I know I said this wasn’t going to become a political blog, and I still want to keep to that, but for that to work, the Republican candidates need to stop saying dumb stuff about Islam and Muslims.
And so I come to the story that Speaker Gingrich went on ABC News to discuss the wide-spread American belief that President Obama is a Muslim, saying that it “should bother the President.”
Since the President first came onto the public scene, I’ve had people asking me fairly regularly if he is a Muslim. This belief stems from Islamic law, in a vague sense, in that the assumption in Islamic law is that a child is the religion of her or his father, unless there is other evidence. This is because certain laws only apply to certain communities – to Muslims, to the Abrahamic religions or to the protected communities, so in certain circumstances, the Islamic legal system needs to designate the religious identity of the parties in the legal case. But again, this applies specifically to the realm of Islamic law – to the best of my knowledge, President Obama has never been in a legal case in which it needed to be decided how much he should inherit from his Muslim relatives or whether he should pay the zakat, the poor-due, both cases where his religious identity would come into play in an Islamic court.
And again, these laws are based around a legal system that sometimes requires a defined religious identity, and derives one for lack of better evidence. In the case of the President, we know his religious identity – he calls himself a Christian. Islamic law, and Muslim communities, would believe him when he does so. And, to the Speaker’s credit, so does he – he says that he takes the President at his word that he is a Christian, but he also says that he wants to know “why does the President behave the way that people would think that?”
And as it happens, I can answer that question – he doesn’t. I know this because I’ve experienced it – when I started telling people that I worked in Islamic studies, the first question I often got was “have you converted?” In fact, I got asked this so often that my standard response became “no, it wasn’t a pre-req – I checked.”
The people who asked me this ranged in familiarity with me – some of them knew me well and probably wouldn’t have noticed any difference in my behaviour beyond the normal changes that go along with college life, and some didn’t know me at all and wouldn’t have had a point of reference for any changes to my behaviour. In either cases, nothing about me had really changed – yes, I could now speak Arabic, but I hadn’t started doing anything terribly Muslim – I wasn’t regularly attending a mosque, I wasn’t praying five times a day, I hadn’t changed my style of dress. The only thing that had changed was that I was now spending time with a Muslim community within my department and studying Islamic history.
But that was enough to stir up the question. Indeed, the underlying point of the question was something even more problematic, the question of why I, as a white American girl, would want to learn more about Islam and Muslims, unless I had converted. No one who asked me this were mean or cruel about it; they legitimately could not understand my interest.
And that’s what should bother us. Not that people are mis-identified as Muslims – Muslims can be kind, generous, intelligent, interesting, fun, exciting, cool people – but that it’s a big deal when someone is identified as a Muslim, and so there would be a reason to not want it to happen to you. That we don’t see a way how people can be American and Muslim. That we can’t see how a man can grow up with Muslim relatives, and love them and cherish them, and still consider himself a Christian, without seeing any contradiction in those things.