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An Attack That Came Out of the Ether

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The Post's Matt Mosk speaks with Dr. Danielle Allen of the Institute for Advanced Studies about her research into e-mails that spread rumors that Barack Obama is a radical Muslim.Audio by Matt Mosk/The Washington Post, Ed O'Keefe/washingtonpost.com

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As Allen scrolled through the e-mail about Obama, she saw that the list of people who had received the missive consumed several full screens. Her first thought was to try to learn about the people behind the addresses. She traced a number to North Carolina Web sites about golf, but quickly hit a dead end. Then she had another thought: What if she took some of the unusual phrases from the text of the e-mail and Googled them?

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Her eyes fell on this untrue sentence: "ALSO, keep in mind that when he was sworn into office he DID NOT use the Holy Bible, but instead the Kuran (Their equivalency to our Bible, but very different beliefs)."

The use of "their equivalency" and the spelling of "Kuran" instead of "Koran" made the sentence her point of departure.

That search showed that the first mention of the e-mail on the Internet had come more than a year earlier. A participant on the conservative Web site FreeRepublic.com posted a copy of the e-mail on Jan. 8, 2007, and added this line at the end: "Don't know who the original author is, but this email should be sent out to family and friends."

Allen discovered that theories about Obama's religious background had circulated for many years on the Internet. And that the man who takes credit for posting the first article to assert that the Illinois senator was a Muslim is Andy Martin.

Martin, a former political opponent of Obama's, is the publisher of an Internet newspaper who sends e-mails to his mailing list almost daily. He said in an interview that he first began questioning Obama's religious background after hearing his famous keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. In an Aug. 10, 2004, article, which he posted on Web sites and e-mailed to bloggers, he said that Obama had concealed his Muslim heritage. "I feel sad having to expose Barack Obama," Martin wrote in an accompanying press release, "but the man is a complete fraud. The truth is going to surprise, and disappoint, and outrage many people who were drawn to him. He has lied to the American people, and he has sought to misrepresent his own heritage." Martin's article did not suggest an association between Obama and radical Islam.

Martin was trying to launch a Senate bid against Obama when he says he first ran the Democrat's name by a contact in London. "They said he must be a Muslim. That was interesting to me because it was an angle that nobody had covered. We started looking. As a candidate you learn how to harness the Internet. You end up really learning how to work the street. I sort of picked this story up as a sideline." Martin said the primary basis for his belief was simple -- Obama's father was a Muslim. In a defamation lawsuit he filed against the New York Times and others several months ago, Martin says that Obama "eventually became a Christian" but that "as a matter of Islamic law began life as a Muslim" due to his father's religion.

The belief that Obama unavoidably inherited his religion was not uniquely Martin's -- as recently as May, it was proffered by Edward N. Luttwak, a fellow at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, in a New York Times op-ed piece.

(After the Times was deluged with complaints, the paper's public editor, or ombudsman, later wrote that he had interviewed five Islamic scholars, at five American universities, recommended by a variety of sources as experts in the field. All of them disagreed with Luttwak's interpretation of Islamic law.)

Martin said he posted his 2004 article on Web sites, and distributed it by e-mail to authors of other popular blogs. But he said he had nothing to do with the chain e-mail that got Allen's attention. "I'm not trying to smear anybody," Martin said. "I just felt that was an underreported story."

But Martin said he understands how his initial article has taken on a life of its own. "There's nothing sinister here. I was thinking of running for Senate and was looking for a story to put some sizzle on the plate."

Other articles followed Martin's. Andrew Walden, the founder of an alternative Hawaiian newspaper with the motto "The untold story, the unspoken opinion, the other side," published an article with many of the same false biographical details from the e-mail in the weeks before Obama announced for president -- that he was "Raised in Muslim lands and educated in Muslim schools." He said in an interview that Obama's "alliance with Islam" was "all over the Internet," a source he often considers more trustworthy than the mainstream media.


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