And so what if we had a Muslim president? – Charles D. Ellison/The Hill
Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of the ongoing bigotry-charged conversation about Muslims in America is that Muslims have been in America for, well, quite a long time.
Ironically, the funny thing about Ben Carson’s anti-Muslim tirade (even as he daily modulates it) is that the original Nation of Islam was founded in his hometown of Detroit. It’s an awfully close personal connection Carson should be mindful of, given his penchant for using Motown as campaign announcement playground.
But if he were to dig deep enough, there could also be a 15 to 30 percent chance his enslaved ancestors were Muslim.
Despite that, in all the discourse, in all the outrage over Donald Trump’s embrace of his anti-Muslim supporters and Carson’s pandering screed over Muslims as president, there is this lingering subtext of our collective inability to fathom a Muslim American as an American president. Added to that is how comfortable we are with the absence of historical context. Large numbers of African slaves were, indeed, Muslim before their brutal forced conversion to Christianity under a chattel system. Wonder what Carson would say if the two [long-sitting] openly Muslim members of Congress, Rep. Andre Carson (D-Ind.) and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) (no relation to the author) — both black — were to make a bid for the presidency? And maybe they should do it just to make a point. It’s not like Islam hasn’t played a pretty prominent role in African-American culture and life, as Carson would probably know, being from Detroit and all.
We can’t view groups outside of racy, popular, sensationalized images of them. Muslims can’t be president or don’t even exist as fellow members of the American community because, to us, Islam doesn’t operate beyond a violent Middle Eastern paradigm. Obviously, folks like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) don’t help that situation. But it’s about time we accept the fact that there are 7 million Muslims already living here, nearly 40 percent native-born in the United States. More than 1 million of them are registered and fairly active voters — right now, nearly a quarter vote Democrat, but they voted enough for Republican governors in recent elections for the GOP to watch itself in how far it lets its candidates tap into the primary’s Islamophobic base.
Of course, President Obama is not Muslim, and he was born here, too. We should be enraged by the deliberate obfuscation of fact and rampant dog whistling that’s particularly hard for this present crop of Republican presidential candidates to deny.
But, instead, there’s more rage at the insinuation of the current president as Muslim than rage at the distortion. It’s something that Obama could use as a national opportunity to clear up, to perhaps engage in a deeper, beyond-dinner-platitudes discussion about the actual history of Muslims in America, to offer some factual context that sheds light on the exact demographic, economic and political disposition of that population. That would be a bit more helpful while inviting a shy Muslim kid with a clock. Since he’s nearing the end of his second term, the risk is so low that any birther blowback shouldn’t matter.
Yet, he hasn’t. And so maybe it’s because the risk is understated: A March HuffPost/YouGov poll found 76 percent of Republican voters expressed an unfavorable view of Islam, along with 62 percent of whites (and, interestingly enough, 32 percent of African-Americans). Roughly a total of 55 percent of all Americans have an unfavorable impression of Islam, with 63 percent of those ages 45 to 64 harboring the most anti-Islamic views.
Yet, 87 percent of Americans admit to never having been in a mosque and 74 percent acknowledge that they’ve never worked with a Muslim.
So how can you dislike something you’ve never tasted? Telling is the Pew Research Center’s examination of religious attitudes and sentiments towards other religious institutions like Islam. White evangelicals, a dominant subgroup within the Republican electorate, gave Muslims the lowest religious group rating out of other American religious groups, with Jews receiving the second highest rating, only behind evangelical Christians themselves.
Overall, Muslims received the lowest religious attitude rating of all groups, falling even 1 percentage point behind atheists. Out of the leading racial population groups, only blacks offered the warmest perception of Muslims at 48 percent, compared to 38 percent from whites and 43 percent from Hispanics.
Which gets us to that special level of hypocrisy in collective anger at Trump for failing to scold his anti-Obama birth-theory base or at Carson for saying a Muslim candidate for president should “denounce the life of Mohammad.” There’s a need for broader introspection there. What, exactly, are we mad at? Are we mad at and simply embarrassed by raw American prejudice on public display (I mean, well, what would Pope Francis say)? Or, is it because it’s really that hard for the electorate to visualize a Muslim president?
Ellison is a veteran political strategist and contributing editor to The Root. He is also Washington correspondent to The Philadelphia Tribune, a contributor to The Hill and the “Sunday Washington Insider” for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia. He can be reached @ellisonreport.