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Foes Use Obama's Muslim Ties to Fuel Rumors About Him

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By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 29, 2007

In his speeches and often on the Internet, the part of Sen. Barack Obama's biography that gets the most attention is not his race but his connections to the Muslim world.

Since declaring his candidacy for president in February, Obama, a member of a congregation of the United Church of Christ in Chicago, has had to address assertions that he is a Muslim or that he had received training in Islam in Indonesia, where he lived from ages 6 to 10. While his father was an atheist and his mother did not practice religion, Obama's stepfather did occasionally attend services at a mosque there.

Despite his denials, rumors and e-mails circulating on the Internet continue to allege that Obama (D-Ill.) is a Muslim, a "Muslim plant" in a conspiracy against America, and that, if elected president, he would take the oath of office using a Koran, rather than a Bible, as did Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the only Muslim in Congress, when he was sworn in earlier this year.

In campaign appearances, Obama regularly mentions his time living and attending school in Indonesia, and the fact that his paternal grandfather, a Kenyan farmer, was a Muslim. Obama invokes these facts as part of his case that he is prepared to handle foreign policy, despite having been in the Senate for only three years, and that he would literally bring a new face to parts of the world where the United States is not popular.

The son of a white woman from Kansas and a black man from Kenya, Obama was born and spent much of his childhood in Hawaii, and he talks more about his multicultural background than he does about the possibility of being the first African American president, in marked contrast to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who mentions in most of her stump speeches the prospect of her becoming the first woman to serve as president.

"A lot of my knowledge about foreign affairs is not what I just studied in school. It's actually having the knowledge of how ordinary people in these other countries live," he said earlier this month in Clarion, Iowa.

"The day I'm inaugurated, I think this country looks at itself differently, but the world also looks at America differently," he told another Iowa crowd. "Because I've got a grandmother who lives in a little village in Africa without running water or electricity; because I grew up for part of my formative years in Southeast Asia in the largest Muslim country on Earth."

While considerable attention during the campaign has focused on the anti-Mormon feelings aroused by former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R), polls have also shown rising hostility toward Muslims in politics. It is not clear whether that negative sentiment will affect someone who has lived in a Muslim country but does not practice Islam.

In an August poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 45 percent of respondents said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate for any office who is Muslim, compared with 25 percent who said that about a Mormon candidate and with 16 percent who said the same for someone who is an evangelical Christian.

In Ellison's case, much of the controversy focused on his decision to take his oath of office with a Koran, one owned by Thomas Jefferson.

"It's good for America to have a president who has diversity at many levels in his background. That would be a benefit in reaching out to the rest of the world, particularly the Islamic world," said Ibrahim Hooper, communications director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington-based civil rights and advocacy group for Muslims. "But that kind of thing provides talking points for political detractors."

Obama aides sharply disputed the initial stories suggesting that he was a Muslim, and in Iowa, the campaign keeps a letter at its offices, signed by five members of the local clergy, vouching for the candidate's Christian faith. Aware that his religious belief remains an issue, Obama has denied a separate charge: that he does not hold his hand to his heart during the Pledge of Allegiance. This rumor stemmed from a photo that was taken while the national anthem was being played.


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