Thursday, July 31, 2014

False reports that President Obama is a Muslim

Americans question the President's religion — and always have.

Originally posted to Helium Network on Aug. 22, 2010. Including updates.

The U.S. President Barack Obama is a Christian. His spokesman said in 2010 that he prays daily, and Obama said the same at a February 2011 National Prayer Breakfast. At an Easter Prayer breakfast in 2012, Obama referred to Jesus as "Son of God," in keeping with Christian beliefs. Increasingly, however, since his election, Americans hold the false belief that their President is a Muslim.

Polls conducted by the Pew Form on Religion & Public Life during the first two years of Obama's presidency consistently found that half of respondents correctly identified that the President is a Christian, while a third claimed not to know, and just over a tenth believed he is Muslim. (The last observation was also reported by the Economist in April 2009: "Meanwhile, roughly one American in ten still believes, incorrectly, that Mr Obama is a Muslim.") An August 2010 survey found these numbers suddenly dramatically changed: only a third correctly identified him as a Christian, nearly half claimed not to know, and a greater percentage than ever believed him to be Muslim: 18 percent. A September 2015 survey by CNN/Opinion Research Corporation found it had increased to 29 percent.

The Pew Forum's associate research director Alan Cooperman mused: "You would think the longer the person is in the White House, the more the 'don't knows' would decline. But the 'don't knows' are higher now than when he came to office."

The facts about Obama's background are widely available. His mother came from a Christian family in Kansas; she was an anthropologist who respected all religions as part of human experience. Obama's half-sister in Kenya has stated that their father, Barack Hussein Obama, Sr., "was never a Muslim although he was born into a Muslim family with a Muslim name." Obama has said that his step-father, too, was only nominally Muslim. "When my mother remarried, it was to an Indonesian with an equally skeptical bent, a man who saw religion as not particularly useful," he wrote in his book The Audacity of Hope. "Like many Indonesians, [my stepfather] Lolo followed a brand of Islam that could make room for the remnants of more ancient animist and Hindu faiths," he added in Dreams from my Father. Obama spent part of his childhood in Indonesia where he attended a secular public school. "Madrasa" is simply the Arabic word for "school"; when English speakers use the word, they often intend to connote a Muslim religious school, but this does not describe the school that Obama attended.

J. J. Goldberg, editorial director of the Jewish newspaper The Forward, was quoted in 2008 as speculating that Obama's "decision to keep his middle name, Hussein, raises symbolic fears among some of these [older and conservative Jewish] voters, and reports about his record – including his early flirtation with black identity politics and his long association with Reverend Wright – strengthen these fears."

For a number of American Christians, calling someone a Muslim may be a vague, indirect way of expressing disapproval. The Pew Forum data from 2010 show that those who disapprove of Obama's performance as President and/or identify as Republican are three times more likely as supporters and Democrats to make an incorrect assertion about his religion. When ideological qualifiers are added, such that specifically "conservative" Republicans are compared to specifically "liberal" Democrats, the gap widens so that the former group is five or six times more likely to make the incorrect statement. Similar surveys in 2012 by the Pew Forum and Gallup show these numbers holding steady on a national level, while Public Policy Polling found that more than half of likely Republican voters in the state of Alabama made the incorrect statement.

Although one might assume that knowledge of the President's religion is unrelated to approval of his performance, this has not been the case historically. George Washington's Masonic loyalties were questioned, Abraham Lincoln's critics suspected him of being Catholic, FDR was believed to be Jewish, and JFK (who was indeed Catholic) was feared to be taking orders from the Vatican.

Bruce Feiler wrote that there is nothing new about such an attack: "It's the nature of how we conflate political frustration, economic anxiety, and concern about the changing fabric of our identity. In a country where our national character has been tied up with God since our founding, it's hardly surprising that we tar our political opponents with worshiping a different god than we do."

Particularly because Obama inherited wars in two Arab countries and because Democrats are often perceived as "softer" on security than Republicans, some people were concerned that Obama would mismanage these wars or discontinue efforts to keep the United States safe from terrorism. The allegation that he is a Muslim was, in this context, meant to be understood as an allegation of disloyalty toward his country. Obama actually strengthened forces in Afghanistan and carefully drew down forces in Iraq until the last troops left in December 2011.

In a Newsweek poll in July 2008, 12 percent of voters asserted that "Obama was sworn in as a United States senator on a Qur'an, while 26 percent believe the Democratic candidate was raised as a Muslim and 39 percent believe he attended an Islamic school as a child growing up in Indonesia. None of these things is true." (When I blogged about this for JVoices the same month, I noted that I had been unable to locate a breakdown by religion for the people who held these false beliefs.) For that matter, a February 2010 poll by CBS News/New York Times found that 88 percent of Americans didn't know that the Obama administration has lowered taxes for most Americans. Accusing the president of raising taxes (even if he hasn't) is another traditional American way of expressing disapproval.

Considering the Muslim rumor in 2008, two authors in the New York Times shrugged it off by pointing out that "[f]alse beliefs are everywhere. Eighteen percent of Americans think the sun revolves around the earth, one poll has found." (Note: This has increased to 26 percent as of 2014, the National Science Foundation uncovered.) The New York Times added that, in their opinion, the rumor about Obama "seems slightly less egregious" than the incorrect belief about the Earth's orbit. But one should not jump to the conclusion that false beliefs about the President are harmless. "According to a Harris interactive poll," Newsweek reported in April 2010, "two thirds of Republicans believe Obama is a socialist, while 57 percent believe he is a Muslim, and almost one in four suspect he's the Antichrist."

[For more about false beliefs, see the Dead Men Blogging post on "Avoiding and correcting false beliefs."] Polls have suggested that people with some college education are more – not less – likely to be wrong on this question. John Chait, quoted in Eli Pariser's book The Filter Bubble, addressed this seemingly strange observation. "People with more education are more likely to follow political news," he said, and political news in the United States is highly partisan. "Therefore, people with more education can actually become mis-educated." A 2014 poll found that Muslims were more likely to approve of Obama's performance than Catholics, Protestants or Mormons.

One sound bite that helped fuel the rumor came from Obama's appearance on ABC's "This Week" news program in September 2008. During the conversation, interviewer George Stephanopoulos said "You mentioned your Christian faith" and then challenged Obama as to why he "took after the Republicans for suggesting you have Muslim connections...McCain's campaign manager said they've never done that." After some back-and-forth, Obama tried to clarify: "You're absolutely right that John McCain has not talked about my Muslim faith..." Stephanopoulos interrupted and corrected him: "Your Christian faith." Obama finally made his point: "What I think is fair to say is that coming out of the Republican camp, there have been efforts to suggest that perhaps I'm not who I say I am when it comes to my faith, something which I find deeply offensive, and that has been going on for a pretty long time." The part of the video where Obama used the phrase "my Muslim faith" was taken out of context and went viral on the Internet.

Another example occurred when, writing for Israel Today in April 2010, Aviel Schneider quoted Egypt's foreign minister Ahmed Aboul-Gheit as having said on Nile TV: "The American President told me in confidence that he is a Muslim." The alleged conversation could have taken place when the minister was in Washington, D.C. for Mideast peace talks in early January 2010. Additional details of this story were recounted by Dennis (Avi) Lipkin on Gary Stearman's "Prophecy in the News" TV show:

"On January 19 of 2010, just a few months ago, my wife picked up a broadcast from Nile TV from was called a Round Table discussion... [Aboul-Gheit] said very calmly that he had had a one-on-one meeting with President Obama, and President Obama swore to him that he's a Moslem...that he went to the mosque, that he went to the madrasa until age 11, and he said...'You Moslems will see what I will do for Islam regarding Israel.' This was on Egyptian TV. Two months later, there was an article in the Okaz of the Emirates newspaper in which the envoy of President Obama to the Arab League – his name is Rashad Hasan – said, 'As a Moslem' – I'm quoting now – 'As a Moslem, President Obama understands the significance of Jerusalem for the Islamic world...'" (see 12:00-13:10 of the video)

Lipkin made many statements during the half-hour interview that call his credibility into question. He said that Islam's god is the Devil, that this god commands Muslims to tell lies to hide their religious identities, that the religion (not just fanaticism) presents a global threat, and that the United States is in danger from its own growing Muslim population. He also said that "atheists came into there's no freedom to be Christian anymore" (despite the fact that there is only one openly atheist person in the 535-member Congress). Even if Aboul-Gheit translated and interpreted Obama's words correctly and spoke honestly and without deliberate embellishment, and even if Lipkin's wife had reported the minister's words faithfully and accurately to her husband, Lipkin is demonstrably not the best person to repeat and represent those words. Where rational discussion with such an ideologue seems unlikely, some people simply resort to lampooning and satirizing these fringe beliefs.

Viewed in 2010, the president's official website,, had a lengthy page dating back to the 2008 presidential campaign devoted to debunking this rumor. The page denied that he ever prayed in a mosque; instead, it recalled his memory of feeling God's presence in a church in Chicago. At the top of the page, he was quoted as saying during the campaign: "I have been victimized by these lies. Fortunately, the American people are, I think, smarter than folks give them credit for." (The original page no longer exists during the 2012 campaign, but the quote still appears in many places.)

Victoria Jackson, formerly a comedian with Saturday Night Live, posted a video to YouTube on Feb. 3, 2015: "There's a Muslim Living in the White House". It is a musical ditty interspersed with supposed evidence that Obama is a Muslim. She begins by saying: “He released terrorists from Gitmo that our sons and daughters died to capture!...His cabinet is made up of Muslim Brotherhood people!...His name is Muslim, and he was raised in a Muslim country, and the application for his school says Barry Sotero and then it says ‘Religion: Islam’.” Naturally, a form filled out by an adult (whether a relative or not) about a child's religion does not necessarily represent what the child actually believes and certainly does not establish that child's religion for the duration of their lives.

One can only hope that Obama's faith in the American people's collective intelligence will be shown to be justified.

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