Obama and Allah, past and present

I faced a crucial decision this week while writing the lede for my column for the Scripps Howard New Service, a decision that I knew -- not matter what I decided -- I was going to hear about it early and often. In this case, I erred on the side of caution. Looking back, I think I was too cautious. However, I would be interested in knowing what GetReligion readers -- especially journalism professionals -- think on this matter.

So, here's the opening chunk of the column:

In the spring of 2007, candidate Barack Obama met with a New York Times columnist and discussed his days as a "little Jakarta street kid" who once got in trouble for making faces during Koran classes.

Obama proceeded to recite the opening lines of the Muslim call to prayer in Arabic, with what Nicholas D. Kristof called a "first-rate accent." Obama described this chant as "one of the prettiest sounds on Earth at sunset."

This text, in one English translation, proclaims: "Allah is Supreme! Allah is Supreme! ... I testify that there is no god but Allah! ... I testify that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah." These lines are known as the Shahada -- from the Arabic verb, "to testify" -- and reciting them, in public, with the intent of becoming a Muslim, is a crucial act in entering and then practicing the faith.

This is the kind of biographical detail that keeps complicating matters for journalists who try to make sense of the poll from the Pew Research Center and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life indicating that 18 percent of Americans think Obama is a Muslim, as opposed to 11 percent in March 2009.

The crucial lede decision? Yes or no -- should I have included "Hussein," the president's middle name?

Yes, it is true that the trio of letters that shape this Arabic name -- H-S-N, as in Hussein, Hassan, etc. -- is highly symbolic. However, the man who gave the president that name, Barack Hussein Obama, Sr. -- was not a practicing Muslim at the time, even if his symbolic name would indicate that. By then, the common testimony is that he was an atheist. Clearly, this name points toward heritage more than practice.

However, the minute you include that middle name in a reference to the president, people are going to start getting upset. Some will claim that using this name is the same thing as refusing to admit that Obama has, in fact, converted to Christianity. There are "birthers" out there in cyberspace. What should we call those who reject his accounts of his conversion? How about "new-birthers"? What do people do with the following, as I quoted the material in my column?

In his memoir, "The Audacity of Hope," Obama confessed that as a young social activist he realized, "Rich, poor, sinner, saved, you needed to embrace Christ precisely because you had sins to wash away -- because you were human. ... I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ one day and be baptized. ... Kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side of Chicago, I felt God's spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth."

When I post this column online at Tmatt.net next week, I am going to include "Hussein" in the lede and then link back to this post to provide background material.

After reading the ongoing waves of coverage of the Pew Forum poll, I set out to write a column that was based as much as possible on three sources: (1) Obama's own words, (2) statements from the Obama team and (3) mainstream news coverage of his faith history, drawing only from on-the-record sources.

I created a thick file and pulled out my marked-up Obama memoirs. I have concluded three things:

* There is no question that, despite all the denials, the young Barry practiced Islam in Indonesia. He went to mosque, said the prayers, studied the Koran in Arabic and some of his Muslim friends remember him as being quite devout. But here is the big question: Would it help or hurt public discourse if members of the Obama team stopped denying this?

* There is reason to believe that some, repeat "some," Muslims might consider Obama to be an apostate Muslim, due to his early faith history and his public conversion to Christianity. But this requires viewing the issue from one Muslim point of view, one of several competing Muslim points of view on issues of faith and identity. As always, let me stress a point we often make here at GetReligion -- there is no one Islam, no monolithic approach to many, many issues of tradition and law.

* How anyone can doubt that Obama is a convert to a liberal, Universalistic Christianity -- as he has said -- is totally beyond me. He is a liberal Christian. Conservative Christians can argue that some of his beliefs are wrong (to which, as an Eastern Orthodox believer, I would certainly say, "Amen"), but how can anyone say that he has not given frequent public confessions of faith? Yes, it would help if Trinity UCC would clearly verify that he was baptized (there is online debate about this, of course). Journalists need to do a better job of quoting Obama's testimony and his many statements about his faith, struggles and beliefs. Period.

With so much chatter and misinformation out there, I also think it would be constructive if citizens knew more information about Obama's past. Journalists must be willing to quote, to the best of their abilities, what is accurate in order to note that is inaccurate.

Yes, Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post is right. This is a time for some journalistic soul searching.

In my Scripps column, I focused on making a few key points:

... (The) Obama team has had difficulty communicating a clear message about his faith history. Campaign aides, at first, said he had never been a Muslim, but later stressed that he had never been "a practicing Muslim."

Obama's family history is hard to describe. His father was a Muslim from Kenya who became an atheist. His stepfather was a Muslim who, in Obama's words, was raised in an era in which Indonesia offered a tolerant approach to Islam that blended with "remnants of Hinduism, Buddhism, and ancient animist traditions." His mother was raised as a Christian, but adopted her own mix of secularism and spirituality.

While in Indonesia, Obama attended what he has called a "Muslim" public school and also a Catholic school. At both schools, according to educators interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, his faith was listed as "Muslim." School friends recalled that they often went to the mosque together.

Of course, I also had to deal with the whole CNN interview with the Rev. Franklin Graham, a classic example of producers going for heat instead of light when choosing an on-air source. Name recognition is not everything.

Once again, it is so easy to be simplistic and to say that Graham was completely right in saying that patrilineal descent is THE SINGULAR issue in matters of Islamic identity. It is also too simplistic to say that he was completely wrong. As a legal matter, the father's faith identity is important, but not definitive.

Thus, the column ended like this:

Franklin Graham was only partially right when he told CNN: "The president's problem is that he was born a Muslim. His father was a Muslim. The seed of Islam is passed through the father. ... His father gave him an Islamic name." Graham added that Obama has "renounced Islam and he has accepted Jesus Christ. That's what he says he has done. I cannot say that he hasn't."

This view of Islamic tradition is much too simplistic, said Stephen Prothero of Boston University, author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World." There is more to this debate about faith and identity than DNA, he stressed.

"As a matter of jurisprudence, however, there is a presumption that a child born to a Muslim father is Muslim," said Prothero, in an email exchange. "This needs to be followed up with ACTION, however. ...

"Like Christianity, Islam is a matter of choice, not inheritance."

So let the JOURNALISTIC discussions begin.

Please respect our Commenting Policy