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By Stephane Dunn


Monday, January 26, 2009.


Inauguration morning, I awoke thinking about how racial unity and racial understanding have been so much a part of the public discourse throughout the past election year and in the days and hours leading up to the historic inaugural ceremony. But my thoughts turned to how critical this moment should and could be for discussing religious understanding and peace. Maybe this is one of the benefits of working out a personal relationship with a person of a different faith; there is a lot of necessary work towards arriving at mutual peace and respect in the face of some passionate debates and divergent beliefs.


This is certainly apropos for America; part of our global PR problem lies in the estrangement from the Muslim world and erroneous popular perceptions of Islam in this age of heightened of terrorism. Ironically, shortly after becoming the Commander and Chief, President Obama suggested that this was something he was pondering as well.


In one of the most memorable lines of his Address, Obama began first not with a reminder that we are a nation of blacks and whites but of ‘Christians and Muslims, Hindus, and nonbelievers’. At another point, he referenced his late African father – a Muslim - and addressed the Muslim world, inviting a ‘new’ era of mutual respect and understanding.

This is quite striking since last summer and early fall, Obama found himself defending his Christian identity and having to fend off charges that he was really a Muslim rather than a ‘Christian.’ He typically avoided discussing the anti-Muslim sentiment and religious divide heavily or engaging his father’s Islamic religious identity in the many televised speeches and bios of his family roots.


Nevertheless, the right wing attack on the authenticity of his faith and Americanism was disturbing on two major levels. First, it was an overtly ugly strategy designed to destroy Obama’s image and stir up fear that he was not truly either Christian, American, or patriotic. It was, of course, untrue. But this highlighted the larger problem: the not so invisible underlying implication, as a few brave Op Ed writers noted at the time, was that there was something wrong with being a Muslim and that Islam was synonymous with terrorism, anti-Americanism and so forth.


Of course, this also underscored the very well known fact that US Presidents have been white, male, and Christian with the exception of the Catholic president. The now infamous July 2008 New Yorker cover featuring Barack and Michelle Obama drenched in stereotypical Western notions of Muslim identity made folks uncomfortable because it perfectly captured the extreme representations that people have too widely nursed and clung to since September 11, 2001.

Since that cataclysmic moment and despite the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, little progress has been made in transforming Americans’ general perceptions and understanding of Islam, the diversity of Muslim identity, nor the Muslim world’s antagonism towards the West’s, primarily the US’s, narrow categorization of Muslims. Indeed, racial profiling has extended to ‘ethnic’ and religious profiling in the wake of the Bush Administration and Homeland’s Security determination to make ‘America safe.’ But safety is elusive in the midst of exclusivity, alienation, religious ignorance and intolerance, especially in an increasingly smaller and volatile global community.


On a recent Air Tran flight, nine Muslim passengers were removed from their flight for a ‘remark’ that ‘scared’ some other listening passengers. The airline apologized later but said that it had acted in accordance with the guidelines. Undoubtedly, it did act accordingly, that is to the extremism and fear that have shaped many of the official and unofficial travel procedures and social codes that have evolved since 2001. Undoubtedly, the listeners too reacted out of the instant fear of terrorism that has become so attached to perceived visibly Middle Eastern and Islamic folk.


As one who has spent enough time standing in security lines and chatting with fellow passengers on planes post 2001, I can attest to the fact that lots of off color security questions, scenarios, and so forth get tossed around that could be considered questionable to a listener if the talk was flowing from folks who ‘looked’ Muslim or Middle Eastern.

Both the Christian-oriented United States and the Islamic oriented Middle East must grapple with some serious dilemmas in relation to one another. The non-western Muslim world includes within it practices with disturbing gender, ethnic, and class politics that are not intrinsically rooted in the Qur’an but which have developed over generations in deeply hierarchal contexts. It also confronts cultural migration and Western cultural influences while wanting to retain the purity of its distinctive cultural mores, religious practices and values, and religious freedom.


And yet, for the Muslim world too, the global community grows smaller. In the United States, where much lip service is given to diversity and where there is indeed a great religious mix, much more education, public dialogue, conscious raising, and everyday practice is needed to offset America’s flawed either/or tendency towards religious difference particularly at the level of political power and voice.


We might not know we’ve made the most dramatic progress on this until there is a serious Muslim contender for the White House or at least for Secretary of State. It would be short-sighted to say never. After Iowa, New Hampshire, and Hilary Clinton’s concession, my Muslim love said that Obama would still never actually become president of the United States – probably no black person would in our life time. But January 20, 2009 proves - never is inconclusive.


Stephane Dunn, Ph.D, MFA, is currently an Assistant Professor in the English Department at Morehouse College, Atlanta, GA. She has also taught at Ohio State University. A scholarly and creative writer, she specializes in film, popular culture, literature and African American studies. She is the author of articles and commentaries and the book, Baad Bitches & Sassy Supermamas: Black Power Action Films (University of Illinois Press 2008).


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