Why Do So Many Americans Think Obama is a Secret Muslim?

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Rick Shenkman is the founder and editor-in-chief of HNN and vice president of media & partnerships at Vote iQ.

This recent Pew Research Poll showing that an increasing number of Americans think Obama is a Muslim is] pretty amazing at this stage of his presidency. That's a lot of ignorance. In fact, in select states during the campaign the stats were more egregious. In Ohio and Florida during the primary of 2008 47% thought he was either Muslim or they didn't know his religion. (This was after the Rev. Wright business.) In Texas 23% thought he was Muslim.

Twice today I was asked by columnists why the number of people who believe he's a Muslim might be growing. Eleanor Clift and Clarence Page both were interested in the subject.

Here's what I told them. One explanation is simply that the debate about Obama being a Muslim has largely been one-sided since he became president. Since he moved into the White House he's no longer devoting resources to knock down rumors and half-truths as he did during the campaign, when he created a website to address these issues. So the rumors, which have continued non-stop, gain more and more currency.

In addition, the environment in which we are living is making us more susceptible to untruths and rumors. The more anxious we become about the future (and we are very anxious right now) the more susceptible millions of us are to myths that make sense of the world. The myth that Obama is a Muslim helps define him as The Other. That is an appealing myth to people who wonder what the hell has gone wrong with this country. In anxious times we often seek to make sense of the world by dividing it into Them and Us. It's a natural tribal instinct. By placing Obama in The Other camp we can "explain" why our position in the world seems to be declining.

Another consideration is that we are more susceptible to myths of all kinds during periods like the present. We become more suspicious of foreigners when unemployment is high. That's one reason immigration often looms as a larger issue in bad times than good times. We want to blame someone or something for our misery.

This is myth making being true to itself. The whole purpose of myths is to help define who we are and what values we cherish. The more complicated the world becomes -- and it is very complicated right now -- the more we cling to our myths to maintain our balance.

We are all susceptible to myths. Even Obama. He apparently believed he could speak out on the issue involving the New York mosque controversy because he believes in the myth of American multiculturalism, of which he is a prime beneficiary. Believing in the myth, he felt free to make a statement to help shape public opinion.

This was a mistake. This is not a society that believes wholeheartedly in multiculturalism. It is a myth to believe that. Obama's election wasn't in fact confirmation of our multicultural identity, much as we'd like to think that it was. Hence, Obama's inability to move public opinion to his side in this debate.

He should have known better. As the son of a Muslim father he lacks the moral authority in the eyes of millions to speak out on this issue. He cannot lead on an issue involving Muslims since his own identity as a child of a Muslim parent compromises his perceived independence.

This is the second time he has fallen victim to an American myth. It happened last summer when he came to the defense of the black Harvard professor who'd been arrested by the police in his own home. Obama undoubtedly thought he was simply making a plain statement of fact. The white cop had made a stupid mistake. As an American he felt free to say this. An American president in a colorblind society could. But America is not a color-blind society. Obama knows this and has said this. But on this occasion he forgot and reaped the whirlwind.

Had Obama been white he could have weighed in. Millions of white people would have been moved to share his viewpoint because they identified with him. But as a black man he was not in a position to exert moral leadership on this issue. That is an uncomfortable truth, I admit. But it is pretty obvious. It's why Obama, to the frustration of some in the black community, has been so silent about black issues as president. Speak out and he will appear to be engaging in special pleading for people who share his skin color.

We are not a bad people for having myths. All people have them. But we are more susceptible to them than most because we lack a common ancestry to hold us together. What unites us are our myths, those grand stories we tell about ourselves to ourselves. The information revolution was thought to be an antidote to myth making. This was an illusion. The more information we have coming at us from diverse quarters the more likely we are to cling to myths. As I said earlier, that is myths doing their job.

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james joseph butler - 8/25/2010

I believe it was Ezra Klein in the WaPo who pointed out that various surveys reveal that when a president takes a stand as you suggest Obama should do the net result is a push back of resentment. Who is he to tell us what's right?

Apparently 60 to 70% of Americans are against the mosque/community center for various reasons. As much as I wish you were right I tend to think cultural change emerges from the young and young at heart. Politicians are neither.

Elected leaders rarely lead in America they tend to vested interests who enable them to maintain their positions.

Larry W. DeWitt - 8/24/2010

Rick's diagnosis of the malady here is, as ever, insightful and thought-provoking. But his implied conclusion (that Obama must remain silent on this issue) seems wrong-headed.

No doubt President Obama has a higher hill to climb on these types of issues because of his race and heritage. So what? That's what we pay him for. The President is called upon to be a moral voice for the nation. When the hills are high, that's when the President is called to greatness.

Will the ignorant and the bigoted react negatively to Obama's leadership? Of course. But some minds will be moved, some attitudes will begin to change. When leaders lead, that begins to erode the old obstacles and starts the society moving in the right direction. That's the job of a leader. And my only disappointment here is that Obama has not spoken out more forcefully and uncompromisingly on this issue.

And oh, by the way, the way we will someday get to a color-blind society is when our leaders act in the face of our biases, as if they did not matter. Only in that way will there come a day when they actually don't matter anymore.

Maarja Krusten - 8/23/2010

Sorry, didn't proofread. Should be "sense of self." And "st some of what happened to him."

Maarja Krusten - 8/23/2010

Well said, Mr. Butler. Politics aside (I mostly focus on character issues in writing about presidents), if he is anything like the person describedin David Remnicks The Bridge, Obama "the mutt" stands head and shoulders above many who started out in life with more advantages than he but who never were able to develop a well-integrated sense of sense. How many of us here on HNN could put up with some of the nonsense he (and Clinton and the younger Bush) have had to put up with? Obama reminds me of Bush in his serenity and willingess to soldier on in the face of ridiculous insults and political mudslinging, unlike the man whose life I've most closely studied, Richard Nixon, who seethede with anger and resentment and some of what had happened to him.

james joseph butler - 8/23/2010

I think Obama's faith is sincere. You point to his exotic religious provenance but its outcome seems ordinarily American. His evolution is typical of many of his ilk whose upbringings were unconventional. He looked for stability and found it in the most conventional of settings for a "mutt like me".

Joseph E Tether III - 8/23/2010

It should be enough, as one comment pointed out, that Obama has declared himself to be a Christian. So that you may evaluate my own perspective, I'm a white 70+ year old non-believing Obama supporter. I don't care if Obama is a Muslim or if he was born outside the U.S., as many purportedly believe. As the author suggests, the level of ignorance in this society is monumental. I am reminded of the old joke wherein one person asks another: "What do you think of the ignorance and apathy in this society?" And the other answers: "I don't know and I don't care!" However, the fact remains that Obama's father was a Muslim and his mother was an atheist, hardly a fitting incubator for a Christian. Obama declared himself to be a Christian about 25 years ago when he decided to become involved in politics. Does that make him dishonest? Not in my book. Religious beliefs, or the lack of them, are PERSONAL issues. Does his "conversion" constitute political expediency? Probably, but so what? ALL religions are based on myths and Obama is simply trying to walk a fine line among them.

Maarja Krusten - 8/22/2010

The last sentence,"As it is, too many people just let their moral centers corrode and crumble by their ready acceptance in the world of politics of dirty tactics, lies, and actions which, if they were used against them in their own workplace, they would decry," is addressed to voters, not aimed at Bush.

Maarja Krusten - 8/22/2010

I'm curious why Obama would seem devious to someone simply because he doesn't wear his heart on his sleeve. He attends Christian churches and says he's a Christian. Good enough for me, and I'm a run of the mill, mainline Protestant.

I think there are two bigger problmes here that are more serious than people transferring their own weak relationship to their own forebearers' faith onto others. One has to do with confirmation bias. The drill down numbers show that those who don't like Obama to begin with are more inclined to doubt that he is a Christian. No surprise there. People who didn't like the GOP believed all sorts of lame theories about George W. Bush, too, although they centered on areas other than faith.

Perhaps the doubts also exist primarily among people who greatly value conformity. That not everyone wears one's faith on their sleeve seems hard for some people to accept. If you read about Hillary Clinton (I recommend Carl Bernstein's biography, A Woman in Charge) you see that she seems to have a pretty deep Methodist faith. Yet that's hardly the first thing that the general public thinks about when they discuss her. Her faith largely is private and the depth of it best known to those who really know her. She, like Obama, and the younger Bush, has been vulnerable to being painted cartoonishly with images that fit what makes some critics feel good but wouldn't be recognized by those who know them.

The other problem lies in the seemingly widespread dismissal of "false witness" as something negative or to be pushed back against. John McCain's "no, ma'am, he's not," when a voter expressed concern about Obama being a Muslim in 2008 has not been emulated by radio blowhards, that's for sure. It's hard for me to imagine that everyone who cheers some of the nonsense they hear on talk radio shows or on cable or pass along in emails to family and friends actually believes all of the hyped up blather. Lying, and its cousins, cherry picking data and exaggeration, simply don't seem to be seen as a bad things any more in this "ends justify the means" age, as Timothy Burke pointed out in the essay to which I linked in my first comment. As a person of faith who also believes in old fashioned concepts such as a moral compass, I'd love to see someone tackle condundrum of the greater reliogiostiy in the U.S. than in Europe, and how people reconcile that with their willingness to buy in to lies and exaggeration about people they oppose politically. Augustinian thinkers they're not, obviously.

I've long argued that George W. Bush might have won the popular vote in 2000, had he made a speech about values and condemned troublesome tactics during the South Carolina primary in which his supporters spread lies about McCain and his family (the falsehood that he had an illegitimate black child). Something like the one Obama gave in Philadelphia about race in 2008. As it is, too many people just let their moral centers corrode and crumble by their ready acceptance in the world of politics of dirty tactics, lies, and actions which, if they were used against them in their own workplace, they would decry.

Arnold Shcherban - 8/22/2010

Americans are more susceptible to myths than some other civilized nations, 'cause they are more religious than those others.

Any person who takes faith, not reason and facts, as a basis for his worldview, in general, becomes quite gullible for being misled by much more educated, sophisticated, and driven by special interests political manipulators.
That's why, in this country quite a few myths reign over public opinion all the time, not just when the going gets hard.

Maarja Krusten - 8/22/2010

I also wonder to what extent the degree to which one wraps oneself in myths (negative or positive) stems from comfort or discomfort with ambiguity. One thing I've found in studying presidents is that Gen. Anthony Zinni is right when he says sometimnes leaders have to choose among *all* bad choices or among several good choices. The former especially is difficult yet must be done quite often. Yet a certain segment of the public yearns to see things in black and white. There's a certain comfort in following a narrative in the movie where the hero is introduced as such early on and beats "the bad guys" in the end. It's why some people enjoy movies filled with heroes and villains based on cartoons or video games, with great moral clarity and satisfying outcomes. I prefer films such as The Lives of Others (one of my favorite films of the last few years) or A Beautiful Mind or even The Sixth Sense to all the Batmans and X-Men and such like.

Maarja Krusten - 8/22/2010

Well, we all have too many opinions! ;-) Yeah, MoDo and Sully both are acquired tastes. I don't read everything Sully writes,nor do I agree with it all, but I do like what he says about public discourse and what Conor Friedersdorf wrote about it while sitting in for him last week.

N. Friedman - 8/22/2010


Maureen Dowd is fine. Andrew Sullivan has too many opinions and, as I see it, insufficient consideration and knowledge before he reaches them. I stopped reading him.

Maarja Krusten - 8/22/2010

Rick, why a certain percentage of people believe Obama is Muslim stems from many things. Some are benign and excusable, others not so. However, the answer to why some people deliberately promote that line probably comes from high school. It may stem from the same place that leads junior and senior high school girls to pick on ones outside their circle and call them sluts, regardless of what they really are lie. Many innocent people are hurt that way, sometimes quite badly. (The call them sluts in order to "other" them tactic has been highlighted in some cases of teen suicide.) And boys to cast slurs on other boys based on sexual orientation or prowess, regardless of what they really are like.

To understand some of the name calling and false perceptions and negative myths, I recommend books that some parents have read in order to understand their children's world at school, such as Rosalind Wiseman's Queen Bees and Wannabees. Ms. Wiseman also has one which centers on the more difficult to deal with parents of school age children (Queen Bee Moms and Kingpin Dads), some of whom were mean girls or bullies when they were younger.

Maarja Krusten - 8/22/2010

Hah, here’s Maureen Dowd on the topic in today’s New York Times, “Going Mad in Herds”:

N. mentions an immigrant. I’ve been talking to some people who lived through World War II in Europe about some of this, going back to the Clinton administration. The convos are ongoing, having continued through the Bush administration and now the Obama. They are amazed sometimes at the silly, outlandish a small segment of the public believes or argues about. Andrew Sullivan at The Atlantic, who is more sympathetic to British conservatism than the present U.S. form, has wondered whether some of the childish nonsense we see now in our politics is related to the fact that many Americans never have experienced national tragedies at the level of depth that many Europeans have.

So, yeah, I’m very interested in why some people in the U.S. struggle so after elections their party loses while others cope quite well. Maybe some of it is due to failure to value character building and an odd desire to stay at the junior or senior school level, where bully boys and mean girls tried to define what was acceptable and what was not. Who knows what causes that continued immersion in school hallways even in adulthood? It’s not just poor parenting and inability to learn good life lessons.

Why do some people seem to become unhinged when their party loses a presidential election? (It happens on both ends of the political spectrum.) Some of it could be over investment of one’s sense of individual personhood (hence value) in a political party. Some of it could be being extremely passionate about some issue or other (making “one issue voters” especially vulnerable to anger, anxiety, gloominess, desire for payback, etc.) Some of it could be due to ignorance of how government works and how policies are formulated. And, I have to wonder, whether some of it is due to the age we live in, which on cable and talk radio rewards whining or footstamping or bully and mean girl talk rather than people with what most of us view as successful adults’ life skills. Even historians sometimes fall prey to some of that, following poor role models and falling into high schoolish name calling in what they post here on HNN.

Some of this goes back to Jerry Springer’s heyday, when squabbling and dramaz rather than adult coping skills first were rewarded by viewers. Sometimes, I just feel like I’m viewing one giant episode of Jersey Shore or Real Housewives, whether I’m reading political blogs (or the occassional mud slinging essay here on HNN) or seeing how people interact in message boards. Maybe we just have increasingly poor models for public discourse.

Jim Cullen - 8/21/2010

As I consider Rick's provocative piece and the reaction to it, I surprisingly find myself less bemused than before that people consider Obama a Muslim. There are surely millions of American "Catholics," for example, who have never been regular churchgoers but as children of Catholics still think of themselves that way in some notional sense (as does the Pope, by the way). Or Jews for whom such an identity is at least as much ethnic as it is religious. However fuzzy their thinking may be, it's not quite inconsistent for them to think of Obama as Muslim in this context, especially since his Christianity is not exactly something he wears on his sleeve. In this regard, then, attempts to deny his Muslim identity only makes Obama look worse, not better, because he seems devious. Insofar as there's any way to address issues like the Mosque controversy, they probably have to be framed in Constitutional terms, not religious or as a matter of ethnic sensitivity. It's their right -- Period. Because that's who WE are as Americans.

N. Friedman - 8/20/2010

Further, regarding the Gates matter. While the President made a serious political mistake - as you correctly note -, which showed him to the public to be out of touch with average people, this was something very different than the incorrect perception that he is a Muslim. In fact, Obama simply did something amazingly stupid when he accused an expert on race relations of racism without checking out carefully the policeman's reputation.

Returning to you main point.

I know someone who, amazingly, thinks that Obama is a Muslim. The man, in this case, is not a dumbo or misinformed. He is an immigrant from the USSR and, in fact, won the top award for a high school physics student in his Soviet Republic - no small feat, by the way. He went to Moscow State University.

His confused thought is based, I think, more on limpieza de sangre than on any ordinary misunderstanding. On his view - which he has stated without batting an eye -, Obama was born a Muslim and went to an Islamic school. Hence, even if Obama declared in public that God is not Allah and Mohammad is not God's Prophet, Obama will remain, deep down, Muslim because that is what his learned sympathies are.

I think this gentleman should read Professor Netanyahu's seminal work on the mischief caused by the limpieza de sangre doctrine.

N. Friedman - 8/20/2010

Mr. Shenkman,

You have written an interesting article. I have followed this issue sporadically and you have certainly tapped into a few issues - the strongest being the underlying undercurrent which pushes the issue.

An interesting article was brought to my attention today, which argues something a bit different than you. The article's premise is that the average people do not follow the news closely enough to observe nuances that distinguish family background from personal belief. On his telling, Obama has made the problem worse by both playing up and playing down his background, his name, etc., etc., all depending on the circumstances.

A second point: your discussion about the Gates affair is not well taken. The policeman, an expert, as it turns out, on the role of race in policing - he taught a course on the subject to police -, most likely intentionally overreacted in order to make a charge of racism impossible to stick. That was the whole point, after observing Mr. Gates' reaction to his presence, of bringing in another cop to observe the incident and thereafter making the arrest. And, that is why he was vindicated on the racism charge by the Cambridge PD - which was his concern from the moment he sized up Mr. Gates' reaction to his presence in Mr. Gates' house. Which is to say, the policeman followed the book solution to the problem - a book he knew by heart.

Maarja Krusten - 8/20/2010

Rick, I believe there are many reasons why people in the U.S. (and other nations) are especially susceptible to myths when times are bad. Uncertainty and anxiety lead some people to reach out for things to comfort them. Timothy Burke has an interesting essay up at Easily Distracted for what the dismissal of evidence means in the classroom. See “Evidence is Old Fashioned?” at

I’ve been thinking about the question of myths for some time, going back to the Clinton administration. If the myths are positive and ego bolstering (“we’re a resilient, can-do nation, we can get through hard times”), their effect may be good or innocuous in the short term. (An overly Pollyanish view, if it crashes, can lead to great cynicism, however.) Good myths can bond people together.

If they are negative and ego bolstering (“I can only be somebody if I consider you to be nobody”), their effect is corrosive. Overall, negative myths do more damage than mildly positive but slightly unrealistic ones because deep down, some people know they are clinging to something which is morally corrosive, even wrong, but can’t help themselves. To shed the myth requires acknowledgment of one’s own weakness, and if that isn’t possible, the person just goes into a deeper moral and ethical spiral. Which, of course, requires reaching out for more and more myths to bolster himself and make himself feel “good.” Which creates more and more anger and rage.

The problem now is that too many pundits play to negative myths because that’s where the ratings and high page views are. Deep down, some of them have to know some of what they are saying is nonsense. Somehow, they manage to suppress that. Moral relativism rules. As someone once commented here on HNN a few years, the stand up guy largely has disappeared from the stage in America. Because many pundits (print, talk radio, cable) act as if “doing the right thing” doesn’t matter, they’re setting an extremely poor and corrosive example. (“Doing the right thing” sounds awfully quaint these days, unfortunately.) And ultimately, one which only appeals to existing members of the tribe (be it political, professional, or whatever). In too many areas, public discourse has become hopelessly unmanly, if one associates manliness with the ability to push back and stand on principle (saying “No, ma’am, he’s not” in the face of lies and myths), as I do.

I believe a lot of Americans are at heart good people who are reasonable and reachable, even if their views differ somewhat. Conor Friedersdorf, sitting in for Andrew Sullivan at The Daily Dish, has a very interesting series of essays about talk radio this week. See
http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2010/08/in-defense-of-talk-radio-listeners.html I've long wondered whether people on message boards and social media sites, such as Facebook, posture and bluster to an extent that they wouldn't when dealing with people face to face. Be sure to read Fridersdorf's link at
to see what happened when he reached out to one of them.