HELPING HUSSEIN – A Muslim campaigner reflects on the need to defend Barack Obama’s Christianity to American voters

Posted by Gilmour Poincaree on November 15, 2008

October 2008

by Neal Hussein (*)

My name is Neal Hussein, and I have worked for Senator Barack Obama’s campaign for US President. I BARACK HUSSEIN OBAMA - IN CAMPAIGN - 2008have had the unique — and at times unsettling — opportunity of being a Muslim named Hussein trying to convince American voters that Barack Hussein Obama is a Christian with no Muslim sympathies.

Obama’s father was born Muslim but later renounced Islam. As the senator chronicled in his first memoir, Obama’s parents separated when he was two, and he was raised by his agnostic mother and his grandparents. Obama’s father was mostly absent from his life; nevertheless, Obama’s association with Islam has persisted because of his middle name, internet-based rumors and the several years he spent living in Indonesia as a child.

Twenty-four hour news stations exploded with the ‘breaking news’ last fall: “As a child, Barack Obama attended a madrasa!” After several days of talking heads discussing the story at length, a reporter finally sent back footage of the school in session. The students wore western uniforms in integrated classes. American late-night comedy shows had fun, showing the hysteria of the cable news channels, followed by The Daily Show host Jon Stewart whispering conspiratorially to viewers, “psst, somebody tell them madrasa means ‘school.’”

While the furor died down, the stigma remained in the electorate’s minds

One day, while canvassing door to door in New Hampshire, my partner and I were invited in by a likely Democratic voter. Upon learning our names, she was quite excited by the novelty of having a pair named Neal Hussein and Benjamin Jacobs come to her door. That was probably the one moment when the diversity I added to the campaign was an asset in talking to voters.

Every other time I introduced myself as simply Neal, and never mentioned my ethnic origins or religious affiliations. Doing so might negate all the benefits that my knowledge of foreign affairs brought to the campaign.

In the New York campaign office, a co-worker named Hani Khalil was talking with a potential voter who had called to check if Obama really was a Muslim. After several minutes of refuting it, Hani got off the phone and said to me, “what I really wanted to tell him was ‘I am a Muslim from Chicago and would probably know if he was one too.’”

Political campaign work requires us to grin and bear it, no matter what comes your way. For example, on Super Tuesday I did visibility work in downtown Manhattan when a woman approached me and asked, “what does Obama think about white people?”

I politely pointed out that Obama’s mother was white.

“His mother’s dead!” she snapped.

Still grinning, I pointed out that Obama had many white friends and worked closely with the other 99 members of the Senate, where he was the only black man.

Obama was asked about the rumors directly, and with a seemingly patient smile he responded with the facts: He is a Christian and was sworn into the Senate with his hand on the Bible, not the Qur’an.

As a Muslim listening to the debate, it was hard to not hear Obama ask, ‘Why would it matter if I was?’ I had to remind myself that he wore the same patient face when accused of being too black, then not black enough, or too diplomatic, or any of the other distractions he has had to push past to remain on message. While some are upset that by his campaign’s distance or seemingly mild reaction to these ‘smears,’ Obama still enjoys a large amount of support from Arab and Muslim communities. These groups have even been surprisingly patient with his ‘disappointing conventional’ statements on Israeli-Palestinian matters.

“Arab and Muslim Americans are almost whole hog (even though it’s haram) behind this campaign,” Khalil explains. “And many, including myself, still see this as a useful starting-off point for more organized efforts at civic engagement in our communities.”

Perhaps voters’ fears that Obama is Muslim stems not from actual suspicions, but instead is a convenient pretext for not voting for a black candidate, without having to admit to racism. While mistrusting someone for being black is unacceptable in most parts of the country, voting for religious reasons remains widely tolerated.

This problem cannot be seen in a vacuum. Many less educated, rural voters hear much of what they understand about politics through religious figures, and the idea of America as a Christian nation has been reinforced over decades and generations. The current administration has exacerbated the problem through continuous references to ‘Islamo fascism’ and ‘Islamic extremism.’ As Muslim Americans become a larger, more integrated part of American society (by recent estimates there are currently two to six million Muslim Americans) this mentality is likely to slowly morph or evaporate, but probably not by November 4.

Ironically, one of the campaign’s bigger public relations problems was not big enough to save us from the religion issue. Midway through the Democratic primary race, the fiery rhetoric of Jeremiah Wright, long-time minister at Obama’s church, became the rage on all the 24-hour cable news channels. Suddenly the candidate who was struggling to prove he was not too soft was having to prove he was not too extreme.

A co-worker who worked Muslim outreach in several states during the primary lamented the fact that Obama’s participation in Wright’s church for 20 years might become a big enough issue to cost him the primary election, but would never be large enough to wipe away rumors of him being a Muslim. A Pew Research Center study shows 13 percent of registered voters currently believe he is a Muslim, up from 10 percent in March.

That Obama’s religion is still a central issue in the campaign seems to indicate that the senator has done well selling his economic plans and dealt with many of the questions surrounding his foreign policy experience — issues of actual substance. Perhaps voters have not been fooled by the persistent rumors. Because of this and because we believe our own message of hope, we will keep smiling until November 4. Until then though, I don’t think we will exhale. et

(*) – Neal Hussein is an Arab American who worked for the Obama campaign in three states during the primaries. He currently works as a risk analyst in Cairo and is an organizer with Democrats Abroad.




One Response to “HELPING HUSSEIN – A Muslim campaigner reflects on the need to defend Barack Obama’s Christianity to American voters”

  1. Thanks for the interesting post.

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