By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
On September 18 the Facebook page ‘Liberal Progressive Political Talk‘ posted a meme that has now been shared over 2,000 times. It showed Barack Obama, beer in hand, with the explanation: “pro-choice, pro-gay rights, pro-women’s rights, shaves, eats bacon, and drinks beer. Yeah, right wing idiots, he’s Muslim.”
The meme was ostensibly in response to a recent controversy involving Donald Trump who had refused to correct an audience question that implied Muslims didn’t belong in America. So the post noted “yeah, he’s Muslim. Funny Muslim. Shut up Donald Trump.” But in supposedly defending Obama the meme was attacking and stereotyping all Muslims. It implied that the “evidence” for Obama not being Muslim was that he was pro-choice, pro-gay rights, pro-women’s rights and that he shaves, east bacon and drinks beer. This laundry list of supposedly “non-Muslim” things cobbled together items that are prohibited by the strict adherence to the Islamic faith, such as not drinking or not eating pork, with other social issues that are the height of Islamophobia. What does it mean that to be “pro-women’s rights” means one is not Muslim? Can’t there be gay Muslims or Muslims who support gay rights, or are pro-choice? Why have these “progressives” pigeon-holed Muslims, the way they wouldn’t pigeonhole Jewish Americans? Is Noam Chomsky less Jewish if he eats pork? Why are progressive causes like women’s rights, assumed to be “non-Muslim”? Why is Obama not a Muslim, just because he drinks beer?
These are times in America when being a Muslim is often in the spotlight. Ben Carson had suggested a Muslim should not be president. A Muslim student with a home-made clock was detained by police in Texas. Representative Keith Ellison, who is Muslim, has critiqued Trump and Carson for their comments. Keith Ellison also shaves, so one wonders, have the “progressives” decided he is not Muslim because of it?
The fact is that the meme which stereotypes Muslims buys into the right wing “Obama is a Muslim” canard. It’s not the first time this has happened. In 2010 Wajahat Ali at The Guardian also mocked Obama for eating pork, drinking, not observing Ramadan and picking a Jewish woman for the Supreme Court, rather than a Muslim man. His article may have been cheeky, but the concept is to buy into and give legitimacy to the up to 20% of Americans who at times have claimed they thought Obama was a Muslim. But why is the natural response to “he is a Muslim” to point to the “non-Islamic” things he does. Not only does that buy into the unacceptable question in the first place, but it also pretends that all Muslims fit a simple caricature. The correct answer to “Obama is a Muslim,” is to note, as Ellison did, “so what?” He can be a Muslim if he wants to be. Obama has said he is not, so leave it at that. If a President with some very small amount of Jewish ancestry said he was not Jewish, shouldn’t he be taken at his word. Was Richard Nixon a Quaker? Did John F. Kennedy listen to the Pope to make his foreign policy? Who cares? America has separation of church and state, a President’s faith should not be what he or she is judged on.
The meme goes to the heart of one of the main problems some on the left have with Islam. The left and the right tend to view Islam the same way, as a stereotypical monolith. They simply have different conclusions about it. They both view it as an “other.” The right tends to interpret Islam as essentially non-western and anti-western, a threat to “Judeo-Christian values.” Islam is seen as invading, infiltrating, and using its power to force “creeping Islamization” on the West.
The left tends to accept basically the same premise, namely that Islam is the “other”, but it concludes that because it is the “other”, it is therefore good and positive and an important part of diversity and multi-culturalism. Islam is “exotic” and therefore beautiful and good.
Basically both the left and right view Muslims through the eyes of orientalism and one sees “noble savages” and the other “savages”; one sees it as a threat, the other as an ally to be understood and learned from and included. In viewing Muslims this way they take away the individualism and agency of the individual. Thus while both sides will accept a person born Christian or Jewish can come from any gamut of life, Muslims are seen as having one shade. They all “don’t drink” and they “don’t eat pork” and “fast on Ramadan.” Both the left and the right tend to imagine Muslims as all being perfect adherents of the strictest Islam. A woman without a hijab is not a “real Muslim.” A woman at a dance club or in a bikini, or a lesbian woman is “not a Muslim.” They have so bought into the racist, intolerance, Islamophobic view of Islam, that both left and right tend to do grave harm to any Muslim who does not fit a perfect stereotype. Thus Irshad Manji, a Muslim feminist, was told she is not “really” a Muslim, by a left-leaning Rabbi at a 2014 debate. The rabbi had decided that all Muslims are the same, even though he would admit that all Jews can be as diverse as they want to be. This is the ultimate intolerance, when the “other” is stripped of individualism, while the self is provided all the rights of individual thought.
It is important and essential to break down the stereotypes of Muslims. Buzzfeed recently released a video trying to show this diversity. That is a step in the right direction. But it is also important and essential that the right and left in America challenge their own views of how they view Muslims. The left should confront its own stereotypes that to “drink beer” or be for women’s rights or be for gay rights means one is “not Muslim” and the right should confront it’s view that Muslims are natural adversaries and see in conservative Muslims likely allies in various culture wars in the US.
And the next time someone says “Obama is a Muslim,” the best response is “so?”