Voting Therapy and Al-Qaeda’s Presidential Endorsement
By Sumbul Ali-Karamali,
Author of The Muslim Next Door
I love to vote. I love standing in line and feasting my eyes on the strange juxtaposition of voting machines and official paperwork with multicolored posters and children’s artwork in the elementary school cafeteria in which voting is held in my precinct. I love chatting with those standing ahead and behind me in line. I love thanking the volunteers for manning the voting stations. I love hugging political jokes silently to myself, refraining from voicing them, because I know it’s a breach of voting-line etiquette and I don’t want to start any brawls. I love touting an “I Voted” sticker on my lapel for the remainder of the day.
I am depriving myself of voting on Tuesday, nevertheless, because I voted by mail this year. I succumbed to pressure from my county’s mailed messages entreating me to vote by mail and from rumors of long lines occasioned by unprecedented hordes of newly registered voters.
I did receive an “I Voted” sticker in the mail, though.
A friend shakes her head at my nostalgic voting reminisces, perplexed at the thought of the desire to voluntarily waste time in line. She’s voted by mail for years.
“It’s the whole experience,” I say earnestly.
The first time I could finally vote, the friend who had accompanied me became supremely exasperated with me and my whole voting process, because I spent twenty minutes in the voting booth, agonizing over every question, checking and double-checking to make sure I turned in my first ballot exactly the way I wanted it. She stood outside and tapped her foot. I’ve never missed an election since.
It’s ironic, then, that my loyalty as an American is called into question by some of my fellow citizens simply because I am a Muslim. The 2006 World Gallup Poll reported that less than half of Americans believe that American Muslims are loyal to the United States. And yet a recent Pew Center poll reported that American Muslims are mainstream, moderate, and middle-class, invested with American values and ideals. I am reminded of how, in the 1960s, certain Americans advocated voting against John F. Kennedy because they assumed his Catholic faith would require him to be loyal to the Vatican and not to the United States.
I am reminded, too, of Barack Obama who, despite being Christian, struggles under misapprehensions simply because he’s lived in a Muslim-majority country and bears the honorable name of “Hussein,” which means beautiful.
Yesterday, on NPR, I listened to a news talk show. The host fired fill-in-the-blank statements at the contestant, who scrambled to answer them in a split second. One of the questions was: “A statement on the al-Qaeda website announced that the group is endorsing “blank” for president.”
The contestant immediately answered, “Barack Obama!”
The answer was “McCain.”
She had a fifty percent chance of getting it right. Lightning-fast answers come from the truest part of ourselves. Her answer reflected a lack of understanding; most Muslims I know would have scored correctly on that question. And that is because we know that Osama bin Laden needs the United States to continue its war in Iraq. Al-Qaeda feeds on attacks on Muslims – because such attacks allow al-Qaeda to portray the United States as waging a war on Islam, to recruit new volunteers, and to provoke the whole cycle over again. And McCain is perceived as more likely than Obama to keep the U.S. in Iraq longer.
Yet, this educated, informed contestant said “Obama.” Why? Is it because Obama has spent the last 20 months denying that he’s Muslim and we all know al-Qaeda is filled with Muslims? Because his name is Hussein, as it was Saddam’s, as it is the name of hundreds of thousands of people in the world?
For thirty-six hours, I have been troubled by this question and response, mostly because it was necessarily reflexive and perhaps even subconscious. I wish I could engage in voting therapy on Tuesday. But I’ve already exercised my civic duty.
May God bless America and all the other countries, too.
©2008 Sumbul Ali-Karamali
Sumbul Ali-Karamali grew up in Southern California. Growing up in California she frequently faced difficult questions about Islam and its practices posed by friends, colleagues, and neighbors. (“What do you mean you can’t go to the prom because of your religion?”) Her new book, The Muslim Next Door, works to answer these questions for the non-Muslim public. She holds a B.A. from Stanford University and a J.D from the University of California at Davis and earned a graduate degree in Islamic law from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. She has served as a teaching assistant in Islamic Law at SOAS and a research associate at the Centre of Islamic and Middle Eastern Law in London. Her book, The Muslim Next Door, is available from White Cloud Press. She was the speaker on Islam at the Commonwealth Club at San Francisco on October 30, 2008.