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Why Do 1 in 5 Americans Think Obama is a Muslim?

US President Barack Obama has turned up a hornet’s nest with his suggestion that a mosque be built on ground zero where the twin towers of the World Trade Center existed in New York. Now speculations are rife that he is recommending this probably because he is a Muslim, as his name suggests.

According to a recent poll by Pew Research Centre, close to one in every five Americans think wrongly that Obama is a Muslim, which is a far higher number than people who thought the same when he took up residence in the White House.

The survey was conducted by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center and its affiliated Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and was based on interviews conducted before the controversy over whether Muslims should be permitted to construct a mosque near the World Trade Center site.

Little idea about their president

Only 34% of people polled correctly answered that Obama is a Christian. 43% said they had no clue about his religion, showing how little the Americans knew about the person who holds the privilege of being the ‘most powerful man on the planet’.

Most of the people (close to 60% of the respondents who felt he was a Muslim) said their perceptions were largely influenced by media information or mis-information in this case. And this feeling gained momentum once he supported suggestions by Muslim groups to construct an Islamic cultural centre and mosque near the 9/11 terror attack site.

The issue about the has also brought to the fore, the underlying and growing religious intolerance of US citizens, who consider all brown-skinned people as Pakistanis, unaware about the diversity of the different cultures in the Asian sub-continent.

Xenophobia has become rife in a country which was better known as the land for the free and fearless at one point of time. But post-9/11, people are on the edge and distrust most Asians, which is unfair.

Where ignorance is bliss, is it truly folly to be wise?

The Pew survey results show how important a role the media plays when it tries to influence people with their perception of reality. With the current viewpoint about Obama’s religion, his political career could see a period of turmoil, since most Americans have a not so favorable view about Muslims.

When Obama supported the creation of a mosque on ground zero, doubts started creeping into the citizens’ mind about his religious beliefs, which could have a direct impact on his popularity. He has already faced a lot of opposition on the health reform bill which he pushed through the Senate and the Pew poll shows that now 41% of respondents disapprove of his job performance as compared to 26% who voiced their disapproval in the agency’s March 2009 poll.

Following this poll Joshua DuBois, White House faith adviser shared his unhappiness and blamed certain factions in the media and his opponents for creating this wrong impression. “While the president has been diligent and personally committed to his own Christian faith, there are certainly folks who are intent on spreading falsehoods about the president and his values and beliefs,” he reportedly said.

Now the White House’s public relations machinery will have to work on an overdrive to highlight that Obama was actually born to a Kenyan father and an American mother. He grew up in Hawaii when his father left for Africa, when Obama was just two. He was raised by his maternal grandparents and incidentally his grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, was a Muslim.

The bone of contention

The Islamic educational culture centre which also houses a mosque whose construction Obama supported is actually two blocks away from Ground Zero. This 13-story building is led by the Cordoba Initiative, which is headed by Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf, a cleric with a mosque in New York, who also belongs to an advocacy group that promotes improved relations between Islam and the West.

The group aims to educate local masses about the actual teachings of the Islam and showcase that the religion is not fundamentalist in nature nor does it preach hatred. The message that the group wanted to spread is that ordinary Muslim Americans and most Muslims around the world do not subscribe to the terror attacks carried out by a minority faction in their community, under the guise of religion.

Ironically, their centre itself has now come in the eye of the storm, with strong opposition from major Republican leaders. Amongst them is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich who claimed that “Nazis do not have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington. We would never accept the Japanese putting up a sight next to Pearl Harbor. There is no reason for us to accept a mosque next to the World Trade Center.”

Obama on the other hand tried to fervently convince his opponents, during an iftar dinner (a dinner which signals the end of a day-long fast during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan) telling that the believed that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as every other person in this country. And if they wish to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances, then such a move should not be opposed.

Bouquets and brickbats thrown in together

Obama has found some supporters for his move like New York City Mayor Michael R Bloomberg, who also supported the planned mosque. He described that Obama’s views were “a clarion defense of the freedom of religion”. But Republicans like former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin asked Obama, whether they should permit the building of the mosque steps away from where radical Islamists killed 3000 people?

The mosque is just a symbol now which shows what the general public opinion is about religious tolerance, especially a religion which has unfortunately been linked to most terror attacks to the world over. Co-relating its construction with the perceived religious beliefs or even the religion that the President of United States subscribes is not only foolish, but also counter-productive to his detractors in the long run.

Obama’s overtures to the construction of the Islamic center is a positive step in telling the world that the US is not prejudiced against any religion and supports their right to practice it peacefully in the country. One can only hope that his political peers see how this message will help assuage millions who have been trained to believe that the US is a demon to hated and feared and then inducted in terror camps in certain countries.


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