Misperceptions and Ineffectiveness: Obama and Islam in America
"The President obviously is a - is Christian. He prays every day. He communicates with his religious advisor every single day." These words came from an Obama White House spokesman on August 19, at the height of the controversy over building a "mosque" near the site of the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York City and the very day that the Pew Research Center released a poll showing that nearly one in five Americans (18%) incorrectly believe that President Obama is a Muslim. The survey found that only 35% correctly identify him as Christian, while a further 43% don’t know what religion he practices. This misperception matters, especially for Muslim Americans. This population clearly needs an outspoken defender these days, as manifestations of anti-Islamism become more frequent. Misconceptions about the President's religious beliefs, however, render him politically incapable - or perhaps unwilling - to provide an adequate defense of the right of Muslims to practice their Islamic faith in the United States.
The recent controversy over the Ground Zero Islamic center in New York and the threatened Koran-burning by a Christian fundamentalist preacher in Florida is seen by many commentators as manifestations of increasing anti-Islamic sentiment in the United States. Europeans, in particular, have been quick to recognize some of the discriminatory rhetoric that has been present in their countries for years, even gaining more ground recently as right-wing parties gain prominence across the continent. It seems to many that this prejudice has finally arrived stateside. But is anti-Muslim sentiment newly arrived in America, or has it just been successfully suppressed until now? Evidence suggests that it is the latter. In 2009, Gallup found that over four in ten Americans (43%) felt at least "a little" prejudice toward Muslims, though open anti-Muslim demonstrations didn’t begin in earnest until the summer of 2010. From September 2001 until early 2009, there was one unlikely voice that can be credited with keeping American anti-Islamism in check: President George W. Bush. As the man with the biggest microphone in the country, not to mention one with uncontested Christian credentials, Bush drew clear delineations between extremists and the majority of Muslims who reject violence and practice a religion of peace.
This message, coming from a quintessential American good ol' boy, meant that Americans - especially those like him - listened. In a press conference earlier this month, Obama himself recognized Bush’s efforts, saying "One of the things that I most admired about President Bush was after 9/11, him being crystal clear about the fact that we were not at war with Islam." Indeed, Bush was almost didactic in his defense of the Muslim faith. Just months after the twin towers fell, Bush told a joint session of Congress, "There are thousands of Muslims who proudly call themselves Americans, and they know what I know - that the Muslim faith is based upon peace and love and compassion." If he was perceived as being a Muslim himself, could he be so "crystal clear" in his entreaty for tolerance? President Obama is simply unable to match his predecessor's effectiveness in defending Muslim Americans, thanks in part to the fact that the public does not perceive him to share the religious beliefs that they hold themselves. America is 78.4% Christian and .6% Muslim, according to a 2008 Pew study, thereby making Obama, in the eyes of 18% of his fellow citizens, to be a member of a very small out-group.
If President Obama is not perceived to be part of the Christian in-group in the United States, he may unfortunately be incapable of changing that majority’s mentality about Muslims in any meaningful way. It has not helped matters that the president has delivered a contradictory message about the proposed Muslim community center. He first seemed to support building the center and then backed away by saying it is a "decision for the local community in New York City to make." Cynics, including this author, think that political caution may motivate president Obama to shy away from a stronger defense of Islam because it would reinforce misperceptions about his own religious beliefs and endanger Democrats up for election in November. If politics is the President's motivation, it is a tragic mistake. It runs the real risk of long-term marginalization, even radicalization, of a minority group in exchange for short-term political considerations. At less than one percent of the population, American Muslims need reassurance that they are accepted by American society. If instead they feel scorned, they and their children may become vulnerable to messages that offer varying degrees of reciprocal rejection and retaliation.
If he wishes to allay right-wing press criticism, President Obama should mount a strong defense of Muslim Americans by first stressing his own Christian beliefs. America is an astonishingly religious country by rich world standards, and appeals to a right to worship one God could at once placate the Christian majority and defend the Muslim minority. Obama’s current strategy, to appeal to America's historical religious tolerance, simply does not have the same resonance for either group. Instead, this strategy typically involves citing a laundry list of religions (in addition to atheism) represented in the United States. Certainly this does nothing to set the record straight about the President’s own beliefs. Beyond significantly strengthening his own message, the president needs to challenge prominent Republican leaders to speak out for religious tolerance.
These messages need not come from only Protestant or Catholic Republicans, though that would help. Republicans from more diverse religious backgrounds, such as former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney (a practicing Mormon), Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal (the son of Hindu immigrants), or South Carolina gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley (who was raised Sikh), should add their voices to the defense of Muslim Americans. Such statements might even help to diversify GOP support, which, in these days of Tea Party influence, is looking even more white and Christian than usual. On the subject of anti-Islamism and its effects on Muslim Americans, President Obama recently said, "When we start acting as if their religion is somehow offensive, what are we saying to them?" Clearly he is cognizant of the messages Muslim Americans are receiving, but he needs to both strengthen his rhetoric and encourage Republicans to join him in condemnation of bigotry.
In the post-Bush era, a chorus of voices will be needed to put the cap back on anti-Islamic sentiment in America. There are certainly more than opinion polls at stake.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.