Powell asks, “What if he is?”

Colin Powell’s endorsement of Barack Obama for President was a powerful statement from a much-respected figure. It will certainly help Obama’s campaign. But at least as significant was his challenge of Islamophobia:

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 is ‘No. That’s not America.’ Is there something wrong with some 7-year old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she can be president? Yet I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion he’s a Muslim and he might be associated with terrorists. This is not the way we should be doing it in America.

gugart@msn.com">Photo courtesy of Tom Gugiluzza-Smith, August 2008</a>I feel strongly about this particular point because of a picture I saw in a magazine. It was a photo-essay about troops who were 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 can 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 a Star of David. It had a crescent and a star of the Islamic faith. And his name was Karim 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. [Photo courtesy of Tom Gugiluzza-Smith, August 2008]

Powell is not the first to make this point, but it’s difficult to name another such prominent political leader who has done so. Others, including Obama himself, have focused on the fact that some statements about his ethnic or religious background have been false, not on the bigotry revealed by the very question itself. Ignoring the presupposition of those questions shows a lack of understanding and respect for the US Constitution, which should bring shame on Republican and Democratic leaders alike.

See Abed Z. Bhuyan, On Faith: Guest Voices: Powell Rejects Islamophobia

3 thoughts on “Powell asks, “What if he is?”

  1. I wish we could have extended those conversations.

    There’s a good presentation of Islam in The No-Nonsense Guide to Islam, by Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies:

    This concise, but well-documented, book presents the history and sects of Islam, showing what Islam has achieved, then analyzes issues of women rights, economic development, and democracy in Muslim countries. It is also critical, asking how Islam can adapt to create a more just, tolerant, and peaceful world. Most importantly, it shows why a better understanding of Islam is needed, one which goes far beyond the mainstream media portrayal in the US.


  2. I applaud Coin Powell for having the courage and intelligence to uphold the ideals that American is based upon–specifically religious freedom. I was shocked when I heard people refer to Obama as a “Muslim” in a derogatory sense, implying that he was “un-American.” To me this sort of attempted slander is un-American.

    Chip, during our Community Informatics class’ on-campus session with the Mortenson scholars, I had a really interesting conversation with one of the participants, who was Muslim. We were talking about the fact that the Muslim faith is just as varied and has as many sects as Christianity, and that to lump any religion into one group is to stereotype an incredibly diverse group of people. It’s too bad that many people forcibly ignore the diversity within every group.


  3. Bravo, Chip. I, too, was impressed by Colin Powell’s comments about Muslims. The xenophobia and Islamophobia that is being whipped up during this campaign seems very dangerous — and un-American — to me.


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