What's wrong with having a Muslim for president?


OPINION:Where is the outrage over the implication in the US that Islam equates to terrorism, asks Bryan Mukandi?

A FEW WEEKS ago, an American friend told me that she wanted her country's elections to come to a close sooner rather than later.

I was a little surprised. The elections have been more entertaining than anything else on television all year. They have been better than even the Olympics. They started before the games, and were still a great source of drama months later.

So why was my friend, a person as fascinated by politics as I, not enjoying the race? She said it was because presidential elections divide the country. As a person who is not from the United States, I must confess that I was not moved by her concerns very much. Admittedly, I think the whole system is a silly way to pick a leader, ridiculous in fact. But even though I have heard people argue that the idea behind football is just as ridiculous, I still watch the sport. However, over the last couple of weeks, things have changed. I too am now sick of the whole thing and want it to end.

It started with the use of the word "terrorist" at Republican Party campaign rallies. Then there was the use of Barack Obama's middle name - he even joked recently that he was clearly named Hussein by someone who did not think that he would ever run for president.

The icing on the cake was the woman who, at a town hall meeting, told John McCain that she was afraid of Obama because he was an Arab. McCain promptly took the microphone from her and went on to explain that Obama was not an Arab, but was instead, a decent family man. For that intervention, McCain was praised by some in the media for having "defended" Obama.

Some analysts and political commentators have criticised the McCain campaign for propagating the idea that Obama is a Muslim and "pals around" with terrorists. What surprises me is that while there seems to be a lot of outrage at the false Muslim allegations, the same is not true of the implication that Islam equates to terrorism. Why is it that the description "decent family man" can be thrown out as a counter to the suggestion that one is an Arab?

As The Daily Show's Jon Stewart noted, are there no Arabs who are decent men with families they love? Would a "no Ma'am, he is an American citizen" not have sufficed?

The optimist in me believes that with respect to prejudice, the world has made considerable progress and it is now only a matter of time before racism fades away. But sometimes I wonder if people just need an "other" on whom they can cast their doubts and fears.

Maybe different groups just take turns at being the victim. Jewish people had a stint, black people are hopefully coming out of theirs, and it looks like the group of the moment are the Muslims. All it took was one or two unhinged groups and a couple of acts of terrorism. Now, one can almost publicly say things like "they don't like us", "they have a violent culture", or "they think we are all infidels and want to take over the West".

As for who "they" are, that's obvious - people with names like Hussein and people who wear headscarves. It's not just an American phenomenon either. In July, the Daily Mail's Peter Oborne wrote: "Islamophobia - prejudice against Islam - is Britain's last remaining socially respectable form of bigotry . . ."

I think that allegation holds for much of Europe. My German friend, for example, who is often mistaken for a Muslim due to his complexion, is frequently called a terrorist on the bus in Berlin. As for real Muslims who stand out because of their dress, there have been more than a few complaints of prejudice. All because of an extreme fringe group, which is probably no more representative of the whole as the Ku Klux Klan would be of white America today.

I think Colin Powell put it best. He said that pictures of such bigotry were being viewed in the rest of the world and did not serve America's interests. He also asked why a Muslim could not run for the presidency. And that is a good point. Catholics can become president and it is looking like the same is true of black people. The jury is still out on women.

What about other groups? If the idea of a Latino or a Muslim in the White House is beyond belief, what does that say of American society? Either the White House is strictly reserved for those who profess to be orthodox Christians (that excludes Mormons like Mitt Romney) and the whole notion of plurality is a lie, or something has gone wrong.

If the US is the most progressive nation in these matters, what are the implications for western democracies? Is the idea of people being judged on merit, by the content of their character rather than on characteristics like race and religion just an illusion?

I do not know what it is like to be a Muslim today, but I do know a thing or two about being a minority. Most minorities, in my experience, tend to look to the broader society for clues as to where they fit. There is an insecurity that is inherent in being defined as different.

In the same way Obama's success will lead to more African-Americans engaging in the wider society, the allusions to Islam and terrorism in election events may have the opposite effect with Muslims and people of other non-Christian faiths. Because America is America, that will have ripple effects beyond that nation's borders.

Thankfully, in about two weeks this process will be behind us. The politics of race and religion will eventually fade into the background. People will be able to focus squarely on their finances, or pick any number of distractions. And hopefully, the scars of this election will not be too disfiguring.

• Bryan Mukandi also writes a blog, Outside in, on The Irish Times website - http://www.irishtimes.com/blogs/outsidein/