In the days leading up to the 2008 presidential election, I joined the many inspired, energized and excited volunteers and workers on the Obama-Biden campaign to help with get-out-the-vote efforts. I drove to Philadelphia with a good friend of mine, where I canvassed door-to-door answering any last-minute questions prospective voters had, ensuring that they all had the correct polling locations, and trying to persuade any last-minute undecideds. It was an eye-opening experience, as I walked through working-class white neighborhoods – initially with some apprehension over the kind of reception I would get.
I remember walking up to one house. The door was open, but the storm door was closed, and on it were stickers that said “God and Guns.” “Oh boy,” I said, as I took a deep breath and rang the bell. As the owner came to the door, I could see the outline of a tall, bearded, white man wearing a flannel shirt. I said, “Hi, I’m from the Obama campaign,” and proceeded to engage him with my campaign talking points. Halfway through, he interrupted me, and said, “I’m voting for your guy.” I paused for a second to catch my breath (and hide my surprise), and proceeded to give him the polling location for his precinct, after which he said, “While you’re at it, give me one of those Obama-Biden signs to put up.” House after house, working-class and poor, white people declared their intention to vote Obama-Biden and asked for campaign literature and signs to display. Near the end of canvassing, I turned to my friend, and said, “Something is going on here.”
Every presidential election seems to take on critical importance, and 2008 offered a chance to break from the eight years of Bush-Cheney’s Republican policies of financial deregulation, corporate loopholes, tax cuts for the wealthy, increases in defense spending, neoconservative dreams of American empire, the normalization of torture, and the economic and humanitarian catastrophe that was the Iraq war. With Barack Obama came hopes that he could set the ship aright. His unique biography, multiracial background, childhood in Indonesia, father’s Muslim heritage, and his own Arabic name brought more than hope for supporters. He represented the possibility of a greater conversance if not grand reconciliation between seemingly irreconcilable worlds – black and white, Islam and the West, and even blue and red America. Moreover, his own humble beginnings suggested an empathy for poor and struggling people, and he became a messianic figure whose speeches filled stadiums and sent thrills up the legs of political commentators. By the time I was canvassing, I should not have been surprised at the fervor of the support I found. Sick and tired of business-as-usual politics, people were looking for a transformative figure who would radically alter the way politics operated in Washington. The people voted. And the people got … a politician.
THE PRAGMATIC CHOICE
In the nearly four years since Obama was elected, the hope of idealism and transformation embodied in his campaign has given way to the reality of pragmatism and reform; and one of the biggest complaints against him is that he has failed to live up to the promises of his campaign. It may be easy to dismiss disappointment in Obama as the result of people projecting their own unrealistic expectations on him, but there have been moments when he has endorsed policies that contradict his campaign rhetoric. In particular, President Obama’s continuation of some of the worst Bush-Cheney policies in the “war on terror” are extremely disturbing and troubling to any U.S. citizen who believes in the Constitution and its protections of civil liberties, even more so to Muslim Americans who have witnessed how these policies adversely affect Muslims at home and abroad. This alone would seem a compelling reason to oppose Obama’s reelection in 2012.
But foreign and national security policies do not tell the whole story of Obama’s presidency, nor do they account for the totality of the Muslim-American electorate’s priorities. Muslim-Americans are one of the most ethnically and socioeconomically diverse religious communities in America, and their complex and competing political interests cannot, and should not, be simply boxed up and outsourced to concerns about foreign policy or national security. Like all Americans, Muslim-Americans must also concern themselves with the full range of domestic policies that affect the material conditions of their everyday lives. A closer look at Obama’s first term reveals major legislative accomplishments and policy implementations from which all Americans, including Muslim-Americans, benefit. When compared with his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, Obama’s performance and proposals for the country – while not perfect – offer Muslim-Americans their greatest chances for economic security and growth, social mobility, health and well-being and political advancement.
Is Obama the perfect candidate? No. Most elections present imperfect choices, and this one is no different. The higher the office, the larger the majority needed to win, the less likely any single candidate will offer everything that the voters want. People seeking to vote on the basis of single issues, ideological puritanism or even principle, will most likely find neither of the two major party candidates appealing. There are others beside Obama and Romney seeking the highest office in the land – notably the Green Party’s Jill Stein and the Libertarian Gary Johnson – who may track closer to some Muslim-Americans’ political preferences. However, the nature of the U.S. electoral system, with its winner-take-all allocation of electoral votes by state, does not offer a likely path to victory for third-party candidates. The dominance of the Republican and Democratic party machines in most states, and their coordination and sometimes even collusion with corporate media to marginalize and exclude outsiders in debates, have rendered third-party candidacies for president as either potential spoilers at their most effective, or symbolic protests at their least.
Third-party challengers notwithstanding, on Jan. 20, 2013, one of two men –the Democrat Barack Obama or the Republican Mitt Romney – will be formally sworn in as president of the United States of America. On the eve of the Nov. 6, 2012, elections, the question facing Muslim-Americans, like all Americans, is: Which of these two men’s presidencies will be better for our communities and for the nation? A neo-liberal disaster versus a neo-conservative catastrophe – that’s how noted African-American scholar and activist, and very public Obama critic, Cornel West framed the race between Obama and Romney respectively, this summer at a Harlem forum on the presidential election. It is true that neither party seems to be willing to go far enough in halting the increasing corporatization of politics and privatization of public services. But an Obama presidency has at least instituted some reforms, while his opponent has offered nothing other than the same Bush-Cheney policies that brought the country to the brink of collapse in the first place. Even West had to concede the point that Obama still presents the best available option: “Now is disaster better than catastrophe? Hell, yes!”
Hyperbole aside, the case for Obama is predicated on politics, pragmatism and realism, and rests on the following premises: First, though the Democratic and Republican parties are beholden to special interests, there are notable and critical differences in policy between the two parties and their standard bearers; and in these areas of difference, Muslim-Americans’ interests are better served by an Obama presidency. Second, where significant policy differences do not exist (especially in the area of foreign relations and the national security state), significant discursive differences do; and a Romney defeat is necessary to repudiate the discourse of Islamophobia (along with rampant xenophobia) running through the veins of the Republican Party. Third, the White House is not a site for radical change: Obama’s presidency has exposed the limited transformative power of the office, while offering instead incremental, liberal reforms. Because of the limitations on presidential powers, voting is only one, although necessary, aspect of electoral politics (beyond Election Day, lobbying and constituent services are just important); and electoral politics is only one of several important kinds of political activity.
A DOMESTIC AGENDA
Almost immediately after being sworn in as president, Barack Obama began taking steps to repair the United States’ relationship with the Muslim world. The first interview he conducted as president was with the Arabic television network, Al-Arabiya, on Jan. 26, 2009. In the interview, President Obama affirmed his commitment “that the United States has a stake in the well-being of the Muslim world, that the language we use has to be a language of respect.” He even mentioned “Muslim members in my family” and referred to his time in Indonesia as an indication of his familiarity and respect for Muslim people. Less than three months later, on April 6, he followed up with another overture – this time addressing the Turkish Parliament. “The United States is not, and will never be, at war with Islam,” Obama assured, as he welcomed a broader partnership with the Muslim world that went beyond opposition to terrorism. Finally, less than two months after that, on June 4, in a major address at Cairo University, in Egypt, the president called for “A New Beginning” with Muslims throughout the world, “one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition.” In the span of his first six months in office, President Obama had clearly placed outreach to Muslims high on his agenda.
By the time he had gotten to Cairo, the president had stopped referring to “the Muslim world” – a phrase he had used in the Al-Arabiya interview and his address to the Turkish Parliament – and started saying “Muslims around the world” instead. The change in language reflected a significant attempt to appreciate the geo-diversity of nations and peoples who follow Islam, and to avoid the kind of essentialist constructions of “the Muslim world” that had fueled decades of U.S. foreign policy built on the “Clash of Civilizations” model. But if the president’s language signaled an important and much needed shift, his choice of venues for these major addresses to “Muslims around the world” still showcased the logic that frames Muslims as foreign to the United States. The notion that he would have to go to Turkey, or Cairo, or appear on an Arabic television network, to speak to Muslims, maps them onto an international place in the minds of the American people. In this geography, Muslim-Americans are most important to United States politics when it comes to foreign policy, especially as it relates to the Middle East, because that is where the “Muslims around the world” seem to be. This thinking is borne out in the president’s two highest-profile Muslim appointees: one, Farah Pandith, the first-ever Special Representative to Muslim Communities for the United States, is based out of the State Department; and the other, Rashad Hussain, serves as the U.S. Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, a group representing 57 nations that does not include the United States.
President Obama’s positioning of Muslims in his administration and in his outreach efforts within the context of foreign relations has obscured the very significant and meaningful ways his domestic policies have helped Muslim-Americans. Yet, it is in Obama’s domestic agenda that Muslim-Americans find the most convincing reasons to extend his presidency. A recent profile of the Muslim-American electorate by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding reports that more Muslim-Americans (44 percent) cite domestic issues as the most important factor (versus 33 percent who cite foreign policy) in deciding their vote. On those issues, they overwhelmingly support bigger government, universal health care, stricter environmental regulations, increased after-school programs, more aid to the poor, stricter gun-control legislation and more immigrant-friendly policies.
Some of the president’s key accomplishments speak directly to the electoral priorities of Muslim-Americans. Chief among them is the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, his landmark health care legislation, which extends coverage to 30 million previously uninsured people, provides children coverage under their parents’ insurance up to age 26 and increases access to preventive care. For Muslim-Americans, the majority of whose households include an average of two to three children, according to a 2011 Pew Research study, this is welcome news. Likewise, the 45 percent of Muslim-Americans who have either graduated from college, or have had some post-secondary education, stand to benefit from President Obama’s efforts to make higher education more affordable by expanding financial aid programs, limiting student-loan interest rates and developing incentives for colleges and universities to keep their tuition costs down. Finally, another major domestic policy initiative that a significant portion of the 63 percent of Muslim-Americans who are immigrants will benefit from is the president’s efforts to address immigration reform. While Congress stalled the DREAM Act – designed to provide a pathway to legal residency for undocumented young people who graduate from school or serve in the armed forces – President Obama instituted a deferred action program that would provide temporary relief to those who would have been covered by the DREAM Act. In all these areas, his opponent Mitt Romney has pledged to either reverse the president’s policies, or has offered no policy at all.
A REPUDIATION OF ISLAMOPHOBIA
On foreign relations and especially national security, President Obama’s record is more complicated. He did end war operations in Iraq, put the United States on track to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014, and outlawed torture – all deserving commendation. And under his command, Osama bin Laden was killed. Whether that raid was the best way to bring Bin Laden to justice is debatable, but the removal of the Bin Laden “boogeyman” in the American imagination was an important step in moving beyond a fear-based politics in the United States. Obama was less successful in fulfilling his promise to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, though he did attempt to do so. Opposed to trying suspects in civilian courts and transferring them to U.S. prisons, Congress denied him the funding needed to complete the transfers. Closing Guantanamo remains a commitment in his Democratic Party platform: “[W]e are substantially reducing the population at Guantanamo Bay without adding to it. And we remain committed to working with all branches of government to close the prison altogether because it is inconsistent with our national security interests and our values.”
Beyond those accomplishments, however, and more troubling, is President Obama’s expansion of the theater of conflict in the “war against terror” through the use of drone attacks and extra-judicial killings in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, among other places. And, Obama’s signing the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012, including its provisions for the indefinite detention of suspects, sets an alarming precedent not just for his own potential second term but also for his successors. On the issues of drone attacks, extra-judicial killings and indefinite detentions, Romney has not distinguished himself from the president in any significant way, and therefore presents no better alternative. When it comes to America’s foreign policy and national security, there seems to be little distance between the two candidates.
But as small as that distance may be, it does exist. In fact, unable to challenge President Obama’s foreign policies effectively, Romney has attempted to differentiate himself by shifting even further to the right of the president. He has surrounded himself with some of the same Bush-Cheney-era neoconservatives who cheered America’s disastrous invasion of Iraq. In addition, he has feted the billionaire and hard-line Zionist Sheldon Adelson, made saber-ratting threats against Iran, sought to revive Cold War animosities with Russia, and talked of a coming trade war with China.
Even more than the differences between President Obama’s and Romney’s foreign and national security policies, is the wider gap that exists between the two candidates’ and their political parties’ attitudes toward Muslims. An August 2012 poll by the Arab American Institute found that 57 percent of Republicans held an “unfavorable” view of Muslims, compared with 29 percent of Democrats. Inversely, 26 percent of Republicans held a “favorable” view of Muslims, compared with 49 percent of Democrats. The findings about Republicans’ antipathies toward Muslims come as no surprise as key members of this party have trafficked in Islamophobia for years. Just this summer, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, joined by four of her Republican colleagues, attempted to initiate a McCarthyite witch hunt for the nonexistent influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in various government agencies, including the State Department.
Even though several Congressional leaders from both parties condemned Bachmann and her colleagues for their unfounded accusations, Republican officials have elsewhere stoked similar fears. Representative Peter King, who assumed chairmanship of the Homeland Security Committee when the Republicans gained a majority in the House of Representatives, held a series of hearings purported to investigate and expose the “Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community.” The hearings featured a parade of questionable witnesses whom King called to testify about the purported existence of a homegrown Muslim threat to the United States, and it was only the Democratic lawmakers on the committee, such as Sheila Jackson Lee and Bennie Thompson, who provided an effective counter-balance to the wild claims King attempted to extract from his witnesses.
As the standard bearer of the Republican Party, Romney has neither forthrightly denounced these attacks nor distanced himself from them. Instead, he has embraced the anti-Muslim discourse as evidenced in his party’s platform. In an attempt to prevent “shariah-creep,” the canard that Muslims are attempting to impose shariah law on U.S. courts, the Republican Party adopted a plank that declares, “There must be no use of foreign law by U.S. courts in interpreting our Constitution and laws. Nor should foreign sources of law be used in State courts’ adjudication of criminal or civil matters.” While the provision sounds innocuous enough, it was introduced by Kris Kobach, the Republican secretary of state for Kansas, whose governor signed a similarly worded law with the express purpose of banning shariah in their state courts. This kind of fear-mongering has no place in the polity; and Muslim-Americans must repudiate such engagement in Islamophobic discourse by roundly defeating Romney and his party at the polls in November.
On several occasions, President Obama intervened to challenge the spread of Islamophobia in American political life. In August 2012, at a Ramadan iftar dinner at the White House, he came to the defense of State Department official Huma Abedin against Bachmann’s attacks: “The American people owe her a debt of gratitude – because Huma is an American patriot, and an example of what we need in this country – more public servants with her sense of decency, her grace and her generosity of spirit. So, on behalf of all Americans, we thank you so much.” While the president’s defense of Abedin was uncontroversial, two years ago, at a similar Ramadan iftar dinner, his defense of Muslim-Americans’ right to build an Islamic center near Ground Zero caused him some blowback. After acknowledging the sensitivities surrounding the area near the former World Trade Center towers, the president stated, “As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable.”
Almost immediately Republicans including Representative King attacked the president, forcing him to clarify the next day that he was “not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there [near Ground Zero]. I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That’s what our country is about. And I think it’s very important as difficult as some of these issues are that we stay focused on who we are as a people and what our values are all about.” His need to make clear that his defense of religious freedom was not necessarily an endorsement of the mosque project, demonstrates how the current political climate has complicated the articulation of basic freedoms and protections when it comes to Muslim-Americans.
A CONTINUED STRUGGLE
President Obama’s frequent public defenses of the rights of Muslim-Americans have been welcome challenges to the anti-Muslim discourse that pervades primarily Republican and conservative circles. And yet, his comments also stand in contrast to some of his office’s national security policies. The contradictions provide a basis upon which to challenge him, against which to hold him accountable, and with which to distinguish American ideals from its leaders’ practices, his included. And such debates are absolutely necessary.
Voting seldom entails agreeing with a candidate on 100 percent of his views; and the case for Muslim-Americans re-electing Barack Obama does not hinge on unanimous support for all his positions. While President Obama has not presented a perfect candidacy for Muslim-Americans to rally behind, unlike his opponent, his domestic policies have benefited all Americans, Muslims included, and he has created the discursive space within which to challenge policies that are disagreeable. A vote for Obama is a vote for president, not messiah or mahdi. It is not overly concerned with personality and (un)likability. It is a strategy that recognizes the need for continued struggle by those with principles, ideologies and idealism seeking to create a better America for all its people. It is based on acknowledging that within the whole that is political activity, an Obama presidency is a crucial piece that still necessitates other kinds of electoral activity beyond Election Day, including voter education, mobilization, constituency development and lobbying.
So on Nov. 6, 2012, vote Obama. And agitate, organize, educate and mobilize, because the struggle will continue.