How do Muslims see Barack Hussein Obama? They have three choices: either as he presents himself – someone who has "never been a Muslim" and has "always been a Christian"; or as a fellow Muslim; or as an apostate from Islam.
Reports suggests that while Americans generally view the Democratic candidate having had no religion before converting to Christianity at Reverend Jeremiah Wrights's hands at age 27, Muslims the world over rarely see him as Christian but usually as either Muslim or ex-Muslim.
Lee Smith of the Hudson Institute explains why: "Barack Obama's father was Muslim and therefore, according to Islamic law, so is the candidate. In spite of the Quranic verses explaining that there is no compulsion in religion, a Muslim child takes the religion of his or her father. … for Muslims around the world, non-American Muslims at any rate, they can only ever see Barack Hussein Obama as a Muslim." In addition, his school record from Indonesia lists him as a Muslim
Thus, an Egyptian newspaper, Al-Masri al-Youm, refers to his "Muslim origins." Libyan ruler Mu'ammar al-Qaddafi referred to Obama as "a Muslim" and a person with an "African and Islamic identity." One Al-Jazeera analysis calls him a "non-Christian man," a second refers to his "Muslim Kenyan" father, and a third, by Naseem Jamali, notes that "Obama may not want to be counted as a Muslim but Muslims are eager to count him as one of their own."
A conversation in Beirut, quoted in the Christian Science Monitor, captures the puzzlement. "He has to be good for Arabs because he is a Muslim," observed a grocer. "He's not a Muslim, he's a Christian," replied a customer. Retorted the grocer: "He can't be a Christian. His middle name is Hussein." Arabic discussions of Obama sometimes mention his middle name as a code, with no further comment needed.
"The symbolism of a major American presidential candidate with the middle name of Hussein, who went to elementary school in Indonesia," reports Tamara Cofman Wittes of the Brookings Institution from a U.S.-Muslim conference in Qatar, "that certainly speaks to Muslims abroad." Thomas L. Friedman of the New York Times found that Egyptians "don't really understand Obama's family tree, but what they do know is that if America — despite being attacked by Muslim militants on 9/11 — were to elect as its president some guy with the middle name 'Hussein,' it would mark a sea change in America-Muslim world relations."
Some American Muslim leaders also perceive Obama as Muslim. The president of the Islamic Society of North America, Sayyid M. Syeed, told Muslims at a conference in Houston that whether Obama wins or loses, his candidacy will reinforce that Muslim children can "become the presidents of this country." The Nation of Islam's Louis Farrakhan called Obama "the hope of the entire world" and compared him to his religion's founder, Fard Muhammad.
But this excitement also has a dark side – suspicions that Obama is a traitor to his birth religion, an apostate (murtadd) from Islam. Al-Qaeda has prominently featured Obama's stating "I am not a Muslim" and one analyst, Shireen K. Burki of the University of Mary Washington, sees Obama as "bin Laden's dream candidate." Should he become U.S. commander in chief, she believes, Al-Qaeda would likely "exploit his background to argue that an apostate is leading the global war on terror … to galvanize sympathizers into action."
Mainstream Muslims tend to tiptoe around this topic. An Egyptian supporter of Obama, Yasser Khalil, reports that many Muslims react "with bewilderment and curiosity" when Obama is described as a Muslim apostate; Josie Delap and Robert Lane Greene of the Economist even claim that the Obama-as-apostate theme "has been notably absent" among Arabic-language columnists and editorialists.
That latter claim is inaccurate, for the topic is indeed discussed. At least one Arabic-language newspaper published Burki's article. Kuwait's Al-Watan referred to Obama as "a born Muslim, an apostate, a convert to Christianity." Writing in the Arab Times, Syrian liberal Nidal Na'isa repeatedly called Obama an "apostate Muslim."
In sum, Muslims puzzle over Obama's present religious status. They resist his self-identification as a Christian while they assume a baby born to a Muslim father and named "Hussein" began life a Muslim. Should Obama become president, differences in Muslim and American views of religious affiliation will create problems.
Aug. 25, 2008 update: This is the fourth in a series of articles I have published on Barack Obama's ties to Islam. The prior three:
"Was Barack Obama a Muslim?" FrontPageMag.com, December 24, 2007. Raises questions about Obama's childhood religion and considers some implications.
"Confirmed: Barack Obama Practiced Islam." FrontPageMag.com, January 7, 2008. Replies to a critique of the prevous article by "Media Matters for America."
"Barack Obama's Muslim Childhood." Jerusalem Post, May 1, 2008. Pulls together existing information on Obama's childhood religion.
Nov. 6, 2008 update: In Iran, Obama is widely known as Hussein Agha (Mr. Hussein). Plus, I today began a new blog, looking at how responses from the umma to the newly-elected American commander-in-chief, "Muslims Respond to a President Obama."