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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