Editor’s Note: In this fourth of a five-part series, Middle East and Islam specialist Daniel Pipes focuses on perceptions that Barack Obama is a Muslim, first by those close to him, then by Muslims and finally by the American public.
Several people who know Barack Obama well perceive him as Muslim. Most remarkably, his half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, has stated: “My whole family was Muslim.” Her whole family, obviously, includes her half-brother, Barack.
In June 2006, President Obama related how, after a long religious evolution, he “was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ on 95th Street in the Southside of Chicago one day and affirm my Christian faith” with an altar call. But when his pastor at Trinity United, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, was asked (by author Edward Klein in “The Amateur,” Page 40), “Did you convert Obama from Islam to Christianity?” Mr. Wright finessed the question, whether out of ignorance or discretion, replying enigmatically: “That’s hard to tell.” Note that he did not reject out of hand the idea that Mr. Obama had been a Muslim.
Mr. Obama’s 30-year-old half-brother, George Hussein Onyango Obama, who met him twice, told an interviewer in March 2009, “He may be behaving differently due to the position he is in, but on the inside, Barack Obama is Muslim.”
More generally, Muslims cannot shake the sense that under his proclaimed Christian identity, Mr. Obama truly is one of them. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, prime minister of Turkey, has said Hussein is a Muslim name. Muslim discussions of Mr. Obama sometimes mention his middle name as a code, with no further comment needed. A conversation in Beirut, quoted in the Christian Science Monitor, captures the puzzlement. “He has to be good for Arabs because he is a Muslim,” observed a grocer. “He’s not a Muslim, he’s a Christian,” replied a customer. No, said the grocer, “He can’t be a Christian. His middle name is Hussein.” The name is proof positive.
The American Muslim writer Asma Gull Hasan wrote in “My Muslim President Obama“:
“I know President Obama is not Muslim, but I am tempted nevertheless to think that he is, as are most Muslims I know. In a very unscientific oral poll, ranging from family members to Muslim acquaintances, many of us feel that we have our first American Muslim president in Barack Hussein Obama. since Election Day, I have been part of more and more conversations with Muslims in which it was either offhandedly agreed that Obama is Muslim or enthusiastically blurted out. In commenting on our new president, ‘I have to support my fellow Muslim brother,’ would slip out of my mouth before I had a chance to think twice. ‘Well, I know he’s not really Muslim,’ I would quickly add. But if the person I was talking to was Muslim, they would say, ‘yes, he is.’ “
If Muslims get these vibes, not surprisingly, so does the American public. Five polls in 2008-09 by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press asked, “Do you happen to know what Barack Obama’s religion is?” They found a consistent 11 percent to 12 percent of registered American voters averring that he’s really a Muslim, with much larger percentages among Republicans and evangelicals. This number increased to 18 percent in an August 2010 Pew survey. A March 2012 poll found about half the likely Republican voters in both Alabama and Mississippi saw Mr. Obama as a Muslim. In Pew’s June-July 2012 survey, 17 percent said Mr. Obama is a Muslim and 31 percent said they did not know his religion; just 49 percent identified him as a Christian. This points to an even split between those who say Mr. Obama is a Christian and those who do not.
That those who see him as Muslim also overwhelmingly disapprove of his job performance points to a correlation in their minds between Muslim identity and a failed presidency. That such a substantial portion of the public persists in this view points to a bedrock of reluctance to take Mr. Obama at his word about being a Christian. This in turn reflects the widespread sense that Mr. Obama has played fast and loose with his biography.
Daniel Pipes (DanielPipes.org) is president of the Middle East Forum.