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.
"If I were a Muslim, I would let you know, " he said in Dubuque, Iowa, recently, according to CNN.com. "But I'm a member of Trinity United Church of Christ on 95th Street on the South Side of Chicago. We've got the best choir in town, and if you want to come and worship with us, you are more than welcome."
In the past few months, Obama has actively touted his Christianity, particularly in South Carolina, where his campaign hosted a gospel tour to appeal to black voters. He describes his movement from a "reluctant skeptic" to a believer during his 20s while he was working with black churches in Chicago as a community organizer. The title of his second book, "The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream," comes from a sermon by the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ.
An early rumor about Obama's faith came from Insight, a conservative online magazine. The Insight article said Obama had "spent at least four years in a so-called madrassa, or Muslim seminary, in Indonesia." It attributed this detail to background information the Clinton campaign had been collecting.
After Obama denied the rumor, Jeffrey Kuhner, Insight's editor, said Obama's "concealment and deception was to be the issue, not so much his Muslim heritage," and he suggested that the source of the madrassa rumor was the Clinton campaign. The Clinton campaign denied the charge.
Human Events, another conservative magazine, published on its Web site a package of articles called "Barack Obama Exposed." One of them was titled "The First Muslim President?"
Robert Spencer, a conservative activist, wrote in Human Events that "given Obama's politics, it will not be hard to present him internationally as someone who understands Islam and Muslims, and thus will be able to smooth over the hostility between the Islamic world and the West -- our first Muslim President."
Conservative talk-show hosts have occasionally repeated the rumor, with Michael Savage noting Obama's "background" in a "Muslim madrassa in Indonesia" in June, and Rush Limbaugh saying in September that he occasionally got "confused" between Obama and Osama bin Laden. Others repeatedly use the senator's middle name, Hussein.
The rumors about Obama have been echoed on Internet message boards and chain e-mails.
Bryan Keelin of Charleston, S.C., who works with an organization of churches there, posted on an Internet board his suspicion that Obama is a Muslim. "I assume his father instructed him on the ways of being a Muslim," said Keelin, who described himself in an interview as a conservative Republican who will vote for former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.
"The Muslims have said they plan on destroying the U.S. from the inside out," says one of the e-mails that was posted recently on a blog at BarackObama.com, the campaign's Web site, by an Obama supporter who warned of an attempt to "Swift Boat" the candidate. "What better way to start than at the highest level, through the President of the United States, one of their own!"
Another e-mail, on a site called Snopes.com that tracks Internet rumors, starts, "Be careful, be very careful." It notes that "Obama takes great care to conceal the fact that he is a Muslim," and that "since it is politically expedient to be a Christian when you are seeking political office in the United States, Obama joined the United Church of Christ to help purge any notion that he is still a Muslim."
A CBS News poll in August showed that a huge number of voters said they did not know Obama's faith, but among those who said they did, 7 percent thought he was a Muslim, while only 6 percent thought he was a Protestant Christian .
"The underlying point is that if you can somehow pin Islam on him, that would be a fatal blow," Hooper said. "It's offensive. It speaks to the rising level of anti-Muslim feeling in our society."
Obama's advisers say they are not worried that the candidate will hurt his campaign by invoking his connections to the Islamic world. "He understands that there are scurrilous attack e-mails going on underground that distort his religious affiliation and worse, but his judgment is that he trusts the American people more than that," said David Axelrod, a top Obama strategist. "He genuinely believes. . . . that people want to have a president that the world looks at and says, 'I believe this guy has an understanding of us and how we fit together on the planet.' "
Staff writer Alec MacGillis contributed to this report.