Why it’s no surprise many still think Obama is Muslim

It’s no surprise that so many Americans think that Obama is a Muslim. The Pew Research Center poll found a big increase in the number of Republicans that believe he is. Certainly that was no surprise. And only slight less surprisingly the poll found that lots of Democrats and Independents also think that the president is a Muslim. No president has ever had more pejorative labels slapped on him. He’s been branded a Bolshevik, socialist, Nazi (go figure that one), an anarchist, leftist, an alien, and of course, un-American.

But the Obama is a Muslim tag carries a special taint. No religious group in America has been more distorted, reviled, and demonized than Muslims. Simply utter the word, and this instantly conjures up for many dark images of bombings, terrorist attacks, war, chaos, destruction, and fanaticism. Muslims have stirred a nativist, xenophobic, and religiously intolerant pulse in many Americans that has always lurked just beneath the surface in American life. Politicians have at times played to this impulse and translated it into a massive religious social revolt, while reaping big gains at the ballot box. The rumor and fear mongering images of Islam and Muslims escalated with the emotionally devastating September 11 terror attacks. The attack stirred fears among Muslims that they would routinely be targeted, subject to search and surveillance, and profiled at airports.

The profiling alarm bells went off again after a soldier with a Muslim name shot up the military base at Ft. Hood back in November. The Council on American-Islamic Relations wasted no time and issued a loud and vigorous denunciation of the mass killing. The Council didn’t know at that moment whether Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the alleged shooter, was a Muslim by birth, a converted Muslim, or even a Muslim at all. The name and the horrific murder spree was enough to drive the group to quickly distance itself from the rampage. Other Muslim organizations instantly followed suit and issued their own equally strong disavowal of Hasan.

This didn’t stop the pack of Fox News commentators, conservative radio talk show hosts, writers, and some officials from again openly shouting for even tighter scrutiny of Muslim groups. Airline bombing suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab raised the decibel level on their call for transportation officials to openly profile Muslims at airports, train stations, and even on the open highways.

But this was a mere dress rehearsal for the Muslim scare that’s dogged President Obama. His speeches in Cairo last year to a Muslim and international audience, his repeated preaching of tolerance and outreach to the Muslim world, his occasional tough line on Israeli settlement expansion, his White House Ramadan dinner, and a his favorable statement supporting the right to build a mosque at ground zero all have been mischaracterized. For many they were smoking gun proof that Obama is not a closet but an avowed Muslim.

Though some GOP political strategists have urged caution about making the ground zero mosque and Obama a campaign issue, the GOP will do it anyway. Fox News, the pack of right wing talk show hosts, and bloggers have had a field day doing everything possible to fan the fire of anti-Muslim sentiment. They have even dumped on the table an outrageously distorted, misstated, and misunderstood discussion of Sharia Law, and declared that any Muslim who believes in it and practices it does not believe in the Constitution and by extension can’t be a loyal American. The implication being that since Obama is a Muslim he must also believe in the strict tenets of Sharia Law and therefore…the dots have never been more wrongly and badly connected.

Since his initial statements on the ground zero mosque, Obama has kept silent on the controversy. There’s absolutely no need for him to say anything more about it. The issue will be fiercely debated by politicians and much of the public in the coming weeks. The danger though is that the issue will incite more rage in the days immediately before the ninth anniversary of the September 11 attack. Expect Obama’s foes, and that’s nearly any Republican candidate or incumbent who can figure out a way to sneak a line or two about the attack, the ground zero mosque controversy and a sly hint that Obama backed the right to build the mosque into their speeches, to take a dig at the president. Even some top Democrats facing tough reelection battles have backpedalled fast from Obama’s position on the mosque. Democratic Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid was one. Expect more Democrats to follow him in the weeks to come.

The ignorance of so many Americans about Obama’s religious beliefs if nothing else refutes the old adage that religion and politics don’t mix. They do, and Obama’s foes have done everything they can to make sure that that’s the case with him.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He hosts a nationally broadcast political affairs radio talk show on Pacifica and KTYM Radio Los Angeles.