The American Muslim Community’s “Obama” Problem
How do you root for a candidate who doesn’t want you to root for him?
By Firas Ahmad
As Obamamania continues to capture the imagination of the United States, parts of the American Muslim community are no less overcome by the Illinois Senator’s charismatic and overpowering vision for change. It makes sense. He is a man of diverse ethnic background who seeks dialogue over war, who can credibly represent change given his independence from establishment politics and whose life story suggests an intimate understanding of the Muslim world. In many ways he represents more than Muslims could have hoped for given the radioactive nature of Islam in America over the past several years. Someone who seemingly has a sympathetic ear and background that could build bridges.
But for many reasons, Muslims are one constituency Obama does not want to court. With a wink and a nod, Obama’s Muslim supporters continue to work for a candidate who cannot afford to wink back at them. Given his perceived “closeness” to Islam, and the fact that he shares a name with a former Iraqi dictator, it could be strategic suicide for the Obama campaign to vocally acknowledge organized Muslim support. At a time when endorsements are worn like badges of honor, no major candidate is looking for the Muslim vote.
No doubt if Obama wins the nomination, the Republicans will exploit this issue far more than Bill Clinton attempted to manipulate race in South Carolina. McCain will never have to say a word, the “hit job” will be manufactured and executed by his friends on Fox news, via the airwaves with Rush and Hannity (who would have overcome their issues with McCain by then) and through tabloids like the New York Post. Vocal Muslim support for Obama, if it happens, will likely be used as subtext for character attacks against his background and to fuel baseless rumors that he is actually a stealth Islamist who will subvert the establishment after taking power. As Don Imus can attest, racism and bigotry against African Americans is now largely unacceptable in public discourse. However, the same cannot be said of vitriol against Muslims. Attacking Obama for his pseudo-association with Islam is a far safer and more acceptable strategy for right-wing zealots than attacking him for being black. So if Obama has a campaign strategist worth his or her weight, we will never hear any serious public support or defense of Muslims from him or his campaign. For Muslims to demand anything from him simply demonstrates a misunderstanding of reality. Muslim support for Obama is akin to George Bush’s support for democracy in the Middle East. The mere association with the former will undercut the credibility of the latter. It is an analogy that Muslims should understand.
Obama’s lack of public defense of Islam is not so much an indictment against him as it is a demonstration of the infantile state of Muslim political participation in America. While it is impossible to tell, it would be reasonable to assume that if Obama could say something nice about Muslims he would because he wants votes from any and all Americans. Muslims fit squarely into the demographic that he appeals to most. Professional, educated and young. The only reason a candidate like Obama would not say something nice about Muslims is because he is making a clear political calculation. The votes he would gain from Muslims are far less than the votes he would lose from his association with Muslims. This should be startling. Unfortunately it has not initiated the kind of discussion within the community necessary to change these political ramifications for candidates in the future. To be fair, other candidates have lost votes based on their religious affiliation. Romney, a practicing Mormon, could have had a much better shot as the Republican nominee if he were from a Protestant denomination. But in terms of public perception, Muslims are a whole other category of disrepute. We are not talking about a Muslim candidate, we are talking about supporting a candidate who denies any connection, real or perceived, to Islam.
This is a political reality that Muslims in America must face. It is a clear demonstration that the collective efforts of Muslim institution building over the last 20 years have largely failed to make any real progress when it comes to impacting the American political process, at least at the national level. Muslims have found the perfect candidate, but cannot vocally support him for fear that if they do, they may be the reason he loses. How is that for a wake-up call.
At the core of the problem is the public perception of Islam in America. While global events, and of course 9/11, play an undeniable role in shaping the image of Islam for Americans, Muslims have ignored establishing some of the most basic institutions that are necessary for any minority community who seeks to have their voice taken seriously. There are no widely circulated national publications that explain Muslim perspectives. There is no widely recognized think tank expressing Muslim understandings of policy debates. There are a scant few public intellectuals from Muslim backgrounds that articulate mainstream views or who represent general Muslim thinking. While there are a number of very talented Muslim academics, very few have been able to cross-over and achieve mainstream credibility. Every other minority community has multiple inventories in each category listed above. What Muslims have are a number of smaller efforts that lack support, lack funding and lack human resources. If Muslims have failed in all these arenas it is not for a lack of talent, but rather for a lack of collective vision.
Instead, Muslim have invested in a handful of advocacy groups that, to their credit, work extremely hard to bring a “Muslim” slant to whatever breaks in the news that day. Advocacy groups play an important part of any community, but they are not sufficient for any community to make a serious play for political clout. In fact, the degree to which Muslims are publicly represented by their advocacy is inversely related to how they will be positively perceived by the general public. Advocacy groups are inherently divisive. The NAACP, the ACLU and other groups all play important roles in American democracy, but they are also polarizing organizations. Muslims need to take the edge off the way they present themselves in the broader public discussion. While this includes important and pioneering efforts like Unity productions, which has produced excellent work in the area of documentary film, much more is needed on a number of different fronts.
Policy and political decision making in America is not decided entirely on Capitol Hill. It is decided in the complex interaction of think tanks, academic institutions, book stands, radio shows, the evening news, newspapers, op-ed pages, opinion polls, Hollywood blockbusters and much more. It is the confluence and interaction of all these institutions that inform how politicians behave, not the other way around. Politicians are simply seeking votes, and votes are determined by people’s inclinations, perceptions, prejudices and perspectives. If you want to win politicians, you have to build constituencies by changing the way people think.
If Muslims do not want to suffer the indignation of political irrelevance for many elections to come, instead of giving money to politicians, they should start investing in journalism scholarships. They should establish fellowships for Muslim academics to take a year off and write a book for a general audience, and then back them up with a PR firm to get the book on a best seller list. They should invest in publications that demonstrate a breadth and depth of thinking on a range of issues. They should invest in think tanks that analyze public issues and present actual value to the overall public discussion. All of these institutions exist right now for Muslims in America. But for the most part they are underfunded, underappreciated and undervalued. Because the community in general has not rallied behind them, they are for the most part invisible. Because they are invisible, Muslims are effectively invisible when it comes to Obama or any other serious candidate.
Another real tragedy here is that the part of the Muslim community that has made significant headway in all these areas, the Blackamerican community, remains effectively marginalized from leadership roles in the larger Muslim establishment in America. Blackamerican Muslims have been civicaly, politically and socially engaged in America centuries. The rest of the Muslim community discovered these words a few years after 9/11. If all Muslims did was change the public perception of Islam in America to identify more with Blackamerican Islam than Arab or Pakistani Islam, the community would move forward in leaps and bounds. It is no accident that the first Muslim congressman is black. Until the Muslim leadership in America begins to recognize and reflect this historical reality, progress on a number of fronts will be slow. The Middle East and the subcontinent will remain powder kegs for decades to come.
Muslims largely misunderstand the process by which minority communities in America achieve their proverbial “seat at the table.” It is not achieved through campaign donations and political posturing. It is achieved through understanding and executing on a collective vision that nurtures real, active, social, economic and political participation that improves both one’s own community and the broader community that surrounds it. It is achieved through understanding that public perception is not entirely devised by a select few, but rather it is earned through hard work and sacrifice. It is achieved when a community actually adds some value to the society from which it benefits.
There is little strategic understanding of how to develop political capital within the Muslim community in America. If there was, Obama would not have to rebuke his Muslim supporters. The proof is in the pudding. Either Muslims deal with it, or do as they have done for the last 25 years: blame the media.
Firas Ahmad is an essayist based on Cambridge MA.