Sunday, October 19, 2008

Powell: So What if Obama is Muslim?

Former US Secretary of State Colin Powell, a life-long Republican who served George W. Bush in his first term and argued for Iraq war at the UN, endorsed Senator Barack Obama to be the next president of the United States on NBC's "Meet the Press". While the endorsement was not unexpected, what caught my attention was the statement that Secretary Powell made about Barack Obama's faith. By asking "So what if he is Muslim?", General Powell has gone where no US politician , including Obama, has ever dared to go before him. Here's the relevant part of the transcript of Powell's statement:

I'm also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the party say. And it is permitted to be said such things as, "Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim." Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he's a Christian. He's always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer's no, that's not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president? Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, "He's a Muslim and he might be associated terrorists." This is not the way we should be doing it in America. I feel strongly about this particular point because of a picture I saw in a magazine. It was a photo essay about troops who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay was of a mother in Arlington Cemetery, and she had her head on the headstone of her son's grave. And as the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone. And it gave his awards--Purple Heart, Bronze Star--showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death. He was 20 years old. And then, at the very top of the headstone, it didn't have a Christian cross, it didn't have the Star of David, it had crescent and a star of the Islamic faith. And his name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, and he was an American. He was born in New Jersey. He was 14 years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he can go serve his country, and he gave his life. Now, we have got to stop polarizing ourself in this way. And John McCain is as nondiscriminatory as anyone I know. But I'm troubled about the fact that, within the party, we have these kinds of expressions.

I admire General Powell for his clear statement followed by a reprimand of some of his party colleagues regarding the questions and rumors about Obama’s faith. In particular, I appreciate the argument General Powell makes about the Muslim Americans, willing to give the ultimate sacrifice for their nation, be given the same rights as Americans of any other faith. I wish his views were commonly shared and embraced by fellow Americans. And I also wish that Obama would say something along the lines of what Powell did in his endorsement. But, unfortunately, the fact is that Obama himself and his campaign have practically treated the Muslim label as if it were an epithet.

Let’s also acknowledge that it is easy for Powell to be “statesman-like” when he has nothing to lose. It reminds me of the many US presidents and secretaries of state who criticized Israeli policies and its treatment of the Palestinians only after they left office. It is much harder for someone like Obama to do what Powell has just done.

There is a lot of rhetoric about “Profiles in Courage” in America these days. Some engage in hyperbole describing Obama as a "Transformational Figure" or even extol him as "The Messiah" who has been "sent to change" the world. The sad reality is that the politicians of all stripes, including Obama, can not stand up to the powerful lobbies in America: right, left or center.

Here's a video clip of Secretary Powell's endorsement:


Unknown said...

he was burnt bad by the whole bush/ iraq situation. the berage of anti muslim sentiment in this country is rediclous. i'm waiting for something like what happened to Japanese Americans in the U.S. during world war 2, and on the same note in Pakistani newspapers some seem to beleive America is going to invade and occupy Pakistan any day now. when most likly at the worst America will use Pakistan only for what it needs then to cast it away when it is no longer necessary.
so to step back and see something like this and something that needed to be said. some will debate that its easy for him to say because after all hes no longer looking to play a part in American politics(like Jimmy Carter in Iran.but unlike Jimmy hes a prolific figure of the right. so to not only hear it said but especially from that direction in American politics.Amazing, may it be a catalyst. burning away the ignorance and hate that curses so many Americans. or at the very least further repress this obvious form of bigotry.

Riaz Haq said...

When discussing the US and Pakistani elections and Obama's chances, many Pakistani-Americans bring up comparisons.

The US and Pakistan are very different in lots of ways. US is a secular, industrialized, pluralistic, western democracy while Pakistan is essentially a feudal-tribal society with strong religious identity and calls itself an “Islamic Republic”.

In some ways, though, it makes sense to compare US with Pakistan. For example, the feeling of anger, even hatred toward Muslims and a strong desire for revenge ran deep in the US after 911. But its expression was much more restrained than it would have been in Pakistan in a similar situation. In terms of presidential elections, the identity politics is very strong in America, hence the questions about Obama’s faith and race disguised as “culture” and “values”.

People generally like to vote for someone who they see as more like themselves, be it race, color, religion, ethnicity, tribe, etc. Education does affect their sense of identity and the choices they make and lets them use other criteria besides their own sense of identity. That’s what seems to be happening in America in this presidential election. Educated, middle class whites are flocking to Obama’s camp while the blue-collar, less educated whites are leaning toward McCain.

Black vote appears to be almost unanimous for Obama, an expression of identity politics. Muslim and Pakistani Americans also seem to be leaning toward Obama in the mistaken belief that he is Muslim or at least sympathetic to Muslims, in spite of evidence to the contrary.

Unknown said...

ya cultural i agree, America and Pakistan are different. but in my reading i find all these amazing similarities like in regards to Caliphate and our bill of rights. the differences are primarily only in the details.i thought it was stated best in the nation a couple of days ago
"Islam does not believe in the fanciful idea of the freedom of religion or freedom of expression, where a handful of men decide which beliefs and thoughts are legally beyond reproach, and which beliefs and thoughts are subject to unfettered criticism and legislation. Islam stipulates that life, honor, blood, property, belief, race and the mind are to be protected by the Islamic State. All the citizens of the Caliphate are guaranteed these rights, irrespective of whether they are Muslim or non-Muslims. Islam also protects the rights of non-Muslims to worship without any fear of retribution or vilification of their beliefs. The Messenger (PBUH) of Allah said: "One who hurts a dhimmi (non-Muslim citizen of the Caliphate), he hurts me and the one who hurts me, hurts Allah." by ABID MUSTAFA
here's an excerpt from the declaration of independence by Thomas Jefferson
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security."
All these men are trying to describe a notion that is beyond them. so we shouldn't muddy our intent with definitions, but instead use the definition to promote the notion. i might be a rarity on this note but i constently compare Pakistan with early America(not a good tactic in Pakistan, but in America a necessary one). it is this notion that drives us both. Pakistan in trying to build it while in America we're trying to regain it. that's why Powell's statement is so important a man who is so respected in this country especially with the right where most of this Anti-Muslim sentiment is coming from. so to hear what is right come from a man that is so reveard, it gives me high hopes that America has not completely lost its soul. in America and in Pakistan we wait and watch, we hope that at some point our corrupt officials will finally do the right thing.
Also you may be able to explain because i still don't understand why that on a wide basis throughout the Pakistani region the people believe that a republican would be better for Pakistan. when every secret war or a public one is being unleashed upon innocent Muslims its always under a republican president. the neo-cons or the military elite tend to always be republican. with Obama it remains to be seen what he will do but his base is not Anti-Muslim nor pro war.
also in the primaries African Americans where for Hillery 2-1. i think that's because most African Americans didn't believe it was possible for a black man to be president. also i believe he will be far more sympathetic to Muslims than any republican administration. McCain only disputed that Obama wasn't a Muslim not that its ok to be Muslim. i mean why dispute an ignorant fear that's helping you in the polls. sorry for the long one i like your opinion Riaz.

Riaz Haq said...


I am impressed by your knowledge of Islam. The basic principles of Islam are very progressive. In fact, Islam brought about a revolution in the Middle East and the Mediterranean region in 6th-14th centuries.

Unfortunately, though, Muslims have now been in the Dark Ages for several centuries.

Mutazalites spearheaded the rationalist movement in Islam under the Abbasid rule in Baghdad. They were condemned as heretics and opposed by the orthodox Muslim clergy.

While the rationalists produced great philosophers and scientists (Al-Farabi, Ibn Rushd, Ibn Khaldun, Ibn Sina, Al-Razi), they also were responsible for excesses against those who opposed the rationalist movement, including several ulema and Imams who favored faith over reason. All of this changed with the arrival of Imam Ghazali (who championed revelation over reason) when the tables were turned on the rationalists and Islamic civilization began its long term decline. No longer did the Muslims try and reconcile faith and reason. Islam choked in the grip of orthodoxy. No longer, as during the reign of the dynamic caliph al-Mamun and the great Haroon al-Rashid, would Muslim, Christian, and Jewish scholars gather and work together in the royal courts. It was the end of tolerance, intellect, and science in the Muslim world. The last great Muslim thinker, Abd-al Rahman ibn Khaldun, belonged to the fourteenth century.

More than anything else, Muslims need an Islamic Renaissance, to help revive sciences, the arts and the culture in the Islamic world to pull us out of the Dark Age we are in now.

Unknown said...

thanks allot you just supplied me with reading material for a month.
do you have any recommended reading. I plan on reading Shahnameh next, I have a kinship with revolutionary poets that also kind of coincides with a fascination with early Islamic History. so I too long for a middle east that creates precidents like Algebra. one day I will stand with Cyrus's grave behind me and a new modern Islam spreading before me. This I know Riaz. look at every culture that has risen and fallen. It seems the more protracted the decline the more astounding the next rise.
we have spoken about this before, but I believe Pakistan will be that catalyst. The passion that drove Ferdowsi to stand against the oppressers of Farsi in the past, I hear it today in the words of Urdu.
the article I quoted from the Nation was amazing because of its suttle sarcasm concerning the west and democracy. If more Americans read with an open mind, then they would already know that the Koran was the first model for democracy. one difference is that Mohammed wanted man to keep Allah in mind when it came too government, while America wanted to separate it.
As we know now that both are a rocky slope. America has lost its heart and Rational Islam was replaced by tribal ethics.
Amongst all the articles, editorials, opinions I read from various Pakistani newspapers I see nothing but sorrow and pain. but littered within their words I sense a resilient pride. that pride will certainly rise at some point. the first step is getting America to stop bombing the tribal regions. I really would like to see the country unify for other reasons than America's gross misconduct.

Riaz Haq said...

I think the years of humiliation suffered by Muslims, including Pakistanis, in the colonial period and now neo-colonialism have made them very angry and irrational. The tolerance and generosity of Muslims under Ummayyads, Abbasids and the Mughals has been replaced by anger and hatred. Muslims have to find a way to turn this negative energy into positive energy to focus on improving their situation in the world. They need to learn to compete in the arts, the sciences and the economy to reclaim their lost glory. Wasting away their energy by violence and suicide bombings has to stop before they can collect themselves and think about striving for a better future for themselves and their future generations. That is the only hope for US and the West and the Muslim world to conclude this interminable "war on terror" to give moderate Muslims breathing room to reform the extremists in their midst.

Riaz Haq said...

Lately, there have been some arrests of American-Muslim and Pakistani-American youths on suspicions of terror. The Internet has been identified as a tool for radicalization and proposals made to deal with it. Here's an interesting post by Reem Salahi in HuffingtonPost on this subject:

Yet even in cases where agent provocateurs were not employed, the reality is that the government and media have too long treated Islam and Muslims as a homogeneous, non-dynamic, suspect group. Whenever a Muslim engages in a criminal act, the individual is always qualified by his religious background. Very rarely do we see similar treatment of non-Muslims. For example, I have never read an article describing Timothy McVeigh as the Christian white man. But nearly every article on Nidal Hasan qualifies him as a Muslim and Palestinian within the first few sentences.

As a consequence, Muslims are forced to account for the (negative) actions of a fourth of the world's population. Ironically, I have never been congratulated for the positive actions of other fellow Muslims. The acts of a few bad apples or even a few misguided youth become the norm and not the exceptions. Put differently, it would be like suspecting that every White high school student was prone to commit a massacre as Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the killers at Columbine High School, did.

The reality is that the discourse on radicalization and homegrown terrorism is fundamentally racist and Islamophobic. It is based on seeing Muslims as the "other" and viewing our actions through an "orientalist" lens which frames any Muslim's questionable action as terrorism. Hence, a Muslim overstaying an immigration visa or improperly filing taxes or even paintballing becomes evidence of terrorism and radicalization, justifying the government's infiltration of our mosques, surveillance of our youth groups, and mapping of our populations. Maybe, just maybe, Muslims don't need to be understood by a different rubric than other populations. Further, by framing Muslims as terrorists and as the internal enemy within, the government and media have alienated and disenfranchised many law-abiding Muslims who seek nothing more than to actually live "unremarkable" lives.

Those in the media, in the government, and in Muslim organizations who have jumped on the bandwagon, you have missed the boat. Muslims and Muslim youth are not intrinsically prone to radicalization through the aid of the internet, just as White youth are not intrinsically prone to commit massacres or lynch ethnic minorities in solidarity with the KKK. Rather, the problem is the media and the government's continued vilification and the consequential disenfranchisement of the Muslim community. It is the government's infiltration of mosques and community centers with informants and agent provocateurs. It is the FBI's prolonged fishing expeditions and false prosecutions of many innocent Muslims. And it is an ever-worsening foreign policy that wastes away our tax dollars on killing innocent civilians throughout the world. So please stop parroting the misguided construct of homegrown terrorism and Islamic radicalization as the problem, when the real problem is xenophobia couched in politically correct terms.

Riaz Haq said...

Here's a piece by a former NY Times correspondent Chris Hedges published by on Dec 28, 2009:

Syed Fahad Hashmi can tell you about the dark heart of America. He knows that our First Amendment rights have become a joke, that habeas corpus no longer exists and that we torture, not only in black sites such as those at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan or at Guantánamo Bay, but also at the federal Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) in Lower Manhattan. Hashmi is a U.S. citizen of Muslim descent imprisoned on two counts of providing and conspiring to provide material support and two counts of making and conspiring to make a contribution of goods or services to al-Qaida. As his case prepares for trial, his plight illustrates that the gravest threat we face is not from Islamic extremists, but the codification of draconian procedures that deny Americans basic civil liberties and due process. Hashmi would be a better person to tell you this, but he is not allowed to speak.

This corruption of our legal system, if history is any guide, will not be reserved by the state for suspected terrorists, or even Muslim Americans. In the coming turmoil and economic collapse, it will be used to silence all who are branded as disruptive or subversive. Hashmi endures what many others, who are not Muslim, will endure later. Radical activists in the environmental, globalization, anti-nuclear, sustainable agriculture and anarchist movements—who are already being placed by the state in special detention facilities with Muslims charged with terrorism—have discovered that his fate is their fate. Courageous groups have organized protests, including vigils outside the Manhattan detention facility. They can be found at or On Martin Luther King Day, this Jan. 18 at 6 p.m. EST, protesters will hold a large vigil in front of the MCC on 150 Park Row in Lower Manhattan to call for a return of our constitutional rights. Join them if you can.

The case against Hashmi, like most of the terrorist cases launched by the Bush administration, is appallingly weak and built on flimsy circumstantial evidence. This may be the reason the state has set up parallel legal and penal codes to railroad those it charges with links to terrorism. If it were a matter of evidence, activists like Hashmi, who is accused of facilitating the delivery of socks to al-Qaida, would probably never be brought to trial.

Hashmi, who if convicted could face up to 70 years in prison, has been held in solitary confinement for more than 2½ years. Special administrative measures, known as SAMs, have been imposed by the attorney general to prevent or severely restrict communication with other prisoners, attorneys, family, the media and people outside the jail. He also is denied access to the news and other reading material. Hashmi is not allowed to attend group prayer. He is subject to 24-hour electronic monitoring and 23-hour lockdown. He must shower and go to the bathroom on camera. He can write one letter a week to a single member of his family, but he cannot use more than three pieces of paper. He has no access to fresh air and must take his one hour of daily recreation in a cage. His “proclivity for violence” is cited as the reason for these measures although he has never been charged or convicted with committing an act of violence.