When Colin Powell endorsed Barack Obama for US President Sunday morning, he mentioned how disturbed he was that one of the mudslinging insults the Republican Party had thrown at Obama was the rumours that he was a Muslim. They had used the fact that his name was not that of a typical American to throw up doubts about him, by linking him with the faith of the terrorist groups who specifically targeted the US, Islam.
Yet Powell was exactly right about the nature of this very political act. He said in his interview with Tom Brokaw that the correct answer to the question, "Is Obama a Muslim?" is that no, he is, in fact, a Christian, and a firmly believing Christian. And Powell distinguished what he called the correct answer from the right answer, the answer that accords with American ethics and values. The right answer to the question, "Is Obama a Muslim?" is that this question should not matter. There is nothing about Islam that necessarily makes you unpatriotic or anti-American. We know in Canada that one's faith doesn't affect your patriotism for the country, and the growing number of Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus competing and winning elected offices here attests to this.
But Colin Powell was precisely right that whether one is a Muslim should not matter to questions of patriotism, even though throughout America, it clearly does. The many clearly ignorant members of the American population who believe chain e-mails spreading blatant lies about Obama, faith notwithstanding, are affected by this. Consider the woman who, speaking at a McCain meeting as he took questions from the audience, distrusted Obama because "he's an Arab." McCain quickly rebuked her, but the question that there is something to be feared from Arabs or Muslims inherently is just as virulent racism as that which confronted American blacks in the early years of this century.
Powell raised two important examples as he discussed this point. He asked us to imagine a seven year old Muslim boy in America wondering if he could ever become president one day. And he described a photo from an essay on American soliders that was in the New Yorker. The photo showed a mother leaning on the headstone of her twenty year old son. He was born in 1987, and died in 2007. Listed on his headstone were his awards, the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart, and his mission, Operation Iraqi Freedom. His name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, and at the top of his headstone is the star and crescent of Islam. As Powell described it, no American, no person, can see this image as it is before them, and still believe the vicious racism against Muslims. Or at least they shouldn't. His full interview is here.