A Muslim for the President of the United States? Not in this lifetime many would say. But again, history is always in the making and it is currently unfolding in the United States – Although not a Muslim this time, but never before has a black candidate won the nomination to lead a major political party. Never before has a woman come so close to become the nominee of a major political party. And never before has a major party nominee in the United States had a Muslim father or a background that comes so close to being a Muslim as can ever be imagined in these times.
Whatever little Muslim background Senator Obama has hailed from his biological and step fathers, the media and the public bedeviled him more than what he had asked for when he stepped into the presidential race. Obama obviously fought back – but to the dismay of many of those Muslims, the manner and intensity with which his campaign has fought back to dispel claims about him being a Muslim was quite disappointing. It has prompted many Muslims ask a few questions – What is wrong even if the Presidential candidate happens to be a Muslim? Why would the media and the general public make such a big issue of Obama being a Muslim? And why would the Obama campaign so vehemently attempt to disassociate his image as a Muslim?
Consider these statements on the Obama campaign’s website:
- “Barack Is Not and Has Never Been Muslim
- Barack Never Attended a Muslim School
- Obama Has Never Been A Muslim, And Is a Committed Christian”
There is obviously nothing wrong in clarifying that you are not a Muslim when you are not. Everyone also knows that most of the anti-Islam feelings that lurk today were largely stoked by the events of 9/11 and others that followed. Some may even argue that such a climate therefore makes it challenging for politicians to be Muslims or to even have close associations with them. However, by disassociating Obama from the label of a “Muslim”, his campaign seems to indicate holding of anti-Muslim attitudes that are no different than the ones who are making such claims.
Who would have also thought that a candidate’s legitimacy could be questioned merely on the basis that he is a “Muslim” instead of his merits and qualifications? So, even though times may have changed in America where a black candidate has managed to counter the racial prejudices and has become the nominee of a major political party, America still has ways to go to overcome its other recently acquired prejudices. More than race, religious barriers may be the biggest ones to overcome for America to become a society where race, religion and ethnicity are supposed to be a non-issue in the first place.
But that’s not the focus of this article. In this political drama, one does wonder what if a Muslim does become a serious contender for the candidacy of the office of President of the United States. Is that really possible in the near future? What challenges would such a candidate face during his campaigning? How would the media take on his candidacy? How could his beliefs influence his national policies?
As for merits and qualifications, that should be a non-issue. Muslims have excelled on different fronts in many countries. For example, there is nothing new about Muslims in western politics. Muslims have become members of parliament (MP) in many countries in Europe, such as the United Kingdom and Denmark. In the US, Muslims are very well educated compared to other religious minorities. According to one survey by Cornell University, 77% of Muslims in America have a Bachelor’s degree or higher. Many Muslims have also earned Nobel prizes. As for their values, Muslims’ lifestyles built upon Islamic teachings have contributed to very low crime rates in western nations. The challenge therefore in becoming a US Presidential candidate or a President therefore will be based on other factors.
The transformed Political Environment – It’s clear that if and when that were to happen in the future, it would be quite a different political environment than what exists today. The focus would have pivoted away from Middle Eastern and Muslim nations, and the domestic political environment would be much less charged with anti-Muslim sentiments. With time, the American public would have come to understand the true nature of Islam and would have been able to cut through the toxic layers of bigotry and ignorance to instead judge people on their merits rather on baseless perceptions created by the ignorant few. By that time, the environment thus would have become more hospitable where the nation would have elected many Muslims to the ranks of Senators and Congressmen.
And through this journey, as more Muslims contest for these high offices in the years to come, this inevitable fact would continue to be controversial among many and will be hotly debated not just by the non-Muslims in America but even more so by the American Muslims themselves. Not all American Muslims until a few years ago for example considered voting in a non-Muslim country as “religiously” legitimate. A minority even today probably still believes in it wholeheartedly. However, after being accused to be incompletely Americanized, the post 9/11 period has softened the stance of the majority of American Muslims who have come to grips with the fact that for them and their generations to be heard and not to be targeted indiscriminately, they must participate in the political process. Many of them therefore have come to now realize that either they have to become part of the political process to stand and advocate for their rights, or they will need to find another homeland.
With time, American Muslims will finally come to realize that Washingtonian politics is an art that has to be learned and mastered. Not knowing the game has hurt Muslims in the past. Muslims are singled out, their rights violated probably more than others, and false information is constantly spread about Islam and Muslims all over the media channels. The Muslim communities of today are unfortunately more emotional and reactive than being politically savvy. All that has to change and one can observe that the realization is slowly sinking in that simply being friendly to their neighbors, coworkers and friends is not the only strategy to fight the victimization of the common American Muslims at large.
Defending Islam – One thing is for certain: The Muslim Presidential candidate will not be able to run an effective campaign by spending his time and effort defending Islam. Within American politics, that prerequisite will have to be met much in advance. That means the public perception and media mantra would have to have matured to a level where the common people would understand Islam more than they do today. The “Muslim” label will no longer carry the stereotype image associated with it today in the western world. It’s true that this will not stop the media critics to pitch Islamic values against “traditional American values” and will also highlight the case of Muslim values being an antithesis of the Judeo-Christian dogma. But overall the Muslim candidate will have to stand on his merits, qualifications and appeal to counter the critics’ bias.
The new generation has been and will be a major catalyst in changing this political environment. They have the advantage where they fully understand the risks and challenges of today while not carrying the stereotype baggage of the older generation. Such an influence that the next generation can exert on the political landscape was clearly evident in Senator Obama’s campaign. The same will have to happen within the younger generation of American Muslims.
Making the case – Barack Obama’s rise to national prominence in the political arena has become a textbook example for many to follow. Right from the beginning, he started securing small victories in his career. To name a few, he became the first black President of the Harvard Law Review (a renowned publication). Later, he became a community organizer and championed public service issues at a local level followed by becoming an Illinois state senator. His career continued to build on his previous successes until finally he was elected to the US Senate. Today, we see him as being the nominee of one of the major US political parties. His two books helped him through this process and proved to be the catalyst to push him further on the national scene.
The potential Muslim candidate will have to establish himself similarly and will have to contribute extensively at a local and state level and demonstrate his commitment and loyalty to the local and national issues. Most Muslims generally are less involved with the political issues within western countries (especially in the US) and for them to be able to rise at that level, this obviously will have to change. Rising through these levels eventually exposes one to the political establishment where one can win enough political support needed to form an effective campaign.
Support for Israel –This issue alone has the potential to make the term “Muslim American President” an oxymoron and could stop the campaign dead in its track. This could become a controversial issue for the Muslim candidate, especially when almost all US Presidents have committed unconditional support for the state of Israel since it was founded. Unlike all his predecessors, however, the Muslim candidate may argue that Israel should be treated no differently than any of the other American allies. If the support for the Jewish state has any religious foundation, the candidate may go on to argue that if he was expected to have a secular policy (in line with the US constitution), then why should the country adopt a hypocritical attitude and provide preferential treatment to a certain religious group?
On the other hand, if the candidate commits unconditional support for Israel, this is bound to anger the 8 million or so Muslim population in the United States. More than that, such a position would also alienate the hundreds of millions of Muslims all around the world. Muslims worldwide will have a hard time to empathize with the Muslim American President’s unconditional support for the Jewish state. He would be labeled as a sell-out right from the get-go.
An indication of such became quite obvious during Senator Obama’s campaign. Obama raised the slogan of “Undivided Jerusalem, the Capital of Israel for all Eternity”.” To this, Mahmoud Abbas, the moderate Palestinian president, rejected Obama’s speech by remarking the following:
“Jerusalem is one of the files under negotiation. The entire world knows perfectly well that we will never accept a state without [east] Jerusalem [as its capital]. That should be clear,” he said in Ramallah.”
What a mess – If this is in the case of Obama whom many in the Arab world have perceived to hold a relatively neutral stand in the Middle East process, what would be the political rhetoric if the candidate was a Muslim? They would surely expect something better than such a stance.
Many however would argue that should a Muslim become President of the US, his Islamic background could on the contrary bring an everlasting breakthrough in the Middle Eastern peace efforts. This is because the Muslim US President may have a higher chance to likely court all the Palestinian factions to unite and accept past peace agreements. Furthermore, the Muslim President will highlight the conditions of the forgotten Palestinian refugees of the past many years who have been living under sub-human conditions. With some pressure, this may very well enable Israel to take extra steps to improve the conditions of the refugees to provide them with basic healthcare and other life necessities.
Other National Issues – On other issues, the Muslim President will most likely excel no less than any other candidate. For national security and immigration matters for example, the Muslim President likely may take a very tough stance simply because in addition to doing the right thing, he will have to prove his loyalty to the nation and prove all those critics wrong who will accuse him of being soft because of his Muslim background.
Personal and family values will be one of his strongest points and the candidate will highlight the Muslim pride in the Islamic social system that places special emphasis on the obligatory rights of family members, neighbors, friends and other community members. The special rights for women and strong family bonds is what Muslims proudly assert contributes to extremely low divorce rates, even in Muslim households that live in western societies. Muslims see the specific religious prohibition on alcohol and drugs as decent guidelines that shape their societies where crime is much less than the non-Muslim communities.
Building on his Islamic values, social programs especially those catering for women will surely be one that will get a boost. Similar to the efforts of a number of Democratic Presidents and Democratic Presidential Candidates, a Muslim US President will probably revisit all trade agreements to ensure that they incorporate appropriate labor and environmental protections. Most countries trading with the US will see themselves rewriting trade pacts to incorporate labor right provisions. This type of a policy would hail from the Muslim US President’s religious values, which place great emphasis on the legality of transactions and on the need to protect everyone’s interest.
Conclusion – To conclude, it’s a truism that in today’s environment, a Muslim candidate (of the approx 8 million US based Muslims) may not even be able to put together an effective campaign, let alone win the Presidency of the United States. But a not so distant future may very well see a serious contender for couple of reasons. First, as the Internet has allowed dissemination of information, it also has allowed forming of more realistic perceptions. Muslims in the past have suffered a great deal by the efforts of the few who have managed to generalize the religion to something unfavorable to a large percentage of the population. Now, that is changing.
Second, whether people realize it or not, the nomination of Barrack Obama has already smoothed the edges of a totally shattered Muslim image. Not that Obama or his campaign has done anything to defend Islam but the fact that he is a son and step son of Muslim fathers, has made a good percentage of the people come closer to accepting a future Muslim President than ever before.
One thing is for certain though – The Muslim candidate running for a US President will be subject to intense scrutiny – probably more so than any other candidate has ever been subject to in the past. This, along with being subjected to a fair share of anti-Muslim bigotry will only take a candidate with tough mettle to survive the political challenge. This should not be surprising as the world saw a taste of that in Barack Obama who was subjected to anti-Muslim bigotry even though he is not a Muslim.
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