May his tribe increase

I have always viewed Colin Powell with discomfort and mistrust for his role in the Bush administration’s war on Iraq. Yet this weekend, as he endorsed Obama, he redeemed himself to a great extent in my eyes; less for his endorsement – because I’m not sure how much that matters in terms of actual votes, though it is a significant nail in the Republican intellectual coffin – but much more for this statement:

I’m also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the party say. And it is permitted to be said such things as, “Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.”

Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim; he’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian.

But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America.

Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president?

Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, “He’s a Muslim and he might be associated terrorists.” This is not the way we should be doing it in America.

I feel strongly about this particular point because of a picture I saw in a magazine. It was a photo essay about troops who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay was of a mother in Arlington Cemetery, and she had her head on the headstone of her son’s grave. And as the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone. And it gave his awards — Purple Heart, Bronze Star — showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death. He was 20 years old.

And then, at the very top of the headstone, it didn’t have a Christian cross; it didn’t have the Star of David; it had crescent and a star of the Islamic faith. And his name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, and he was an American. He was born in New Jersey. He was 14 years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he can go serve his country, and he gave his life.

Over this troubling US Presidential process, one of the most troubling moments for me was when a supporter of McCain’s said to him at a rally that Obama was Arab, and his response was “No ma’am… he’s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.” Add to that the sleight of a campaign that conflates racism with Islamophobia and uses Hussein, Obama’s middle name, as shorthand for suspecting all his credentials.

Almost as problematic as the Republican campaign on this, has been the Democrats’ response, or lack thereof. Less appalling in degree from McCain’s instinctual ‘No, Ma’am, he’s a decent family man’ in his rebuttal to the Arab comment, it corrects the premise that Obama is Muslim, because his professed faith is Christian, but it never goes beyond to address this question: why should it matter if he was Arab and/or Muslim? Can’t Arabs be decent family men, and American Muslims aspire to be Presidents of the US? As Naomi Klein says:

What is disturbing about the campaign’s response is that it leaves unchallenged the disgraceful and racist premise behind the entire “Muslim smear”: that being Muslim is de facto a source of shame.

Ditto being Arab. Obviously, it will take many geography and history lessons from Joe Biden to clarify that ‘Arab’ and ‘Muslim’ are not necessarily the same identities.

So for an Indian sitting in America, struggling with anger over remarks of this kind, as well as struggling with anger and despair over what’s going on back home – the persecution of Christians in Orissa and Karnataka, the continued persecution of Muslims, a growing fundamentalism across communities and caste and class violence in general – I have to say Colin Powell’s comment gives some cheer in uncheerful times. It also reminds me that with all my despair over violence in India, at the time I left last year, it had a Sikh Prime Minister, a Muslim President, and a Catholic and a Hindu as leaders of the two biggest political parties, besides an atheist as the Speaker of the House. We are not perfect in any way (very far from it), but there is a history of syncretism in the sub-continent that has been, and should continue to be, a strength we draw upon and expand, rather than abuse. Syncretic, plural cultures that have had some inspiration from the Arab world so vilified in certain American conversations today.

Like comfort food, I often return to simpler – and sometimes, more profound – truths of childhood. One particular poem I remember clearly encountering as a ten year old, was Leigh Hunt’s encomium to the sufi saint Ibrahim Bin Adham, or Abou Ben Adhem, in which ‘exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold’. Let’s hope that same exceeding peace prevails amongst others in the US like Colin Powell, who have the courage, if somewhat belatedly, to seek justice beyond popularity.