By Wajahat Ali
17 January 2017
For eight years, a black man with a Kenyan father whose middle name was Hussein and who spent part of his childhood in Indonesia ran the US as president and commander-in-chief. And, all this while, nearly one-third of the country thought he was a Muslim. Instead of being a cause for concern, this gives me a small sense of joy.
Barack Obama’s skin colour, his Arabic middle name, his alleged Muslim-ness did not deter American voters from making him the second-most powerful, influential person in the nation. (First place is forever occupied by Oprah.) Instead, millions of Americans voluntarily voted for a man who was widely believed to be Muslim.
Obama’s characteristics made him an enduring symbol, a beacon for millions of kids, like I once was. Our “ethnic otherness” made us question whether or not America would ever accept us as something more than a sidekick, the token minority, the “best ethnic friend” and instead invite us to take centre stage and embrace the spotlight as the leading protagonist of the American narrative.
Even when some Republicans deliberately, and consistently, vacated all sense of shame and decency by pushing the “birther” conspiracy – claiming President Obama was illegitimate because he wasn’t born in the US – the American people still gave him the popular vote in 2008 and 2012. How remarkable is that?
Obama always made clear he was a Christian, but never distanced himself from Muslims in response to spurious rumours about his faith. His first major interview was given to Al-Arabiya in 2009. A few months after becoming president, he gave a speech at Cairo University, intended to repair and restart relations with Muslim-majority communities reeling from the reckless, unnecessary wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Then, in his final year as president, he finally stepped into an American mosque for the first time, thereby beating the mosque attendance record of many Muslims I know. Recently, he ended the odious Nseers program that was used by the Bush administration to deport over 13,000 immigrants, overwhelmingly Muslim and Arab men.
This is not an audit of Obama’s presidency, his flawed domestic and foreign policies, his strengths and blunders, his failed promises or his enduring victories. Rather, it is an appreciation that in my lifetime I was able to see a majority of America rise above our poisoned legacy of racism to embrace such a man as its leader.
Of course, the death rattle of white supremacy lashed back with ferocious anger. We’re about to witness a democratic transition of power from an eloquent, dignified politician to a short-tempered, thin-skinned, temperamental, anti-Muslim vulgarian who can muster petty, insulting tweets against civil rights icon John Lewis, his own intelligence agencies and the musical Hamilton, but whose tiny fingers can’t type 140 characters to criticize Vladimir Putin.
Some say this is proof that racism is embedded with the DNA of America, one that will never forgive itself the sin of electing a black, “Muslim man” as president, and never forget to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
But, if you’re paying close attention, the country is evolving and slowly, but surely, embracing and flaunting its new multicoloured skin. During this past election, Ilhan Omar, a black, Muslim, female refugee who wears Hijab, became the first Somali American-elected official.
Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, has emerged as one of the leading progressive candidates to chair the Democratic National Committee. Khizr and Ghazala Khan, Gold Star parents and Pakistani immigrants, body-slammed Trump with the constitution and were embraced by veterans across the US.
The American dream might become a living nightmare for many under Trump’s presidency, but for eight years a black man with a “foreign” name who many thought was Muslim was elected twice, to help make that dream a reality for millions still grasping for its fruition.
The bad hombres, the nasty women, the marginalized, the forgotten, the ethnics, and those trolled by Trump will keep fighting for it. Just like we always have. Just like we always will. And, who knows, maybe the next president will actually be a Muslim.