How Islam is Being Used As An Insult
By Emily Stoner
A violent terrorist that “hates us for our freedoms.” A controller of women. An enemy of the Jews. The president of the United States.
What do these four people have in common? They are all frequently and falsely stereotyped as being Muslim. In reality, the vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists, and they do not oppress women or hate Jews. And Barack Obama is a practicing Christian, not a Muslim.
But despite evidence to the contrary, nearly 11 percent of people polled about Obama’s religious beliefs said he is a Muslim, according to an April 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan research group. These people use Obama’s supposed Muslim faith as both an attack and an insult.
“The reason why people refuse to believe Barack Obama is not a Muslim is because it’s racialized,” said Belisa Gonzalez, an assistant professor of sociology with a specialty in race and ethnicity at Ithaca College. “He’s got dark skin, he’s foreign in all these sorts of ways, and so ‘Muslim’ is just another one of those things they can place on him.”
According to Gonzalez, this name-calling is more about race than religion. People uncomfortable with a black man in the White House generally try to keep it a secret. Remember the outrage after Republican legislative aide Sherri Goforth sent an e-mail depicting Obama as a pair of cartoon eyes over an otherwise black background? We are supposed to live in a post-racial, colorblind society. According to this theory, we don’t care about race: We don’t even notice it!
But if we did live in a post-racial society, we would not feel uncomfortable talking about skin color. Some people have brown hair and some are blond; we’re different, that’s fine, and we can talk about it without feeling guilty.
At the end of the day, the color of your hair is meaningless. Not so with skin. As little as people want to admit this, race has huge political significance in our society.
“He is black. He knows he’s black. Everybody knows he’s black,” Gonzalez said. “The fear that people attach to not calling him black and calling him Muslim
just sort of proves the point that we don’t see people as equal.”
Obama does not fit into the presidential norm. He is a biracial man who grew up with a single mother and an absent father. His mother, a white Christian woman from the Midwest, and his father, a black Muslim man from Kenya, married when interracial marriage was still illegal in half the states. His mother was three months pregnant at the wedding, and his parents divorced when he was three.
Obama grew up in Indonesia after his mother remarried a Muslim Indonesian man. He attended a state-run madrassa and a Catholic school until moving to live with his grandparents in Hawaii at age 10. Madrassa is the Arabic word for any type of educational institution, secular or religious, and does not necessarily have connections with Islamic terrorism.
Muslims in post-9/11 America are frequently discriminated against because of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Furthermore, people have not forgotten the radical militancy of the Black Muslims in the 1950s and ‘60s. It is easier to believe that all Muslims are terrorists, for example, if you do not know any Muslims and conceptualize them alongside the plane hijackers of Sept. 11, 2001.
Obama was not raised Muslim, but he did have more access to Muslim people and culture than does the typical American. This is positive because real-life interactions with different cultures tend to make people less discriminatory.
“So many people are ignorant about what Islam means,” said Ammanullah De Sondy, an assistant professor of philosophy and religion at IC. De Sondy is a practicing Muslim originally from Scotland; he has lived in the United States since August. “It’s never a positive image that’s portrayed in the media. Normally, there’s a bomb that has gone off, Islamic terror, and this sort of feeds into the idea of what a Muslim is.”
Beyond misrepresentation, the biggest problem raised by Obama’s false Muslim label is that it is used as a slur. Obama should be seen for what he is: a black, Christian man who came from a diverse and unusual background to become the president of the United States. But people should know he could still be president even if he were a Muslim. Christian faith is not a requirement to become president in this country, and Islam is a religion, not an insult.
“[When asked whether or not Obama is a Muslim,] the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian,” said former Secretary of State Colin Powell in an October 2008 interview on Meet the Press. “But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?”
Emily Stoner is a junior journalism major who would appreciate it if people stopped calling her names, too. No one likes being called a poophead, guys. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.