What if he is Muslim? —Rafia Zakaria

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Drawing on the diversity of America’s religious fabric, Colin Powell reminded Americans once again that being a patriotic American does not mean being white or black or Protestant but rather making the ultimate sacrifice in the name of the country
It has been a somewhat dismal election season for American Muslims. Even as early as the primary battle between Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the construction of Muslim as a political smear and a justifiable reason for not voting against a Presidential candidate has been alarming, especially given the historic barrier-breaking nature of the presidential race. Even as the hurdles of race and gender were being reduced to rubble (at least figuratively) by the candidacy of Clinton and Obama, a new barrier against Muslims seemed to emerge onto the American political landscape.Early this year, Senator Clinton, when asked if Senator Obama was Muslim, evasively replied “not that I know of”. Her response refused to dissipate the incorrect assertion or challenge the insidious assumption behind the question, that it was in fact a problem if Senator Obama was Muslim. The grisly undertones of divisiveness on the basis of religion that were sown during the Democratic primaries have of course been taken to new levels in the expectedly bitter general election campaign between John McCain and Barack Obama.

The attacks used a variety of tactics from repeatedly enunciating Obama’s middle name ‘Hussein’ to suggesting that he was associated with terrorists. They came to a head last week when crowds of Republican rallies were heard chanting “Terrorist” and “Kill him” whenever Obama’s name was mentioned.

The response of the Obama campaign provided no respite as far as the “Muslim” issue was concerned. Not only did the Obama campaign deny allegations of being Muslim, but as Maureen Dowd, a New York Times columnist, recently pointed out, they went out of their way in showing that they did not care for Muslims at all. Despite having visited synagogues and churches, Obama has not visited any mosques. In a much-publicised incident (for which he later apologised), two women wearing headscarves were asked to move from behind the podium so that their presence is not made too visible in the rally photos (one of them now has a job with the Obama campaign).

Regardless of the asides however, the fact remains that the Obama campaign, despite its good intentions, has remained on the defensive, responding to attacks by emphasising that Obama is not in fact Muslim, but at the same time refusing to carry the debate further into the question of what if he were.

And this is precisely where the debate finally ended up this Sunday when former Secretary of State General Colin Powell posed that question to the American audience. Enumerating his reasons for going across party lines (he is a Republican and has served in two Republican administrations), Powell expressed his sorrow over the devolution of McCain’s campaign into one of slander and deflection.

Speaking of his consternation at the remarks made by fellow Republicans regarding Obama and Islam, Powell said the following: “Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim. He’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America. Is something wrong with some 7-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president?”

For the first time since the initiation of the American Presidential race, media commentators, electoral candidates and the American public were forced to confront an ugly prejudice that had remained unquestioned through the course of the campaigns. Powell’s point was made even more poignant by the example he gave of why it is “un-American” to be prejudiced against Muslims. He gave the example of a young Muslim American soldier, Kareem Sultan Khan, who died at the age of 20 while fighting in Iraq. His grave at the Arlington Cemetary, Powell recounted, has on its headstone not a cross or a Star of David but “a crescent and star of the Islamic faith.”

Powell’s comments represent the tumultuous relationship that post-9/11 America has had with Muslims and indeed Muslim Americans lie at the crux of the matter. The lengthy period of unquestioned taunting about Obama’s Muslim connection that Muslim Americans have had to bear represents the near impossibility of waging two wars in Muslim countries and yet attempting to evade the label that America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are wars against Islam and Muslims.

Powell’s comments presented a novel, refreshing and perhaps quintessentially American perspective on the issue. Drawing on the diversity of America’s religious fabric, he reminded Americans once again that being a patriotic American does not mean being white or black or Protestant but rather making the ultimate sacrifice in the name of the country, something done by people like Kareem Khan.

Powell’s comments are undeniably a welcome respite to Muslims. They also represent the complexity of the attempt to articulate a singular American-Muslim identity. Powell mentioned an American Muslim soldier who died fighting Iraqi Muslims as an act of patriotism for his country. As his example illustrates, there are Muslims on both sides of this battle; the message being that it is not, and has never, been a war against Islam. American Muslims, especially immigrant American Muslims, for all their consternation over the demonisation of Islam in the electoral campaign, would have trouble accepting wholeheartedly the suggestion that proving their patriotism to the United States may sometimes mean raising weapons against other Muslims.

Perhaps I am reading too much into comments that were meant quite simply as a reminder that discriminatory aspersions against Muslims belie the diverse and rich character of the American religious fabric. Powell’s elevation of the Muslim-American soldier that died for his country represents a message not simply to those Americans that have been unquestioning of their prejudices toward Muslims but also to Muslim Americans who have to consider that being American might involve more complex negotiations between religious and national identity than they may imagined.

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney living in the United States where she teaches courses on Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy. She can be contacted at



Source: Daily Times, 25/10/2008

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