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Friday, May 16, 2008

What if Barack Obama were a real Muslim?

LOS ANGELES — A significant number of West Virginians (and some others in America) evidently take the view that U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Hussein Obama is a Muslim. In a surpassingly depressing report from the coal-miner state on the eve of Tuesday's West Virginia primary, The Los Angeles Times noted voter views that go like this: "We do not need a Muslim to lead the good ole USA."

To more than a few Americans, it would seem, the very fact that "Hussein" is a Muslim should invalidate his candidacy, even though the U.S. Constitution establishes no official religion — and indeed guarantees freedom of religious choice for all.

Of this scenario, a quartet of things must be said:

It would not necessarily be so horrible if this well-spoken senator from Illinois were in fact Muslim. It turns out that most Muslims, like those in the country with the world's most Muslims (Indonesia), are wonderful people who respect Allah, respect their countrymen, abhor violence and extremism, and generally would make excellent next-door neighbors.

Very early in his life, Obama lived in Indonesia, before he returned to his native Hawaii, so he had met a lot of them. As a result, he doesn't think many Muslims are so terrible. That's because most Muslims, in fact, are not terrible — no more terrible than the rest of us, Christian or otherwise.

If the American president were in fact a Muslim, you must understand that more than 1.2 billion of the world's Muslims would want to vote for him. And if the American president were Muslim, Muslims would come to believe that America really is the land of opportunity for all — not just for white males who know how to fire people and then walk off with million-dollar bonuses because of how they kept costs down. Would the Muslim world's new faith in us and our political system be such a bad thing?

Most unfortunately (one might argue), "Hussein" is not a Muslim. So there we are. This politician is in fact a Christian. If you don't believe this, just ask Obama's pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Wright is a pastoral demagogue who recently was on American TV for a few weeks more than any preacher in America — and for longer than almost anyone of us can stand. Wright, for worse or for better, is an outspoken Christian. Very outspoken.

If the choice were between Wright and some Muslim religious leaders, I'd prefer to sit in front of the Muslims — hands down. They seem a lot more civilized — and calm.

Then there's the matter of the "Hussein" middle name. Doesn't that sort of automatically make him Muslim? Alas, no: The "Hussein" that landed between the Barack and the Obama was put there to honor his paternal grandfather.

Turns out, Grand-pappy Hussein, of Nairobi, Kenya, was originally a Christian who converted to Islam. Alas, conspiracy theorists must note that Grand-pappy was not related to the late Saddam Hussein, and that Hussein itself is not an unusual name outside of places like North America.

For example, the late King Hussein of Jordan, who for decades had been one of America's most reliable and comforting Middle East interlocutors, was also not related to the hated Saddam.

I realize that, for some, all these facts may come as a depressing revelation. We had been trying to establish as fact that Obama is a closet Muslim, so that we then wouldn't have to vote for him because we are bigoted against all Muslims; but it turns out that he actually is not. Even so, some American voters remain convinced of an ongoing conspiracy to keep the truth from the American people.

That's sad. This fall's vote for the American presidency is not about whether some Muslims are extremist and violent — sure some of them are; but so are some of our Christian nutcakes. The fall vote is about who should help lead America for the next four years. It makes no difference whether that individual is an Islamist, a Christian, a Jew or an atheist.

But, for the record, Barack Hussein Obama is a Christian, as are many West Virginians, as are many Americans like George W. Bush. Can't we all get along and respect one another?

UCLA professor Tom Plate is a syndicated columnist and veteran journalist who teaches Asia media and politics at the University of California, Los Angeles. © 2008 Tom Plate

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