There are a few things I know about Barack Obama. I know that he was born in Hawaii. I know that his father was Kenyan, and that his mother was white. I know he graduated from Harvard Law School. I think he’s a Christian. I don’t know for sure. I mean, who does really, and what would it mean? Barack Obama can say he’s a Christian… so did Hitler, George W. Bush, and all those molesting Catholic priests. Is this some elite club? Apparently. You can’t be president without proclaiming your membership.
Today, Fox News, CNN, & MSNBC all reported that Barack Obama went to church “publicly.” I’m not exactly sure how one might go to church “privately.” I don’t go, but I hear there’s usually other people there. I know for a fact that my people, the Arab people, go to church very publicly. For us, church is a fashion show/meat market/speed date/social event/gossip session… with prayer.
All this is happening amidst what seems to be the never-ending question over whether or not Obama is (or ever was) a Muslim. And unfortunately, our main commentators know just about nothing on the matter. Franklin Graham, one of the leading figures of the religious right in this country, was quoted a few weeks ago, describing Obama’s lineage. On this pressing matter, he said:
He was born a Muslim. His father was a Muslim; the seed of Islam is passed through the father like the seed of Judaism is passed through the mother. He was born a Muslim; his father gave him an Islamic name… you can be born a Muslim. You can be born a Jew. But you can’t be born a Christian.
It’s almost painful to dissect the idiocy here. Sometimes, not all the time, but sometimes, religion can make you say and believe silly things about your own faith, and even sillier things about others. Let me qualify myself a little bit. I’m not a particularly religious person. Both of my parents are Palestinian refugees, and neither of them is too religious either. My father is a Christian, and my mother is a Muslim. Or at least they come from those roots. I am of their seed. I’d like to see how Graham would describe me. I clearly wasn’t born a Christian (Prof. Graham says that’s not possible), and my Muslim DNA comes from my mother, not my father.
I know, it’s confusing. But growing up in my house was pretty fun. We celebrated Christmas, Easter, & Ramadan. Well, I guess you don’t really celebrate Ramadan. Not eating during daylight for a month is nothing to be bouncing off the walls about. Plus, we didn’t fast. But we had the party at the end of Ramadan like everyone else. I guess you could say the same thing about Easter. I didn’t even know what Lent was until I had painted Easter eggs for about 15 years. We were celebrating all the time. One year, we even celebrated Rosh Hashanah, just out of habit.
But let’s get back to Graham. I eventually received an MA in Middle East Studies, and in the process, I became an academic authority on Islam (sounds cool, huh?). Let me say clearly… there is no such thing as being “born” Muslim. Becoming Muslim is something that comes about as a matter of what you believe. In this sense, it is identical to Christianity, and starkly different form Judaism. There is no Muslim DNA. It is not passed through any seed. That concept may exist loosely in a cultural sense in Islamic societies (much like it does in Christian societies), but religiously, in a doctrinal sense, it is simply not true. This is why no religious duties are incumbent upon a Muslim until he reaches the age of reason (i.e. puberty), because it is at that point that he is considered to be of the sufficient intellect capability to understand what he is doing and why. I could go on and on, but let’s conclude this part of the presentation by simply saying that Franklin Graham doesn’t know what the hell he is talking about.
And that’s really the most dangerous part. Unfortunately, when he opens his mouth, a lot of people listen. And when he professes to know something about Islam, people believe it. Religious leaders tend to see themselves as authorities of not only their own religion, but all others as well. Doctors don’t do this. If you ask your podiatrist a question about your heart, he doesn’t try to answer it for you. He calls his cardiologist friend. But religion is different. It’s competitive. It’s a zero-sum game. It seeks not only to advocate for itself, but also to oppose and resist all others, many times using instruments of misinformation and fear. No religion actually exists in harmony with other religions. It’s like football. A die-hard football fan can tell you how awesome his team is. And the main reason him team is awesome is because all the rest suck.
So it is in this atmosphere that Obama’s people call the news outlets before he goes to church. He’s declaring his allegiance to the Christian team because, whether he actually believes in it or not, he has no other choice. This is all too stressful for me. I like it better my way, celebrating everything and nothing at the same time.
By the way, when is Yom Kippur? It always sneaks up on me.
* Amer Zahr is a Palestinian American comedian, writer, professor and speaker living in Dearborn, Michigan. He is also the editor of "The Civil Arab."