Not that there’d be anything wrong with it, but President Obama was not, as the Rev. Franklin Graham so unequivocally states, “born a Muslim.”
After that sad Pew Research poll came out suggesting that a record 18 percent of Americans now believe that Obama is Muslim and 43 percent say they don’t know what he is (he is, of course, Christian), Franklin Graham, son of evangelist icon Billy Graham, went on John King’s CNN show and spouted this drivel:
“I think the president’s problem is that 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. Now it’s obvious that the president has renounced the Prophet Muhammad and he has renounced Islam and he has accepted Jesus Christ. That’s what he says he has done. I cannot say that he hasn’t. So I just have to believe that the president is what he has said.”
So much is so wrong with that, starting with the Reverend’s “that’s what he says” dog whistles. Hillary was slammed for punting that “as far as I know” Obama wasn’t Muslim, but now coy innuendo about Obama’s faith is standard GOP fare. “The president says he’s a Christian,” Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell said Sunday on Meet the Press. “I take him at his word.” (Mitch and Franklin say they’re Christian family men with valid birth certificates. I cannot say they’re not. So I just have to believe that they are what they have said.)
Meanwhile, Graham, who has called Islam “a very wicked and evil religion,” was foisting outright falsehoods. The president has not, as Graham claimed, “renounced” Islam — and before some winger twists that to “The Nation admits Obama never renounced Islam!”—let’s be clear: He had nothing to renounce. He was not a Muslim, he wasn’t raised as a Muslim, nor did he choose to practice or worship as one. Perhaps Franklin Graham (who surely has his own daddy-seed issues to deal with) has confused Obama with his Kenyan father, who was indeed raised a Muslim. But, as the president writes, “by the time he met my mother he was a confirmed atheist, thinking religion to be so much superstition.” Which leads to Graham’s next doozy: The atheist father was highly unlikely to have given his son “an Islamic name” — but he did give him his own name, Barack Hussein Obama.
And though the next night John King brought on a religion professor who scorched Graham for his Islamophobia, King didn’t challenge Graham’s central claim, that President Obama was “born a Muslim.”
This misconception has long been out there, and was neatly shot down during the presidential campaign. The military historian Edward Luttwak had written an embarrassing New York Times op-ed stating that because “Obama was born a Muslim under Muslim law as it is universally understood,” he’d risk his life visiting Muslim countries for having committed the “apostasy” of “converting” to Christianity. Again, he “converted” from being nonreligious, not from Islam. But just think: for Fox News-type purposes, how much better it’d be if some foreign Muslims whacked the president than American whites, or white supremacists — who, in reality, have been the prime source of plots and threats against Obama. In any case, Obama’s successful trip to Egypt last year pretty much shut down the false “apostate” alarm.
And thanks to then-New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt, who essentially fact-checked Luttwak, we learned that he — and now Graham — are way off on the “born a Muslim” meme.
Hoyt interviewed experts on Islam and, he wrote, “All of them said that Luttwak’s interpretation of Islamic law was wrong…. including assertions that in Islam a father’s religion always determines a child’s, regardless of the facts of his upbringing [and] that Obama’s ‘conversion’ to Christianity was apostasy…”
In fact, one scholar, Hoyt wrote, cited an ancient Islamic jurist “who said, ‘If you divorce a Christian woman and ignore your child from her to the point that the child grows up to be a Christian, the child is to be left,’ meaning left to make his own choice.” Obama’s father, of course, divorced his mother and left the family when Obama was two years old.
But if Graham really wants to pick at genealogical grubs, what’s he to make of the fact that Obama’s father’s father was a Christian who converted to Islam (and only then took the name Hussein). Aha! What religion is that seed now?
Personally, I’m stuck on the word seed. Graham meant it in the Biblical (or Koranical) sense, but when I hear about a “seed passing through” in the context of an American president, I can’t help but see Monica Lewinsky and her “semen-stained blue dress.”
Regardless of what the Muslim world may or may not believe, this whole seed fixation is profoundly un-American. It says that genealogy is destiny that a man is Muslim regardless of what he espouses or believes. It’s all about descent — and nauseatingly close to the “one drop rule” of the post-Reconstruction South. That rule held that if a person had any African or Indian ancestry whatsoever, he or she was classified as “colored” and subject to anti-miscegenation laws, voter disenfranchisement, and segregation at large. At least 18 states adopted some form of the rule; Virginia’s 1924 law, for instance, was called the Racial Integrity Act.
Whether it’s a drop, a seed, a particular kind of birth certificate, or a distance of six blocks from Ground Zero instead of two, these selectively applied purity tests are far more dangerous to our national character (and, as Frank Rich points out, to our overseas troops who rely on Muslim goodwill) than Islamophobics accuse Muslims of being to our freedom.
Leslie Savan writes humor for The Nation magazine, and is the author of Slam Dunks And No-Brainers: Pop Language in Your Life, the Media, and, Like…Whatever and The Sponsored Life: Ads, TV, and American Culture.