A disturbing conversation…
My colleague’s question caught me off guard. I looked up from the stack of papers I was beginning to grade during my planning period. I had turned the TV on to MSNBC and the political pundits were breaking down the prospects of Barack Obama for the Potomac primaries and beyond.
I tried to read her face. She was completely serious. Here is the essence of the exchange that ensued…
Me: “Obama is a Christian,” I replied. “He has been very open about his faith. He is a member of a Christian congregation in Chicago.”
Colleague: “No, I mean his faith heritage is Muslim. Some of his ancestors were Muslims.”
Me: “Does that make Obama a Muslim? Isn’t it possible to convert to a faith that is distinct from the predominant faith of one’s family system?”
Colleague: responds by shaking her head no
Me: “I know that there have been questions raised regarding Obama’s connection to Islam. I’m not sure what you have heard, or where you have heard it. I’ll send you some links to legitimate sources reporting on this issue.”
My colleague went to her next period class.
I was in shock. Was it possible that I had just had this conversation? I was shocked that someone would casually suggest that Obama would be a Muslim president–not because he himself is a professing Muslim, but because his stepgrandmother was a practicing Muslim.
We had never discussed politics previously, so I had no context from which to anticipate her comment. Nevertheless, it shocked me.
We exchanged some brief emails later this morning. I sent her a few links including this one and this one. She apologized if she had offended me. I responded that I appreciated her words of apology and explanation. That yes, her question had come as a bit of a shock. I said that in a time where the politcal landscape is so polarized–I am particularly aware of divisive language rooted in narratives that knowingly or unknowingly infuse the political debates with distrust for Others.
(For another example of this kind of language, I submit a quote from Mitt Romney as he suspended his presidential campaign a few days ago:
“If I fight on in my campaign, all the way to the convention, I would forestall the launch of a national campaign and make it more likely that Senators Clinton or Obama would win. And in this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding a surrender to terror.”-Mitt Romney on why he’s suspending his campaign
More reflections on this conversation…
Especially given the history of distrust between the West and Arab countries, I believe we need to be careful in the way we use words and talk about people.
To talk about Obama in terms suggesting we would have a Muslim president (if he is elected) is irresponsible in my view. I question the motives of those who would seek to make this connection between the candidate and members of his family tree. Why the need to suggest that Obama is Muslim because he has ancestors who were connected with Islam?
This is the type of accusation that is promulgated by the politics of fear. You don’t have to scratch too deeply beneath the surface of this type of rhetoric to find a xenophobic narrative.
I think this country needs a visionary leader who has the ability to transcend the visceral toxicity of the political game. We need a leader with the ability to articulate a new narrative that brings people together–not just 51% of the country in a red state/blue state polarization.
There will be cynics who say that such a candidate is not possible. This is their prerogative. However, I cannot be silent when I hear people speaking from the narrative of fear-based politics.
I am looking for a candidate who will not paint the political opponent in denigrating terms. I am looking for a candidate who will engage in honest debate about real issues, without stooping to the level of personal attack or slanderous charicature.
Several generations ago JFK captured the imagination of the electorate in this way. I think it will take the same type of leader today. One that does not just play to the party establishment, but seeks to reach out in ways that transcend ideological differences. One who embodies a different tone. One that calls us back to civil discourse with each other and with the world.