The “Obama Factor” in America–A Personal Narrative

While watching the emergence of Senator Barack Hussein Obama as the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party for the presidency of the United States, I was experiencing the feeling expressed in the phrase “present at the creation,” by President Harry Truman’s Secretary of State, Dean Acheson.  Here is a black man, whose father was a Somali Muslim and his mother was white woman from Kansas, getting ready to challenge the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party, Senator John McCain.  Obama and McCain epitomize the stark contrast that is quintessentially American.  Obama grew up in Indonesia and Honolulu, Hawaii, where I currently reside.  In fact, I live only a few blocks from the Punahou School, which Obama attended.  He is the embodiment of Midwestern America and immigrant tradition, whereby America is called a “nation of immigrants.”  McCain, on the contrary, is part of “mainstream,” Anglo-Saxon America.


I was watching Senator Hillary Clinton’s enthusiastic endorsement of Obama and, between commercials, continuing my reading of Amy Chua’s recent book, Day of Empire.  One chapter of the book, “American Hyperpower,” is particularly moving, for it presents an encapsulated version of the history of hatred and bigotry that this country manifested toward Catholics, Jews, Chinese, Blacks, and other immigrants at different times during its evolution as a nation of immigrants.  The narrative was so relevant to what was developing on my television screen.


The immigration acts of 1917, 1921, and 1924 radically altered the U.S. policy toward its immigrants.  “For the first time,” Chua writes, “these laws imposed numerical limits on immigration.  More fundamentally, they created a national-origin quota system with an undeniable ethnic and racial bias.”  The congressional debates during the passage of those acts were peppered with such euphemisms and hateful phrases as “‘homogenous citizenry’; putting an end to the ‘indiscriminate acceptance of all races'”; arguments were made “against the ‘dilution’ of America’s ‘cherished institutions’ by ‘a stream of alien blood,’ specifically warning against ‘filthy un-American’ and ‘unassimilable’ Jews.”  Consequently, she states, “Between 1931 and 1935, the United States experienced negative net immigration for the first time ever.” (p.252)


The United States has had an appalling legacy of discrimination and brutality toward immigrants, who were not part of mainstream America at a given time.  One only has to look at the current plight of Native Americans (aka American Indians), who once comprised several proud nations of America.  As a result of long practice of decimation (which, in the modern parlance, is called “ethnic cleansing”), today they are reduced to residents of “reservations” scattered all over the country.  The rate of illiteracy, alcohol and drug abuse, and economic underdevelopment is most pronounced in their midst.  One also only has to recall the dark history of bigotry against Black-Americans, most of whom were brought to America in chains, and whose plight was no better than the livestock on the Southern plantations in the pre-Civil War era.  Even after the abolition of slavery in 1865, “the United States remained a deeply racist society.” (p. 250)


The United States, indeed, came a long way between 1865 and 2008.  The 1965 Immigration Act “abolished the racially and ethnically discriminatory national-origin quota system instituted in the 1920s” (p. 258).  America started to grow its eminence from the perspectives of the balance of power.  “Tolerance played a critical role in every dimension of the United States’ rise to superpower status.  Again, the sheer manpower advantage possessed by the United States resulted directly from the country’s open immigration policies before 1920.”  Immigrants also had a noteworthy role in America’s fast-paced technological progress that catapulted it into superpowerdom. (p. 254)


Today’s version of the nation of the immigrant is committed to egalitarianism and elimination of an array of inequity and bigotry.  However, there are still a number of taboos that remain.  Two such taboos were seriously challenged when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton emerged as major contenders for the Democratic Party’s nomination for presidency.  As the winner of that contest, Obama dismantled the race-related taboo, which said that a Black-American couldn’t become a serious contender for the presidency.  And, although Hillary Clinton lost that competition, she managed to seriously damage, if not totally dismantle, the taboo against women as contenders for the office of president.  


The debate over Obama’s candidacy also brought to the surface another major taboo, which is alive and well in America today.  The fact that his father was a Somali Muslim, the fact that his middle name is ‘Hussein,’ and the fact that he is reported to have attended a Madrassa (Muslim religious school) as a youngster while living in Indonesia, resulted in a “whispering campaign” that Obama is “really” a Muslim (a closet Muslim?).  In the past year or so, I have seen a number of e-mails that the right wing extremists have been freely exchanging on that issue.  Thomas Friedman, a columnist for New York Times, recently wrote a column about a similar whispering campaign that American Jews are conducting amongst themselves about the “Muslim factor” of Obama’s candidacy.  Friedman rightly referred to that issue as apocryphal.  Senator Obama has frequently denied that he is a Muslim, and no respectable American media outlet is making a point of giving any airtime of print space to that issue.  But the fact that he has to deny that he is a Muslim is akin to saying that he has committed no wrong, and that America has nothing to worry about regarding any of his alleged association with Islam. 


I am reminded of the narratives of “loyalty oaths” of the McCarthy era of the 1950s in the United States, when a number of journalists and movie industry personnel were forced to state publicly, “I am not now and have never been a member of the Communist Party.” 


As a Muslim American, I feel nothing but a deep sense of gloom, offense, and sadness when I see that being a Muslim is euphemistically referred to as being a “terrorist,” a “terrorist sympathizer,” or a “potential terrorist,” even on the part of those who are proud of their credentials as being totally devoid of all sentiments of bigotry, chauvinism, obsession, paranoia, and discrimination. 


I am sure Obama did not mean it, but the way he denied his alleged association with Islam did not give me, or many millions of Muslims all over the world, a sense of pride.  Many of us would vote for him, but most of us are not likely to develop a sense of belonging to what Obama represents as a son of a Muslim Somali, who has to repeatedly disavow any association with the religion of his father.  America has changed a lot. However, for Muslims of this country, they still have a long way to go before they will be able to develop a feeling that they are as much of a part of America as America has become a part of them.


Regarding the capacious language and narratives of bigotry in America, as a Muslim immigrant, I know that the epoch of anti-Islamism, Islamophobia, and offending Islam, too shall pass, as have the eras of anti-Semitism, anti-Black and all other varieties of fanaticism and racism.  There is no doubt that such feelings are still nurtured by a lot of Americans.  What is important to note is that it is no longer “respectable” to manifest them through one’s language or behavior.  Sadly, however, anti-Islamism and Islamophobia is very much alive and well in these United States.


I can understand the rationale (if I can even use that phrase to justify the reason for hating Muslims or their religion or thinking ill of it) for a majority of Americans’ antipathy, indeed, antagonism, toward Islam, because most of them were introduced to that religion through the nefarious anti-American proclamations of Usama Bin Laden in the late 1990s.  Then America was attacked on September 11, 2001, by terrorists, all of whom not only were Muslims, but they also used the theological doctrines of their religion to justify violence, mayhem, and death against America.


The fact of the matter is, that in the post-9-11 era, America behaved with enormous dignity at home and abroad in consistently affirming that its war was not against Islam.  There were, to be sure, a number of abuses and instances of discrimination against Muslims, but considering the magnitude of the terrorist attacks on the U.S., these were comparatively few.  Watching and reading about numerous episodes of discrimination against Muslims in the “civilized” France, Holland, and a number of Nordic countries, the United States stands out as a shining example of a place where race-  and religion-related mistakes can still be made, but where they are likely to be corrected more readily than they are in Europe.  Europe might have pushed wars into its past, but it has been quite eager in manifesting again and again its proclivity for Islamophobia and derision of that religion in the name of “freedom of expression.”


President George W. Bush’s “global war on terrorism” (GWOT) is a war against an act.  In that capacity, the phrase GWOT does not make much sense to a lot of reasonable people all over the world.  However, the Islamists have exploited that phrase–and especially the fact that Afghanistan and Iraq are still occupied by American troops–to make an argument that Islam is, indeed, under attack.


Three of the highly publicized wrinkles of the presidential debates of 2008 in the United States are: whether to negotiate with Iran or take military action against it, what position to take on the issue of Palestine, and how to assure Israel that America is committed to its security.  Even though Israel remains a “superpower” of the Middle East, American presidential candidates are required to pass the “loyalty test” during every presidential election by ritualistically appearing before AIPAC–a major Jewish lobby group–and pledging their commitment to the Jewish state.  To an American, those are all issues of “conventional” politics.  But the Muslim perception–rightly or wrongly–all over the world is that, through those commitments, America is committing itself against their religion.  The reality of America and the Middle East is that the United States has yet to find a happy medium from where it can act as an honest broker for peace and stability in the Middle East.  That reality did not negatively affect America’s presence or dominance in that region in the past.  In the post-9/11 era, the lone superpower is coming under increasing pressure from the Muslim side to radically alter its policies in the world of Islam, as evidence that it is not fighting a “war” against Islam.


The unconventional aspect of these issues is that Muslims in America and the world envision a “President” Obama as siding with the option of diplomatic engagement and multilateralism–issues that have been part of the American diplomatic legacy throughout the Cold War years, but were systematically shunted aside by the Bush administration.  Those traits were highly beneficial in creating an American-centric noncommunist international system in the aftermath of World War II.  The restoration of those traits in American foreign policy is likely to considerably benefit the United States in the coming years.


The most significant aspect of Obama’s candidacy is that he grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia.  Even though Hawaii is very much a part of the USA, it is also a place where multiculturalism and multi-racism create a very sui generic environment of amity and comity.  One has to live in these islands to experience it.  Any description of that feeling leaves a sense of dissatisfaction and even disbelief among those who are merely reading about it.  Obama’s experience in Indonesia gives him a special understanding of Islam, which a great majority of Americans seriously lacks.  In this sense, Obama becomes a special case for Americans of all religious beliefs and ethnicity.  His election to the presidency will raise hopes that America will begin serious undertakings to resolve some of the most obdurate issues of Muslim regions.  Come to think of it, that American role may also deal a serious blow to all the rhetoric of “the war against Islam” generated by Bin Laden and his ilk.