Muslims, too, Believe in ‘Change’
By Saif Shahin, New Age Islam
July 4, 2008
MUCH INK has been shed on the perils that Muslim support poses for the candidature of Barack Obama, the Democratic presumptive nominee for US presidency. But few have bothered to spell out what such backing says about Muslims in the US – and elsewhere – or even what it means for the future of US-Muslim world relations.
Support for Obama cuts across sectarian, ethnic and generational divides within the American Muslim community. It is not simply a passive preference for an anti-Iraq war votary over the Republican presumptive nominee John McCain, or even over Hillary Clinton, Obama’s erstwhile challenger for party candidature. Instead, Muslims are keenly, actively interested in having him as the first black guy to run the White House.
“He is probably the most open-minded among the main candidates. He also belongs to a minority group, and Muslims feel a special bond with him due to that,” Imam Hassan Qazwini, who leads the Shiite Islamic Center of America mosque in Detroit, told me in an interview in Doha earlier this year. “He has Islamic roots, and shows great respect for Islam and the Muslim community. So if given the choice, I believe Muslims will vote for him.”
Qazwini is the spiritual leader of tens of thousands of Muslims who pray regularly at his mosque – the largest in North America. But if the Iraq émigré speaks for the first-generation mosque-going follower, 32-year-old Arsalan Iftikhar, the first-ever national legal director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, represents the born-and-bred American who also happens to be Muslim.
“Everything that the Republican party and the George W Bush administration have stood for has been at odds with the Muslim world. So they are looking forward to having a Democratic administration next,” he said while also in Doha in April. “It is also not much of a surprise that a vast majority are supporting Obama. They see him as the one candidate who will move towards reconciling differences between the US and the Muslim world.”
But this support has come at a price. Those sitting in the left wing of the US Commentariat agree that it is, at the very least, a chink in Obama’s armour. And not without reason, for those on their right have picked on Obama’s middle name Hussein, accused him of being a Muslim and even called him “the candidate of terrorists”. One anti-Obama email campaign during the primary season read: “Let us all remain alert concerning Obama’s expected presidential candidacy. The Muslims have said they plan on destroying the US from the inside out, what better way to start than at the highest level - through the President of the United States, one of their own!”
Obama himself has not been unmindful of this chink, never taking up Muslim issues on his campaign and not attending a single anti-Iraq war rally – even though he initially stood out as the only one among the main candidates from either party not to have voted in favour of the now widely unpopular war. More recently, he went on to voice support for Israel with an undivided Jerusalem as its capital.
Even though the last remark drew the intended flak from some quarters, Muslim championing of Obama largely holds. It also does not end at American Muslims. All over the world, his candidature has sparked unprecedented interest in US elections among Muslims. Many Arabic newspapers have espoused his cause. In a mock election during the US-Islamic World Forum in Doha in February, an overwhelming majority of delegates from the Arab world, the US and elsewhere voted for him. The influential Egyptian Islamic television preacher Amr Khaled told AFP: “I would like to see Obama become president of America because he champions change and hope, which we Muslims need as much as the Americans do.”
But whether justified or misplaced, whether useful or adverse, the very fact that so many Muslims are so vociferously supporting a US presidential candidate says something about the community. It says that despite the anti-Muslim world deportment of successive US governments, despite their insidious backing of Israeli transgressions on Palestinian lives and limbs, even despite their own ravages in Muslim nations like Iraq and Afghanistan, Muslims in the US and worldwide are still to become anti-American.
Support for Obama shows that even after repeated betrayals by American leaders, Muslims are still eager to listen to their words, still willing to believe in them. Aversion for US policies and actions remains widespread, but overwhelming numbers of Muslims also do not want to blow up Americans. Instead, they are keenly desirous of filling in the chasm between them and the US that has swelled over decades and made seemingly unbridgeable by the ignoble Bush administration.
It also shows that any building of bridges will require a break from the past and a fresh approach, which Obama right now represents. Will he continue to do so when, and if, he sits in the Oval Office? Only time will tell. For now, every one is willing to believe in “Change”.
Saif Shahin is an Assistant Editor with Qatar Tribune, Doha, Qatar