Tuesday, November 25, 2008


President-elect Barack Obama denied rumors that circulated during the campaign that he is a Muslim, and emphatically noted that he is a Christian. In endorsing Mr. Obama, former Secretary of State Colin Powell forcefully challenged his party on this issue. “I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, ‘He’s a Muslim and he might be associated with terrorists,’” Mr. Powell said. “This is not the way we should be doing it in America.”

Certainly, it is not. During the campaign, several remarks crossed the line. But it is important to remember that John F. Kennedy didn’t have it easy when he became the first Catholic president. When Sen. Joe Lieberman ran for vice president in 2000, many debated whether his loyalty as a Jew would be to the well-being of the United States or Israel. There are fewer than 10 million Muslims in the U.S. Leaving aside the insulting tone some used about Muslims during the campaign, Muslims are indeed a small minority in this country.

“Is there something wrong with some 7-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president?” Mr. Powell asked. There is nothing wrong with a 7-year-old Muslim child in this country dreaming of becoming an elected official. With his recent election, Keith Ellison, Minnesota Democrat, became the first Muslim congressman. But the presidency is a different phenomenon. It’s only natural for the majority to be uncomfortable with a president who does not share the same faith.

That said, it’s important to focus on the big picture. If Mr. Obama’s presidency can improve the U.S.’ relations with the Muslim world, the president-elect should focus both on diffusing the hyped sensitivity on the issue of the Islamic faith, and on urging Americans to stop seeing Muslims as a single entity - one that represents a danger to the U.S. In interviews with Paris Match and Canal Plus television during the campaign, Mr. Obama said that if he were elected, he would hold a summit in the Muslim world to address what he described as a growing gap between Islamic countries and the West.

Such a gathering must emphasize openness and the idea that no side is absolutely right or wrong. But Vice President-elect Joe Biden was perfectly right when he said at a 2004 committee meeting that “We are viewed as the totality of their [Muslims in the Middle East] problem and the sole source of their solutions.” He continued, “I have such difficulty trying to determine how we … can be a positive impact, other than refraining from doing things that are negative.”

Last week, the Saudi Kingdom led a conference on religious tolerance at the United Nations. While it may be welcomed as an attempt by the Saudis to bring change to their society, King Abdullah courted for a global law on blasphemy which will further seal their religious intolerance.

There has to be a balance between reacting to inflammatory accusations and dealing with the real troubles within the Muslim world. Mr. Obama knows well what it is like to be treated differently. But here’s hoping that as president he will acknowledge that even his cool may not be enough to put down the fire in the Muslim Middle East. The fight must focus on distinguishing rights and wrongs. The Muslim Middle East seems to have lost that notion; there’s no other explanation for Iranian President Ahmadinejad popularity. While Iran ‘s human rights record remains troubling, the war in Iraq and a possible U.S. attack on Iranian nuclear sites has united the region - in opposition to the United States. But a nuclear weaponized Iran does not serve its neighbors’ interests, and they may fear that development more than America ‘s presence in the region.

The trouble is, many Muslims believe America is at war with Islam. Mr. Obama needs to clarify and articulate what he opposes. During the Democratic National Convention in Denver , there was no mention of “Islamic terrorism” - but that doesn’t change the fact that “Islamic terrorism” exists. The question is, what do the Muslims do about it? And how will they use Mr. Obama’s presidency to bring a more forceful argument against violence being done in the name of Islam? Many argue that if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is solved, the problem will evaporate.

But it isn’t easy to undo what’s been done for generations - a population accustomed to blaming others for their sorrow and misery. Can such people quickly grow out of the mentality that tarnishing the good and peaceful name of Allah with such behavior is justified? More likely, they will find new excuses.

Humanity will never be trouble-free, but human beings distinguish themselves by the way they react to those wrongdoings. Martin Luther King, Jr. used to say, “If you use the law, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” then you end up with everybody blind and toothless.” Mr. Obama may remind Muslim Middle East how African-Americans fought for their civil rights in the face of absolute discrimination, and how non-violence and patience were repaid in the very example he sets today.

Tulin Daloglu is a free-lance writer.

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