association with the former will undercut the credibility of the latter. It is an analogy that Muslims should understand.

Obama's lack of public defense of Islam is not so much an indictment against him as it is a demonstration of the infantile state of Muslim political participation in America. While it is impossible to tell, it would be reasonable to assume that if Obama could say something nice about Muslims he would because he wants votes from any and all Americans. Muslims fit squarely into the demographic that he appeals to most - professional, educated and young. The only reason a candidate like Obama would not say something nice about Muslims is because he is making a clear political calculation. The votes he would gain from Muslims are far less than the votes he would lose from his association with Muslims.

This should be startling. Unfortunately it has not initiated the kind of discussion within the community necessary to change these political ramifications for candidates in the future. To be fair, other candidates have lost votes based on their religious affiliation. Romney, a practicing Mormon, could have had a much better shot as the Republican nominee if he were from a Protestant denomination. But in terms of public perception, Muslims are a whole other category of disrepute. We are not talking about a Muslim candidate, we are talking about supporting a candidate who denies any connection, real or perceived, to Islam.

This is a political reality that Muslims in America must face. It is a clear demonstration that the collective efforts of Muslim institution building over the last 20 years have largely failed to make any real progress when it comes to impacting the American political process, at least at the national level. Muslims have found the perfect candidate, but cannot vocally support him for fear that if they do, they may be the reason he loses. How is that for a wake-up call.

At the core of the problem is the public perception of Islam in America. While global events, and of course 9/11, play an undeniable role in shaping the image of Islam for Americans, Muslims have ignored establishing some of the most basic institutions that are necessary for any minority community who seeks to have their voice taken seriously. There are no widely circulated national publications that explain Muslim perspectives. There is no widely recognized think tank expressing Muslim understandings of policy debates. There are a scant few public intellectuals from Muslim backgrounds that articulate mainstream views or who represent general Muslim thinking. While there are a number of very talented Muslim academics, very few have been able to cross-over and achieve mainstream credibility. Every other minority community has multiple inventories in each category listed above. What Muslims have are a number of smaller efforts that lack support, lack funding and lack human resources. If Muslims have failed in all these arenas it is not for a lack of talent, but rather for a lack of collective vision.

Instead, Muslims have invested in a handful of advocacy groups that, to their credit, work extremely hard to bring a "Muslim" slant to whatever breaks in the news that day. Advocacy groups play an important part of any community, but they are not sufficient for any community to make a serious play for political clout. In fact, the degree to which Muslims are publicly represented by their advocacy is inversely related to how they will be positively perceived by the general public. Advocacy groups are inherently divisive. The NAACP, the ACLU and other groups all play important roles in American democracy, but they are also polarizing organizations. Muslims need to take the edge off the way they present themselves in the broader public discussion. While this includes important and pioneering efforts like Unity productions, which has produced excellent work in the area of documentary film, much more is needed on a number of different fronts.

Policy and political decision making in America is not decided entirely on Capitol Hill. It is decided in the complex interaction of think tanks, academic institutions, book stands, radio shows, the evening news, newspapers, op-ed pages, opinion polls, Hollywood blockbusters and much more. It is the confluence and interaction of all these institutions that inform how politicians behave, not the other way around. Politicians are simply seeking votes, and votes are determined by people's inclinations, perceptions, prejudices and perspectives. If you want to win politicians, you have to build constituencies by changing the way people think.

If Muslims do not want to suffer the indignation of political irrelevance for many elections to come, instead of giving money to politicians, they should start investing in journalism scholarships. They should establish fellowships for Muslim academics to take a year off and write a book for a general audience, and then back them up with a PR firm to get the book on a best seller list. They should invest in publications that demonstrate a breadth and depth of thinking on a range of issues. They should invest in think tanks that analyze public issues and present actual value to the overall public discussion. All of these institutions exist right now for Muslims in America. But for the most part they are underfunded, underappreciated and undervalued. Because the community in general has not rallied behind them, they are for the most part invisible. Because they are invisible, Muslims are effectively invisible when it comes to Obama or any other serious candidate.

Another real tragedy here is that the part of the Muslim community that has made significant headway in all these areas, the African-American community, remains effectively marginalized from leadership roles in the larger Muslim establishment in America. African American Muslims have been civicaly, politically and socially engaged in America centuries. The rest of the Muslim community discovered these words a few years after 9/11. If all Muslims did was change the public perception of Islam in America to identify more with African American Islam than Arab or Pakistani Islam, the community would move forward in leaps and bounds. It is no accident that the first Muslim congressman is black. Until the Muslim leadership in America begins to recognize and reflect this historical reality, progress on a number of fronts will be slow. The Middle East and the subcontinent will remain powder kegs for decades to come.

Muslims largely misunderstand the process by which minority communities in America achieve their proverbial "seat at the table." It is not achieved through campaign donations and political posturing. It is achieved through understanding and executing on a collective vision that nurtures real, active, social, economic and political participation that improves both one's own community and the broader community that surrounds it. It is achieved through understanding that public perception is not entirely devised by a select few, but rather it is earned through hard work and sacrifice. It is achieved when a community actually adds some value to the society from which it benefits.

There is little strategic understanding of how to develop political capital within the Muslim community in America. If there was, Obama would not have to rebuke his Muslim supporters. The proof is in the pudding. Either Muslims deal with it, or do as they have done for the last 25 years: simply blame the media.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Obama and Clinton

I completely agree with this op-ed.

The loneliness of the One-Issue Voter
Laurie King-Irani, The Electronic Intifada, 4 February 2008

The road to the White House goes through Jerusalem: Then Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon meets with US Senator Hillary Clinton in Jerusalem, November 2005. (Inbal Rose/MaanImages)

Although I am now officially middle-aged, only once have I felt the excitement of waking up to the joyous news that my candidate won the US presidential elections. That was way back in 1992 when Bill Clinton was first elected.

I was living in Nazareth, conducting my dissertation research. When I found out Clinton had been elected, I let out a whoop of joy and believed that a new era of sanity, justice and decency had dawned.

Several months later, I began to wonder. While at a conference in Jerusalem I picked up a copy of New York Times. The lead story in the magazine, entitled "St. Hillary," featured a cover photo of Hillary Clinton dressed completely in white and looking quite self-righteous. In the course of reading the article, I learned that while in Law School at Yale, Hillary had decided, during a classroom debate about Palestine/Israel, that some people were "simply evil," and thus had no rights because they undertook terrorist actions. (I'm not sure if she was still a registered Republican back then ...)

I wished my Palestinian friends and neighbors could sit and chat with Hillary Clinton for a little while about the daily realities and systematic discrimination that they faced then -- and face even more so now -- under occupation. Now a particularly exciting election year is upon us. Before the Democratic race narrowed down to Obama and Clinton, I was rooting for Dennis Kucinich, because his message resonated with my "Big Issue": fair, just, and sane US foreign policies in the Middle East and outrage at the treatment of the Palestinian people.

There are lots of "One Issue Voters" out here: those who decide to support a candidate based on the sole criterion of abortion, or taxation, or gun control, or crime. For those of us who fall into the "Pro-Palestinian Rights" category of One Issue Voter-hood, it's a particularly lonely and dispiriting time. It's as though there's this big progressive celebration going on, but we haven't been invited.

Discussing the upcoming elections with friends and colleagues is uncomfortable. Should one support Hillary because she's likely to win the nomination anyway, and because it's imperative to get the Republicans out of the White House? Should one support Obama because he represents a challenge to the ossified cadres of Clintonites who assume that they are entitled to the presidency simply because they have amassed the money and the elite backing to waltz back into the White House? Should one support Republican Ron Paul, because he promises to cut all aid to Israel and end US intervention in the Middle East? Should those of us who care passionately about the human rights of Palestinians, Lebanese and Iraqis try to be "realistic" and vote for which ever candidate seems most likely to regain the White House and restore respect for the Constitution?

It annoys me that so many people I speak with say "Palestinian rights? Come on! Get real! No one can run for any office and succeed if they bring up that issue! There are other pressing crises that are much more important!" And they are not wrong to say so. Class disparities in the US are growing. Health care and insurance reform are absolutely crucial.

Looking at Obama's and Clinton's stances on some of these pressing issues, I should be excited. I just can't get mobilized and committed, though, because both have shown utter spinelessness about the key issue at the heart of the United States' misguided, destructive, and unjust policies in the Middle East: The question of Palestine. On the Republican side, frontrunner John McCain has recently gone out of his way to emphasize his decades-long record of unconditional support for Israel.

This is not a marginal, fringe issue to be swept aside. The fact that no candidate dares to speak out against US-funded Israeli violations of international humanitarian law and a raft of UN resolutions is a primary index of something horribly wrong at the heart of American politics.

Last summer, I watched a CNN broadcast during which the Democratic hopefuls underwent a cable catechism examination administered by Soledad O'Brien. Former Senator John Edwards and Clinton were grilled on their personal faith and how it has helped them in their private lives.

Obama got the booby-trapped political question: "Are Palestinians treated badly by Israel?" His answer was lame, and appeared ill-informed. Given that he is probably not ill-informed, however, it might have been dishonest. Obama responded that "although Palestinians are often put in situations that we would not want our own families to endure," it was sadly necessitated by the paramount need to safeguard Israelis from dangerous terrorists.

Obama is a lawyer. He should know something about the Geneva Conventions. He should know a bit about Israeli violations of international law, and the dozens of UN resolutions that have criticized the Israeli government and called for an end to the occupation.

Despite increasing activism, the existence of alternative news media, and growing public discomfort with the Bush administration's Middle East misadventures, it's really disappointing that an attractive front-runner in this key election did not feel secure enough to tell the truth. The public is way out in front of Congress on this issue, but given the demands of campaign funding and the fear of the sorts of underhanded attacks that AIPAC (the American Israeli Public Action Committee, i.e., the pro-Israel lobby) inflicts on those who deviate from a pro-Israeli narrative, anyone who hopes to attain office in Washington, DC is held hostage to the lobby's single-minded goal of assuring unconditional support for Israel no matter how badly it behaves.

There are those who say the lobby is not really that strong, serves as a bete noire for people who are possibly anti-Semitic, or is simply a healthy expression of active citizen participation in the US legislative process. Of course the lobby does not single-handedly control US foreign policy, but the depressing reality is that few candidates have the spinal fortitude to diverge from its narrative or to question its aims at election time.

Many -- even most -- in the American Jewish community are indifferent to or appalled by AIPAC's rhetoric, so it is not even representative of Jewish voters in the US.

And as depressing as the political scene may appear, this is where hope and opportunity lie. If concerned Americans want to support the rule of law at home and abroad, and support peace with justice around the world, they could find few better starting points than joining the international campaign to end the Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and other abuses. This means loudly opposing the unconditional diplomatic and military support that successive administrations have given to Israel, and challenging the candidates at every opportunity to respond directly to the mountain of factual evidence of Israel's abuses. This will not bear fruits in one election cycle, but it has to start.

Survey after survey shows that around the world, US support for Israeli violations remains a key motivator of anti-American sentiment. And yet in this country there's not even a debate about it among our leaders. Americans need to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and ongoing Israeli infractions of international law through its occupation of Palestinian lands more openly and critically. Brave and honest presidential candidates can and should be at the forefront of such needed political discussions.

If raising these issues, and using them as important criteria for choosing which presidential candidate to support, is a "non-starter" beyond the pale of acceptable political discourse in the Democratic or Republican parties then there really are no grounds for the excitement and rhetoric about change and transformation surrounding this election. There's no easy answer for the voter who cares about justice in Palestine. Yes, we should vote, but our activism has to go beyond simply marking a ballot on election day.