How Far Is America from Electing a Muslim President?
As someone deeply engaged in combatting Islamophobia, one of the highlights of the 2008 Presidential election was when General Colin Powell denounced the myth that President Obama is Muslim on Meet the Press. General Powell, a senior statesman respected across partisan lines managed to clear a decade of post 9/11 Islamophobia in a single sentence: “So what if he was?”
So what if President Obama was Muslim?
Of course President Obama is not a Muslim, despite a sizable bloc of the American public still believing that he is. While he may not have realized it, Powell’s statement was more than just a statement in support of then Sen. Obama for president. It told every young American Muslim that they are a part of what it means to be an American. Powell’s statement said that no Americans faith should be a barrier to them holding the highest office in the land.
I’ve never been an advocate for identity politics, but America is a country that thrives off of its diversity, and as the browning of America increases, bringing minorities into positions of power may matter less and less. The election of the nation’s first African American President has not realized Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Beloved Community,” nor has it ushered in greater civil rights for African Americans. It certainly has not ended racism. But its symbolic value is important and it shows that the principle of equality enshrined in the American constitution still means something.
Like race, the religion of a presidential candidate matters. Despite the climate of increasing islamophobia in America, America very well could elect a Muslim for President sooner than many think. If we look at American religious history, we find that perceptions towards religious outsiders change rapidly and surprisingly. It happened in 1960 when the nation elected John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic President, less than 60 years prior anti-Catholic sentiment was so vociferous that many Catholics were murdered.
To gauge whether America might elect a Muslim to be President, we should look closely at the “Islam of America:” Mormonism. Ever since its founding, Mormonism, the first American-born religion, has been portrayed as foreign and often defined in opposition to the Protestant majority. Even today, 16% of Americans say that they would not vote for a Mormon presidential candidate due to their suspicion of the religion’s influence on the country.
In a recent policy brief for the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding entitled, “Beyond the Stereotype: The Shared Story of Muslims and Mormons in America,” I examine the shared history of Mormons and Muslims and present suggestions for how policymakers and leaders from both faiths can move past prejudice towards mutual understanding.
Throughout American history, Mormonism has been culturally and theologically conflated with Islam to paint Mormons as foreign and to drum up xenophobic attitudes against them since Joseph Smith founded Mormonism in 1833 including wholly unflattering comparisons in popular culture.
The similar patterns and frames used to denigrate Mormons and Muslims historically are still with us today. The recent conflagration over the anti-Muslim film “The Innocence of Muslims” highlights how extremist Evangelical groups direct their bigotry at both Muslims and Mormons. Sam Klein, the alleged co-producer, is a former Marine and extremist Christian who has helped train militiamen in California churches and led “protests outside abortion clinics, Mormon temples and mosques.” While the vast majority of Evangelicals do not openly participate in such activities, Mormons and Muslims often internalize these movements as verification of a generally negative and widespread reaction to their respective faiths.
How Far Away Are We from a Muslim President?
Muslims belong to the country’s least favorable religion, and 42 percent of Americans claim that they would not vote for a Muslim presidential
candidate. 63 percent of Americans claim to have never met a Muslim, but despite rising levels of Islamophobia in America, majorities of Americans don’t express anxiety with Muslims building a mosque in their neighborhood, or with having a Muslim as their neighbor. According to the Public Religion Research Institute’s recent findings, few Americans report having much knowledge about who Muslims are and what they believe. Only 14 percent of Americans say they know a lot about the religious beliefs and practices of Muslims, and 57 percent say they know only a little.
According to the Pew Forum’s extensive studies of attitudes towards Mormons, Romney’s Mormon faith should not make a substantial difference in his chances at becoming president. Many analysts pointed out that Romney’s inability to court Evangelical Christian voters would present the gravest threat to his chances at getting elected based on his faith. However, with the presidential election less than a week away, Billy Graham a leading evangelical figure in the U.S., removed the word “cult” from his association’s description of Mormonism, although some conservative Christians saw the move as partisanship.
Despite rising levels of Islamophobia, majorities of Americans don’t express anxiety with Muslims building a mosque in their neighborhood, or with having a Muslim neighbor. In other words, most Americans are more and more able to separate their anxieties about the religion Islam from American Muslims civic and political rights. According to the Public Religion Research Institute’s recent findings, few Americans report having much knowledge about who Muslims are and what they believe. Only 14 percent of Americans say they know a lot about the religious beliefs and practices of Muslims, and 57 percent say they know only a little.
In the same study, a majority of Americans claimed that American Muslims are an important part of the religious experience in America, even though a majority does not know a Muslim personally. As Muslim Americans grow in population prejudice will transform as people come into contact with Muslims and form more personal relationships. If Mormonism is any example, the day will soon come when a Muslim will be able to run for president and America will have grown out of its petty prejudices and stereotypes.
This article is part of the “Election 2012 – American Muslims VOTE!” series, which is running on Altmuslim at Patheos, Altmuslimah, Illume, and Aziz Poonawalla’s news and politics blog on Patheos. Click on this special topics page to view all articles in this series and add your comments. Tweet your thoughts on this article, on the series, and on the 2012 elections at #MuslimVOTE.