President Obama and his religion

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A new poll shows that a growing number of Americans incorrectly believe President Barack Obama is a Muslim, despite Obama's repeated statements that he is a Christian. (Aug. 19)

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John L. Esposito
Professor of Religion and International Affairs, Georgetown University, and Author
Friday, August 20, 2010; 11:00 AM

John L. Esposito, professor of religion and international affairs at Georgetown University, and author of The Future of Islam, was online Friday, Aug. 20, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the recent Pew Forum poll which revealed that a growing number of Americans think President Obama is a Muslim, White House reaction to the poll, the controversy about building a mosque near Ground Zero in New York and perceptions that many Americans have about the Muslim faith and its followers.

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John L. Esposito: Hi, I'm John Esposito, University Prof of Religion & International Affairs and of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University. I have degrees in Catholic Theology and Islamic Studies. My publications include some 45 books, including most recently, The Future of Islam, What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam, Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam and Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think (with Dalia Mogahed) and am Editor in Chief of Oxford U Press major reference works on Islam and the Muslim world. I have served as a consultant to the US government and EU (on radicalization).

Look forward to our conversation today on Pres Obama and the latest PEW Poll re his religion, the Islamic Center project near ground zero, the growth of Islamophobia in America and anything else you want to talk about.

Sorry if my answers are brief but we want to give as many people as possible a chance to get in.

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Southern Maryland: Most of the Muslim-bashing that I've encountered seems to conflate the Islamic religion with the Arab ethnic and cultural identity, ignoring the vast numbers of Muslims in places like Indonesia and Pakistan and sub-Saharan Africa. Has that been your experience? It's a bit like thinking of Christians as only Italian.

John L. Esposito: I agree. Problem is compounded by fact that the actions of a group of terrorists are being equated with the vast majority of Muslim in the world and in the US.

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Tampa, Fla.: What would bin Laden think of the Cordoba Center? What does he think of Sufis in general? What does he think of imams such as Rauf?

John L. Esposito: Bin Laden would think that Imam Feisal Rauf was a traitor for condemning the 9/11 attacks and all acts of terrorism and think he was an enemy to be killed.

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Minneapolis, Minn.: Prof. Esposito -- Thank you for taking questions today. By way of full disclosure, I'm an Obama supporter, but I find the results of this survey extremely disturbing. Despite the fact that the president has had, legislatively, one of the most successful first halves of a first term in presidential history, a significant segment of the public still does not accept him, and most disturbing to me, that number is rising. To what do you you attribute that? An insidious but successful campaign to portray him as the "other"? Is the overall discontent in the country (high unemployment, two wars, etc.) any part of that explanation?

washingtonpost.com: Poll shows more Americans think Obama is a Muslim

John L. Esposito: What is coming together here is politics, the upcoming elections and the need to discredit Obama and paint him as "the other." Since one can no longer publically discriminate or make racist comments, they can't dismiss him as Black etc but our popular culture does allow discrimination, racis and the discrediting of peoples who happen to be Muslim. Note how what many Republican candidates are doing is similar to what the three major Republican candidates did in the presidential election try to not only condemn terrorism (which obviously they should) but align themselves with anit-Islam and anti-Muslim (not just anti-terrorist) rhetoric. Interesting how recent PEW poll shows that most of those who believe Obama is a Muslim are his opponents, about 34% of whom are conservative Republicans

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Lyme, Conn.: There is no one typical belief among Muslims. Yet, I am wondering how many Muslims are lowering their opinions of Americans when they see the anti-Muslim sentiments expressed by some Americans?

John L. Esposito: Excellent observation. How did blatant racism affect many black people? How did the discrimination against ethnic Catholics, Irish, Italians like myself, make us feel re how other of our fellow citizens vie us.

As a American citizen and prominent professional Muslim who loves our country and has advised our government said to me "We are all being blamed for the attacks of 9/11 and expected to assume a collective guilt and know our place."

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NYC, N.Y.: Does this finding distress you as an educator since it means that these people have no knowledge of 1. American history; 2. the Constitution and Bill of Rights; 3. the 2008 campaign; and 4. the media generally. Are we seeing the dumbing down of America writ large.

John L. Esposito: I recently described it current situation as a world gone mad. Media commentators like O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Glen Beck and hard line so-called Christian ministers and large number of Americans feel that they can say anything about the religion of Islam and Muslims with impunity. And so they say things that if you substituted the words Judaism or Jew or African Americans, no TV station or newspaper would carry. They slander people without feeling that they have to offer the hard evidence. Instead they shift the burden of proof to the victim.

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Chantilly, Va.: I heard someone say to the effect that we wouldn't let a Nazi group build a display near the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C. so why should it be different for Ground Zero in New York.

Isn't that being too general. The U.S. was not attacked by Muslims on September 11th. I don't think D.C. would have a problem if a German bakery wanted to open a block from the museum. Not all Germans were Nazi and not all Muslims hate the U.S.

John L. Esposito: The whole point is they are not a Nazi group, they are not Bin Laden supporters. That is the insanity of it all. Newt Gingrich is too smart to be that stupid. He is playing to the basest instincts.

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D.C.: I think that it is ironic that a lot of people who condemned Obama's Christian pastor in January of 2008 are now calling him a Muslim. But when all is said and done, why should anyone care? He could be a Hindu for all I know, but that has absolutely nothing to do with what I need from a leader. Why do people feel so threatened by him that they try to pigeonhole him into whatever dark corner that scares them?

John L. Esposito: I agree. Even more importantly why should we take seriously (other than REALLY worrying about the implicit and explicit racism) or give any credence to what people believe Obama's religion is or isn't unless that opinion is based on hard evidence. And whatever his faith, that is his business. As Colin Powell said when he endorsed Obama, being a Muslim should not be a problem in our democracy.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you have any sense of how many Muslims are "truthers" who believe that President Bush and/or the Israeli Mossad were actually behind the 9/11 attacks? I have to wonder if there's a parallel lunacy there to match the "Obama is a Muslim" fantasy. Thank you.

John L. Esposito: There are Muslims (and some Muslims out there) who refuse to accept this reality. Like all religious groups, Muslims come in all sizes( races, ethnic groups, political attitudes and the ability to be wrong:)

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Washington, D.C. : Why is it that some people insist that Obama is a Muslim?

John L. Esposito: Good question. I addressed it a bit earlier. What it demonstrates is a form of discrimination based upon perceived religion or race. If they tried to discredit a Jew on this basis, we would shout anti-Semitism. Problem is Islamophobia is accepted and engaged it by too many in our society.

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A lie said often and people who believe the loudest noise: Unfortunately, we are a nation who follow "Snooki," Kate plus 8, Housewives of any city and any other low-brow television. It takes too much effort to listen critically and to seek facts. We live in a world of instant information, including instant lies that take on a life of their own. If I hear it on the radio, TV, or Internet, it is truth and fact.

The media wants the most tantalizing news bite to make you listen. However, many viewers think the teaser is a fact.

Loud mouths can shout anything and it is believed as gospel, fact and gold. Sen. McCain to his credit corrected a lady during the campaign when she said then presidential candidate Obama was a Muslim.

People believed that Iraq had something to do with 9/11. If a lie is easier to believe, most people believe the lie. (Try women dress sizes LOL)

Twenty-five years ago, I used to work with a guy who carried around a copy of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. One day we where having a discussion about the Constitution and he pulled it out. I asked him why he carried it 24/7. He replied, he often has to prove he is correct about the U.S. Constitution or the Declaration because so few people know it and swear he is wrong.

Remember when Gideon Bibles could be found in every hotel room? Maybe we need the US Constitution instead.

John L. Esposito: Excellent points. I am astonished at how many of our political leaders and others speak, make accusations and have no knowledge of what they are supporting or condemning. We seem to always need an "other" to blame for our fears and problems. Today, it is immigration and Mexican immigrants and Muslims; who will it be tomorrow?

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Rochester, Mann.: I would like to see a follow-up question to this poll: "If Obama were a Muslim, would that be a bad thing?" Just to see how horrible and intolerant of a nation we have become. What percentage of Americans do you think would equate Muslim = Bad?

John L. Esposito: More that we (and they)would like to admit. For some quick background, the Gallup World Poll found that when Americans were asked what they admired about Islam of Muslims, 57% said "nothing" or "I don't know" Significant numbers said the were prejudiced against Muslims (not just terrorist), many doubt whether a Muslim can be a loyal citizen? On the basis of what evidence?

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Construction on Park 51: Thank you for taking my question. I would have been extremely upset if a St. Peter's-size mosque with half a dozen of minarets was built on Ground Zero.(I would not want a Christian church or a synagogue or Buddha's temple there either.) I am afraid many people are upset because they think this is the case. This false impression was created by a group of hard core "activists" and the ubiquitous reference in the media to: "the mosque on Ground Zero." Where have all the editors gone? And a second question: Did Black Muslims make any statements concerning the construction of the Islamic Center on Park 51?

John L. Esposito: Good point. They keep calling this Islamic cultural center a "mosque" which it is not and overlook the fact that the majority of the building will have NO direct religious (prayer) use but is meant as an inter-religious and inter-cultural center.

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Roanoke, Va.: You keep mentioning the inevitable outcry if disparaging remarks were made toward Jews and others. Are you intentionally avoiding any mention of the Christian bashing that is so in vogue with mainstream popular culture?

John L. Esposito: No. I am a Christian, was sin a monastery for many years and also initially trained and taught in Cathoic theology.

There are problems but that is what makes this situation so outrageous that some of the biggest anti-Islam and anti-Muslim rhetoric comes from Christian ministers and Christian folks. I am not forgetting that many religious leaders and others have spoken out.

Also let me take this moment to clearly state that the stand I and others have taken in our writing and speaking out has to do with defending the constitutional rights and freedoms of Muslims and all believers. I am not necessarily getting into what the developers could have done or might do.

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Baltimore, Md.: Don't most Muslims believe that Obama is a Muslim because his father was a Muslim. My understanding is that if the father is a Muslim than his children are Muslim. Also, don't they also consider it to be a crime, of some degree, to change from Muslim to another religion?

John L. Esposito: No most Muslims don't believe he is a Muslim though I am sure there are certainly those that do. Note also that Obama's father was not a practicing Muslim and he never really knew his father. In our modern or postmodern world, we are not simply a member of a religion because of the religion of our parents. We have the right to choose our religion. Obama never identified himself as a Muslim and as we know chose to be a Christian

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Potomac, Md.: I can't understand how people assume Obama is a Muslim when (1)he never knew his father; (2) he was raised by this Christian mother and grandparents from Kansas; and (3) he spent 20 years attending church under Rev. Wright, which itself was a big topic in the campaign. How do those claiming he is a Muslim deal with these facts?

John L. Esposito: Wish I had just seen this. You did a better job than I did in answering the previous question

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Grand Rapids, Mich.: Are you an Obama supporter?

John L. Esposito: Yes but if you read my many blogs on Huffington Post and On Faith and other writings, you will see I am not an "uncritical" supporter and in fact have been a critic on many occasions.

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Port Deposit, Md.: What do you make of the fact that the construction of mosques across the country, from California to Tennessee face opposition? What do American Muslims need to do in order to "win the hearts and minds" of their fellow citizens?

John L. Esposito: The question should not be what do they have to do. They have done nothing wrong. No matter what American Muslims do or say until we all face the depth of Islamophobia in our society and its dangers, no matter what Muslims ay or do they will be guilty. Jews and Japanese learned that reality the very hard way as have African Americans.

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Anonymous: Of course, not all Muslims are terrorists. But isn't this outrage over the cultural center playing right into the extremists' hands who have hijacked the religion? The extremists are convinced that the U.S. is at war with Islam and some of this rhetoric may serve to convince them that they are right. Would you agree? Thank you.

John L. Esposito: Yes. An terrorist leader or recruiter will say, "Look, this is just another sign that America is at war with Islam. Look at how even the most mainstream Muslims who we see as selling out are discriminated against."

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Williamsport, Pa.: Didn't he attend a Muslim school at sometime in his youth and studied the Koran while he attended this school?

John L. Esposito: For a few years he attended a Muslim school. Many of my Muslim friends raised overseas studied at catholic or Protestant schools, some for primary, secondary and university, would that make them Christian?

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Everywhere USA: Suggestion... wouldn't it be a greater honor to our deity if we were to take the money that would be spent on BOTH the Islamic Center AND the new WTC and donate it to relief of the flooding in Pakistan?

If we must build anything... build cross cultural compromise: build a "People of the Book" center with Jewish, Christian and Muslim sections.

John L. Esposito: My personal opinion: Agree

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Arlington, Va.: The challenge is that the U.S. and the West have been repeatedly attacked (WTC, London, Madrid, etc.) by terrorists acting in the name of Islam -- and too many leaders of the Islamic community have remained silent or expressed support for terrorist organizations like Hamas, Hezbollah, and al-Qaeda. How often must the rest of us ignore the actions of Islamic radicals without the support of the vast majority of the Muslim population?

John L. Esposito: Simply wrong. See my book The Future of Islam or some of my blogs where I provide websites (Beliefnet, U of North Carolina) that have links to many, many, many denunciations of the 9/11 attacks and subsequent attacks. Problem this does not attract media. Media is about sales and "if it bleeds, it leads."What major media person said in a program we did together, what what's is tragedy, conflict and conflictual discourse. That is exactly what we see in the overload of coverage on this issue today.

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Largo, Md.: It just seems a bit odd that Obama seems to be the first president that has had to go extraordinary lengths to prove that he is a U.S. citizen and that he is indeed a Christian, not Muslim. I truly feel this is because of his racial background and I, for one, am frustrated by it. I feel that if the Twin Towers were brought down by individuals who were Catholic, and a Catholic church was to be erected a few blocks from the tower site, it wouldn't be a problem.

John L. Esposito: You are right on the money:)

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Houston, Tex.: Would people still question his religion if his name was Bob instead of Obama? It is very strange to me that a guy who goes to church and is just a regular guy is assumed to be Muslim. Clinton sat down with Muslims too and no one questioned his religion. I just can't figure out what the confusion is all about.

John L. Esposito: Excellent point. Not how media and other anti-Muslim or anti-Obama websites refer to him as "Hussein"

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"A" Muslim: I have a question about semantics. All of the headlines and references within the articles state something along the lines of: "Growing Number of Americans Believe Obama is a Muslim." Why is it not: "Growing Number of Americans Believe Obama is Muslim." It seems to add a level of judgment when one adds "a." We do not refer to people as "a Jew," but more respectfully, "Jewish." Or "Christian." I am curious about the appropriate use of the term here.

John L. Esposito: It does tend to communicate as if sinister he "a" member of that group.

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Sensitivity by Proxy: The Cordoba Center's critics include very few of the people who lost loved ones on 9/11. Instead, the critics seem to see themselves as protecting the sensibilities of the families, at times even speaking for the families. Would you agree? It's worth noting that 9/11 widower Ted Olsen agrees with Obama on the issue.

John L. Esposito: Yes. What is most distressing is that most of the loudest and nastiest voices have no connection to the tragedy, are not Manhattan citizens and are people like Gingrich, the Tea Party, Lazio ,Palin and right wing "shout TV" media who are using it for their own benefit.

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San Diego, Calif.: Lost in all this snickering discussion of how stupid Americans are for thinking Obama is a Muslim is the fact that, according to the New York Times, "As the son of the Muslim father, Sen. Obama was born a Muslim under Muslim law as it is universally understood." (NYT, May 12, 2008). Comments?

John L. Esposito: This is a no-brainer. Islamic law was developed in an age an din societies that were Patriarchal and overwhelmingly Muslim and that is how this expectation arose. Just as if you were born in a European Christian country and family, you were "presumed" to be a Christian. This is simply not the case anymore as I note in a previous answer. Today many are born in pluralistic societies and family situations where they may be raised with no religion or with a religion but who they are is who they "decide" to be.

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Mount Pleasant, Tex.: Isn't it irrelevant whether the president is Muslim or Christian? Wasn't this country founded on freedom of religion?

John L. Esposito: Brilliant response. Isn't amazing how this has been lost in all the negative, irrational and racist rhetoric.

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D.C.: I am curious just because I want to quote a statistic at people who are so weird/freaky about the mosque being built -- I heard that 300 Muslims were killed in the WTC attacks. Is that true?

John L. Esposito: There are many stats out there. I have both looked for and asked folks in major American agencies like Homeland Sec, FBI and no seems to have reliable stat.

But there certainly were many Muslims who died. I spoke at the memorial for a young couple, recently married, both of who worked there and perished.

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Minneapolis, Minn.`: In this part of the Midwest we have many Somalians living here. I'm guessing most are Muslim. I have talked to many in grocery lines etc., but aside from that I really don't know any Muslims. We have programs at the U of M that will discuss/discard sentiments or beliefs about Somalis and Islam. I have found these programs fascinating as we can ask, discuss, argue with actual people and not just what is perceived as a phantom menace. As with any religion, the more information a person knows, the better.

John L. Esposito: Very true and in fact I have done some programs there. Although there at some 7 million Muslims in America and they are economically and increasingly socially integrated, many Americans still don't have much direct experience with them.

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Reston, Va.: Isn't the main concern that Islam encourages the replacement of American secular law with the Islamic Sharia law? There seems to be such a movement in England and in other parts of Europe. Many Americans view Sharia law as being against basic American values. This situation is similar to how Communism was viewed in the 1950s. Also, there is a conflict on the concept of the separation of church and state.

John L. Esposito: Not the case. See my blog on Wash Post-Newsweek, On Faith published yesterday on this topic. Islamic law was developed in an age and in Muslims societies for those societies. Today, Muslim minority communities like Jewish and Catholic communities before them face following there religion in a secular society. And indeed many Muslims have written on this issue. See my book The Future of Islam

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Olney, Md.: How can I have any good feelings at all about Islam after seeing that horrifying Time Magazine cover picture of the (formerly) beautiful young woman whose nose had been cut off by the Taliban? And seeing a little girl maybe 6-8 years old at a carnival in Alexandria in a full burqa? Their treatment of women is at best sexist and at worst horrifying. Honor killings, stoning a pregnant woman, just so many, many atrocities. Even the way most Muslim women have to dress is not right.

John L. Esposito: How can you feel good about Christians seeing the corpses from the Oklahoma bombings, abortion clinic bombings or reading the many, many tragic stories of Catholic victims of pedophilia. The pics you saw are NOT actions that are required or condoned by Isla; they are actions committed by some people who were born Muslim and follow some local or tribal customs.

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washingtonpost.com: This concludes our chat with John Esposito. Thank you for joining.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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