From the beginning, I have been one of those rare Americans who thought that if Barack Obama had gone to a Muslim school, it was probably a good thing. Unlike much of the country and almost all of the conventional media, I don’t think being a Muslim is an evil act and I find it odd that people who write so enthusiastically about the gender and ethnic breakthroughs of the current campaign can also off handedly describe Muslims as intrinsically on the wrong side of life. We’re talking about a subset of Americans who are, according to one recent study, slightly more numerous than Jews, yet are treated with at least as much prejudice, magnified by the problem that nobody admits it and that the “objective” media casually trashes their culture.
My view is also affected by the fact that I was raised as an Episcopalian yet no one considers me to have been unduly influenced in the slightest by that extremist religion. I belong to a happy congregation of those raised in one faith or another who found the back door out. For many of us, whatever the negatives, there is still the affection of memory, the chap book of funny stories, a fondness for the poetry, a command of the dialect and cliches, but, most of all, an understanding of what it was all about that you can’t learn from a National Security Council briefer. If I were in the White House facing an international Episcopal jihad, I would know exactly how to hit them where it hurts.
Thus, from the start, I thought Obama overplayed his distance from Muslim culture. You could feel it in the spin: too much, too hard. It’s the sort of thing that campaign staff sell you, but which is almost guaranteed to fail. The past is complex; far better to admit it from the start then to create little fibs that only get you through the next few weeks.
John Kerry proved it when he overplayed his hero shtick. I could sense it from the moment he did that excruciatingly pompous salute at the convention. Decent heroes let others do the talking; Kerry, by elaborating the story for his play book, was just asking for trouble. . . which he got.
And so the debate will go on – intense and mean, no doubt – and happily indifferent to the point that Obama might have made in the first place: that his past experience adds to his value in the White House, that having lived in a Muslim culture means one understands it in a way that, say, a Bill O’Reilly growing up in Long Island never could. In the end, we either have to fight the Muslim world or learn how to live with it, and Obama – even if the perversions of a campaign led him to obscure the fact – may have had a head start in achieving the latter, and far better, result