Can a Muslim Ever Become President?
I was talking to my 4-year old the other day, and asked him a simple question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” His innocent, yet ambitious response was: “A baseball player, soccer player, doctor, hafiz (one who memorizes the entire Quran) and an elevator-man” – He is obsessed with pressing the buttons on elevators, so much that he has apparently made this his lifelong dream – so who am I to stop him? As a parent, I admire the youngster’s energetic, wide-ranging dreams – I told him if he becomes all those things, he could eventually have his own elevator in his house. My belief is that with hard work, sincerity and determination, any professional aspiration is achievable.
But when the time comes, what if either of my children tells me that they want to be the President of the United States? What do I tell them? Do I tell them, “Sorry boys – we’re Muslims, and that is not a reachable goal? “ The current state of race relations in the U.S. tells me that it would be a potential dream-deferred.
As children, we seemingly all used to have the same list of future potential jobs: athlete, astronaut, doctor, and President. Even as a child born and raised in the Deep South – I never felt a doubt that my professional aspirations would ever be limited. With a family that has roots in the U.S. since the 1950’s, I felt as much as part of the fabric of America as anyone else. But now, we are living in the post-9/11 reality – with Muslims constantly under the microscope. The term “Islam” has been co-opted, and turned into a political poker chip in order to spread fear and distrust of the American Muslim community.
When my father went to work each day in Opelika, Alabama in 1966, his co-workers didn’t ask the question on whether or not he was plotting against them. The handful of Muslims that gathered in a house to do Friday prayers in Auburn, Alabama weren’t being watched by the FBI – to see whether they were spreading a militant message. But this was the same Islam being practiced in the 1960’s, as is being practiced today – so why the change in perception? The answers simply boil down to the fact that it has become politically beneficial to embed fear among the public, along with a sense of “otherness” of the Muslim community.
In the last 40 years, bigotry and xenophobia have resided mainly beneath the surface. It was considered taboo and a career-killer to insinuate that you would not hire a person based off race or religion – that was until the most recent wave of Islamophobia has infected the American landscape. For an example of how this paradigm has shifted, just examine the case of Presidential candidate Herman Cain.
As the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO and talk-radio host hit out on the campaign trail, Cain was asked by an interviewer whether he would be comfortable appointing a Muslim cabinet member or Supreme Court Justice. His reply:
“No, I would not. And here’s why. There is this creeping attempt, there is this attempt to gradually ease Sharia law and the Muslim faith into our government. It does not belong in our government. This is what happened in Europe. And little by little, to try and be politically correct, they made this little change, they made this little change.” Cain’s short statement was a litany of right-wing talking points, bigotry and factual inaccuracies – a statement that should have raised a firestorm of criticism from left and right.
More disheartening than the actual comments was the actual response from the public and news media. We have seen many recent instances of anti-Semitic, homophobic or misogynistic comments from talking heads or celebrities be punished heavily in the court of public opinion – and rightfully so. In those instances, jobs have been lost, fines have been levied and careers have been derailed. In the case of Cain, there was hardly any outcry – and in fact, we saw his early poll numbers rise. Media outlets such as Fox News, who find any reason to be outraged, threw their support behind Cain – declaring him the “winner” of a recent televised debate.
Even though Cain is still considered by many to be a fringe candidate – many other high-profile Republicans have shared similar vitriol toward Muslims – with Donald Trump referencing a “Muslim problem” in the world, and Newt Gingrich comparing Muslims to Nazis on multiple occasions. Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum and Michelle Bachmann have also made disparaging remarks about Muslims, in light of the faux-shariah threat that has engulfed the political world. In fact, a prominent fringe talk-show host Bryan Fisher recently stated that Muslims are not subject to 1st Amendment rights – an extreme position to say the least. Rather than distancing themselves from Fisher’s incendiary comments, many of the aforementioned candidates continue to appear on his radio show, pandering to his audience. Thankfully my children are not old enough to understand the level of hatred that is being kindled in mainstream politics – Will they grow up in amongst a public that hates them, based upon what faith they belong to?
We now have a black President with an exotic sounding name. Halfway through his inauguration speech, when Justice John Roberts flubbed a line – we had a birth (excuse the pun) of a new movement to delegitimize this President. Many from the far-right wing have spread the rumor that Barack Hussein Obama – is a secret Muslim. Political operatives have spent the past few years planting seeds of doubt in the public, so much so, that nearly a quarter of Americans believe that Obama is a Muslim. This is aside from the fact that he has continually professed to be an adherent of the Christian faith for years. From the left, we have seen many commentators come to his defense – but the question is: Why does this question even need to be defended?
Of course we know that Obama is a self-professed devout Christian – which is should end the discussion right there. But what if the President or a prominent politician happened to be a Muslim? Would that delegitimize him as a person, or make him unfit to lead? One of the few prominent figures in the political world who has properly addressed the nuance of this subject matter was former Secretary of State and General Collin Powell. When approached by an interviewer on the topic of Obama’s faith, he said:
“Well, he’s not a Muslim. He’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian. But the right answer is, well, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in America? …Is there something wrong with some seven year old Muslim-American kid believing that he could be president?”
As General Powell so eloquently stated, the issue shouldn’t be whether Obama is a Christian or a Muslim. In the 21st century, the public discourse should have advanced far beyond the race or religion of an individual. The same opportunities that are afforded to all U.S. citizens should be afforded to Muslim-Americans. Sadly, it appears that Powell’s words reflect the exception in American politics, rather than the rule.
The Rise of the Opportunists
So in this era of anti-Muslim rhetoric, how will it be possible for Muslims to gain a voice in the American political spectrum? Are we just guests of the state, who should be happy that we are allowed to partaking in the American Dream? Unfortunately, many talking heads believe that this is the case – and some of these voices happen to be Muslim.
In recent months, there has been a dangerous term that has been coined, known as “Political Islam.” This term is being thrown around like verbal confetti by pseudo-scholars and social commentators as a perceived threat to western civilization. These talking heads are then invited to speak to government employees or appear on the aforementioned media outlets to scare…I mean educate their audience on the dangers of so-called militant Islam. In the past, I have written about other terms that have been coupled with the word “Islam” in order to build negative perceptions in the public’s minds. Terms such as “Islamo-fascism” and “Islamism” have previously been the go-to words in the right-wing lexicon.
To Muslims, this is very troubling and insulting – that the word Islam – something which we perceive as beautiful, and our source of meaning – has been co-opted for political gain, and being coupled with negative connotation. Anyone who has studied psychology and propaganda knows that coupling a target word – Islam in this case, with other words of negative connotation will in-turn foment a negative perception among the target audience. The same has been done with “sharia” fear-mongering in the U.S. Take one look at the imagery depicted at the protests. When politicians and mainstream news outlets enable and cater to the public’s fear, it is no wonder that the public discourse turns in such a negative direction.
The term “Political Islam” is thereby a loaded one. Those who have coined and continue to use the term have also enacted a campaign against the most visible and active Muslims groups in the U.S. We have seen groups like the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Muslim Political Action Committee targeted by these very critics – in an attempt to tie their political activities into something much more sordid and grey. These groups have unfairly been criticized for not speaking up after terror attacks, or a perceived lack of denouncing violence in the name of Islam. These allegations are obviously false – and it is clear to those who have interacted with and have received these groups’ communications throughout the years. But once again for the general public, perception becomes reality. In an attempt to paint the only politically active major American Muslim groups as some sort of fifth column, or “soft on terror,” it gives credence to the negative connotations created by the terms “Political Islam.” Various anti-Islam websites keep dossiers on these groups, along with prominent Muslims who are involved in politics, in order to create further panic. For many who are profiting off the Islamophobia business, Americans should be alarmed at the sheer existence of Muslim Congressional Staffers, lobby groups, Muslim political party activists.
After looking at the precedents that have been set for American Muslims, there is definitely an uphill battle that we face moving forward. And while the voices of hate and ignorance are seemingly getting a free pass when it comes to making anti-Muslim comments – we are seeing that their character flaws ultimately catch up with them. Just ask Newt and Trump, who used anti-Muslim rhetoric for short term gain, however ended up marginalizing themselves from the race due to continual lies and moral ambiguity. The same can be said of Cain – who is now distancing himself from his divisive comments regarding Muslims. Even the Pizza Man realizes that he has no hope in getting elected on an agenda of fomenting hatred and xenophobia.
But what do I tell my sons? After seeing the level of anti-Muslim sentiment, along with the depths that individuals are willing to sink to in order to discredit Muslims at any level within the political spectrum – do they have any hope for the future? My hope is that the answer is YES. In American history, we have seen fear and political marginalization of many groups – much worse than that which Muslim-Americans are experiencing. In the past, we have seen the black community being counted as 3/5th’s a human being – along with a struggle for political acceptance that persists even today – as in the case of the President Obama “birther” movement. We have seen the Irish and Catholic communities struggle for political acceptance – as recently as the 1960’s. When he was campaigning/elected for President, John F. Kennedy was being viewed by many as a stooge for the Vatican. The Muslim community is now being faced with the same bias – with many questioning the loyalty and enacting those fears into illogical hypothetical doomsday scenarios.
When the time comes, we must be able to tell our children that history is on our side. While it is true that we are seeing many who are benefiting from the denigration of Muslims today, their gain is only short term in nature. Although we may encounter more hurdles than other groups – we must teach our children that the same things that make Islam great: Strength, Loyalty, Integrity and the ability to overcome obstacles – are also attributes of great leadership. And even though we are living in a time of great fear and misinformation – the dreams and aspirations of American Children include the dreams and aspirations of American Muslim Children.