The “Obama’s a Muslim” claim and how to deal with it

Rick Santorum is true renaissance man. He is an equal-opportunity bigot, distributing his hate equitably among several disenfranchised groups, regardless of skin color, gender, sexual orientation, or other non-white dude classification. His tent is so big, he even made up a group of people called “blah people,” and committed to looking down on them, too. It comes as no surprise that Santorum includes Muslims in his rainbow coalition of disdain, advocating the profiling of Muslims, and claiming that equality comes from Judaism and Christianity but not from Islam. In Santorumese, calling someone Muslim is a bad thing. And, indeed, a woman at a Santorum town hall in Florida was using the word “Muslim” pejoratively when she said:

“[Obama] is an avowed Muslim. Why isn’t something being done to get him out of the government? He has no legal right to be calling himself president.”

The crowd cheered, and not in support of Muslims. It was in support of Islamophobia, which is often linked with claims of Obama’s illegitimacy, as it is so nicely here. Now, what’s a boy like Santorum, who knows Obama isn’t a Muslim, to do in the face of these claims? He has a few options.

1) He could be perfectly honest (to himself at least) and say:

“I hate him and I hate Muslims, but he happens not to be one. He is, however, a socialist and the anti-Christ and he is ruining “American” [quotes mine, not his, obvs] civilization.”

2) He could go the McCain route. In 2008, in response to a supporter who claimed Obama is an “Ay-rab,” McCain stated, “No ma’am. He’s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have fundamental disagreements with.” There has been some debate over McCain’s response, which, at it’s best, means “No, Obama’s not Arab. I’m not going to defend Arabs. And he happens to be an honorable man,” and at its worst means “No, Obama is not Arab, i.e. indecent. He is decent, unlike Arabs.” But, at the very least, McCain corrects the woman and refuses to engage in what shouldn’t be, but is, a smear tactic.

3) Santorum could become another person: “I’m a terrible person and you should vote for Obama, who happens to be Christian, not Muslim. And look, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being Muslim. It’s too bad that you’re filled with hate and fear and unhappiness.”

Santorum avoided all of these, expertly. He simply said, ”Yeah, I’m doing my best to try to get him out of the government,” which means, “You’re right that Obama is a Muslim and that he’s somehow illegally occupying the White House. Vote for me.”

I realize that even the McCain version, which either perpetuates or doesn’t object to the premise that Arabs aren’t decent, is too noble for Santorum, who is doubling down on his response to this woman, saying he’s “not here to defend the president.”

But what about those of us, including politicians and pundits, who fall to the left of Santorum the Hun? How should all of us respond to claims that Obama is a Muslim or an Arab? Sadly, I’ve heard progressive and liberal people, pundits and politicians respond to the Muslim schpiel by saying “he is absolutely not a Muslim!” and leaving it at that. So what should we do? I rarely say this, but on this one, I defer to Colin Powell.

*I realize, of course, that Muslim and Arab are not interchangeable terms. You can, of course be a Muslim non-Arab (A Turkish or Bosnian Muslim) or an Arab non-Muslim (A Palestinian Christian or Iraqi Jew) but I don’t think the people who call Obama either one know or care about the distinction.


Born and raised on the mean streets of New York City’s Upper West Side, Katie Halper is a comic, writer, blogger, satirist and filmmaker based in New York. Katie graduated from The Dalton School (where she teaches history) and Wesleyan University (where she learned that labels are for jars.) A director of Living Liberally and co-founder/performer in Laughing Liberally, Katie has performed at Town Hall, Symphony Space, The Culture Project, D.C. Comedy Festival, all five Netroots Nations, and The Nation Magazine Cruise, where she made Howard Dean laugh! and has appeared with Lizz Winstead, Markos Moulitsas, The Yes Men, Cynthia Nixon and Jim Hightower. Her writing and videos have appeared in The New York Times, Comedy Central, The Nation Magazine, Gawker, Nerve, Jezebel, the Huffington Post, Alternet and Katie has been featured in/on NY Magazine, LA Times, In These Times, Gawker,Jezebel, MSNBC, Air America, GritTV, the Alan Colmes Show, Sirius radio (which hung up on her once) and the National Review, which called Katie “cute and some what brainy.” Katie co-produced Tim Robbins’s film Embedded, (Venice Film Festival, Sundance Channel); Estela Bravo’s Free to Fly (Havana Film Festival, LA Latino Film Festival); was outreach director for The Take, Naomi Klein/Avi Lewis documentary about Argentine workers (Toronto & Venice Film Festivals, Film Forum); co-directed New Yorkers Remember the Spanish Civil War, a video for Museum of the City of NY exhibit, and wrote/directed viral satiric videos including Jews/ Women/ Gays for McCain.

Katie is a writer, comedian, filmmaker, and New Yorker.

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  • toongrrl

    God love Colin Powell. So what if someone is Muslim and/or Arab?

  • nazza

    This is, and should be, a non-issue. For the life of me, I do not understand how someone could support such a weak leader. He has no original thoughts to speak of and I do not understand how he inspires anyone’s confidence.

    But, fortunately for the universe, he will likely end his campaign when it becomes evident that the GOP nomination fight is a two-person battle.

  • blueeyes90

    Even if Obama was muslim, who cares? No one should be making it a big drama over what he believes in. It’s people like Santorum that led me to become an Atheist.

  • Seisy

    Eugh. I’ll never forget some other clip of McCain confronted with a whole (other) crowd of people going on in that vein. His face was such a perfect mixture or horror, disgust, and despair. It’ll always be the image in my head of when the Republican party really, really, really went irrevocably down the tubes.

    And on the combating the claim front, well, you’re kind of damned if you do and damned if you don’t. For example, there are rumors put out by pretty much the same kind of people that Girl Scouts is pro-choice (and thus evil.) What they want is for people to be drawn into arguments about what’s wrong with pro-choice or teaching safe sex or working with planned parenthood or whatever it is, because it’s like adding gasoline to a fire. They’ve successfully gotten someone to “confirm” what they knew all along. But if you say, ‘no, that’s not true,” then you’re tacitly agreeing that those things are bad or unacceptable. Personally, I think the former is the lesser of two evils, because I’d rather fight one battle at a time.

    In the context of that video, I don’t think McCain’s decision to reiterate his earlier point about Obama being a decent man was a way of tacitly endorsing the idea that Arabs aren’t decent…because he was reiterating an earlier point. It seems like “we hate and fear obama” was a common theme at that rally. I’ve never seen a candidate look so uncomfortable with his own supporters.

  • Dan

    I think Santorum exercised the best aspect of control here: He didn’t try to argue with the crazy* lady, and managed to placate her with “I agree with you in that…” followed by his own position which has nothing to do with hers.

    The only other options involve letting her control the subject matter, or taking her seriously. He didn’t mean anything; not in the sense that his words weren’t based out of ignorance instead of malice, but in the sense that his words do not communicate an fact, query, imperative, or any other thing that contains meaning.

  • Gabi

    Also, just to be a little picky, most non-Arab Muslims are not actually from Turkey or Eastern Europe, but from Africa. In fact, 80% of Muslims are non-Arab, so your closing statement is actually super-duper accurate!

  • Smiley

    You are being unfair.

    OK, you agree with Colin Powell. Look at the situations though: the candidates were thrown an unknown question and had to reply immediately. Preferably in fewer than three phrases.

    Colin Powell had his statement prepared – written by an aide, who knows? – and had two minutes in which to deliver it! I’m not surprised he did a better job of it.

    Let’s get serious here. Would any Democratic Senator or representative have done any better than the Republicans?

  • A

    What if McCain was just trying to say “No, Obama’s not Arab” as in being an Arab doesn’t necessarily define a person whereas being a “decent family man” is more likely to? Just exploring a third possible meaning of his statement.