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Washington — Dogged by persistent but untrue rumors that he was a closet Muslim, Barack Obama’s presidential campaign carefully sidestepped questions about his Muslim ancestry and asked two Muslim women in headscarves to take seats away from the cameras.
But on Thursday (June 4), Obama quoted the “Holy Quran,” greeted his audience with the customary “Assalaamu alaykum” and, when speaking of Moses, Jesus and Muhammad in the same breath, said “peace be upon them.”
In short, what candidate Barack Hussein Obama ran away from, President Barack Hussein Obama now embraces.
What was once his greatest political liability has been retooled into his greatest asset as he incorporates his own biography into his pitch to overhaul America’s image in the Muslim world.
“I’m a Christian, but my father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims,” Obama said in his highly anticipated appeal to the Islamic world.
“As a boy, I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the azaan (Muslim call to prayer) at the break of dawn and at the fall of dusk,” he said. “As a young man, I worked in Chicago communities where many found dignity and peace in their Muslim faith.”
It was a stunning reversal for a candidate who once retreated at the slightest mention of his father’s Muslim roots. Yet that candor won over the audience, according to Dalia Mogahed, executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, who was present at the event.
“It’s unprecedented,” said Mogahed, a member of the White House’s faith-based advisory council, by telephone from Cairo. “His very openly, and with great pride, talking about his Muslim background was seen as an incredible gesture.”
In one sense, Obama has never shied from his personal story, either in his two best-selling books or in speeches that are peppered with familial anecdotes.
He saw it as a nonissue whether he should use the middle name he inherited from his father when he took the presidential oath of office.
“It wasn’t simply about downplaying (his Muslim roots) and then featuring (them),” said the Rev. Wes Granberg-Michaelson, who worked on a White House task force to help craft the Cairo speech. “It’s also about trying to establish accurately who he really is.”
At the same time, Obama never dwelled on those details, and often times viewed questions about his ancestry as a political liability. And no wonder — according to several surveys, U.S. voters listed Muslims as No. 2 on their list of unacceptable candidates, sandwiched between atheists and Mormons.
Obama finally addressed the Muslim rumors two months before his election.
“What they’re really saying is, `We’re going to try to scare people about Barack. So we’re going to say that, you know, maybe he’s got Muslim connections,”‘ he said.
But in Cairo, there was no “maybe” about his Muslim connections.
What was once a postscript, excised from his campaign rhetoric, has been fully reworked into the biography.
Shahed Amanullah, editor of AltMuslim.com, said he understood Obama’s need to distance himself politically from his Muslim roots during the campaign, but noted how much things changed when Obama was freed from the restraints of the campaign.
“Now that he is speaking to people with similar backgrounds, he is able to use his connections,” Amanullah said. “I can’t imagine another president who would be able to extend such a hand of friendship and commonality to the Muslim world.”
Obama’s very public recognition of his ties to Islam will no doubt stir up opposition and confusion in certain corners. A full 11 percent of Americans still think Obama is a Muslim, according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, and another 35 percent do not know what to make of his religion.
But one section of the populace that will likely have little complaint is American Muslims, who give Obama the highest job approval ratings of any major group in the country. “American Muslims,” Obama said in Cairo, “have enriched the United States” since its founding.
Obama’s high praise may be vindication for a community that found itself pushed to the political margins on the campaign trial even as they voted for him in record numbers. Muslim leaders seem to understand.
“It was probably a strategic move during the campaign to not overly exert those roots, though he did not deny them either,” said Daisy Khan, executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement.
“I believe this time he had an opportunity and he seized on it,” she said. “He renewed his openness about his Muslim roots as a strategic asset and way to connect with masses of Muslims.”
Easily lost in all the rumors about Obama’s connections to Islam is his actual embrace of Christianity, which he openly talked about in Cairo. Granberg-Michaelson said Obama’s biography is incomplete without both, and each is needed to appreciate the full impact of the speech.
“Sometimes individual qualities and traits and parts of a person’s story — sometimes they really get used in remarkable and unpredictable ways,” he said. “And I think we’re seeing a bit of that today.”
By Tiffany Stanley
Religion News Service
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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