Obama and the Kevin Bacon Game of Persecuting Muslims
By: Omid Safi
Monday August 11, 2008
The Obama Campaign, at it's best, has not been about Obama.
It's been about a mass movement, a coming together of long time activists and newcomers, who have dared to restore hope to politics, to dream that there is a place in the arena of politics for the good. That's what makes the character assassination and subsequent resignation of Mazen Asbahi from the Obama Campaign so hard to take, so bitter. The lamentation has been heard from many of the leading voices in both the Muslim and the Arab community. (See here and here and here.) As it had been reported on this blog, Asbahi had been appointed by the Obama campaign as the designated contact with both the Arab and the Muslim populations, two distinct yet overlapping communities who have bore the brunt of post-9/11 xenophobia. It was a long-overdue yet important step to mirror earlier connections and indeed commitments from the Obama campaign to Jewish, Catholic, and evangelical communities.
Yet almost as soon as this began, it was over. Asbahi was forced to resign not due to anything he had done, not due to anything he had said, but because of an immediate and deliberate attack on him started by rightwing bloggers and picked up by the Wall Street Journal. At the center of their charge, this accusation: for a period of about two weeks Asbahi served on the board of a charity, Allied Assets Advisors Fund, that also featured an imam of a Chicago mosque who was connected to someone who may have been connected to someone who might have possibly been connected to... you get the picture. The legal cases implicated in the above ended in a mistrial. Yet apparently we are no longer in the realm of innocent until proven guilty. We're no longer in the realm of fact, certainty, or law. It is the absurdity of playing the "Kevin Bacon" game with the wellbeing and representation of persecuted communities like Arab-Americans and Muslim Americans.
Any political campaign that would want to find a legitimate community contact person would want to find someone like Asbahi, someone who is rooted in a community, and is well-connected. And by the logic of the "Six Degrees" game made famous through the actor Kevin Bacon, yes, every Muslim can be tied to another Muslim who can be tied to another Muslim who can be tied to... someone found not guilty of a crime. By that logic, can we also implicate Karen Hughes, who spoke before ISNA? How about Condi Rice who met with ISNA leadership? And how about John McCain's connections to John Hagee, of the maniacal "Christians United for Israel", with its support of right-wing Jewish settlers? Or to Rod Parsley, who talks about eradicating Islam? It is not hard to play Kevin Bacon, and end up with not suspected evil, but actual evil. Is this how we want to live?
The goal of the campaigns against Muslims and Arab-Americans is much more sinister. It is no less than the disenfranchisement and marginalization of Muslims and Arab-Americans from the political arena. The blog that led the charge against Asbahi also identifies other potentially "Islamist" organizations:
* The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA)
* The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR)
* The Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC)
* The Muslim Student Association (MSA)
* The International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT)
In other words, every single significant group representing Muslims in America. All are suspect, based on this paranoid criteria.
The right-wing bloggers that targeted Asbahi also insinuated that since he had served in a leadership position in the Muslim Students Association, somehow he was a secret Salafi-Wahhabi. This is part of the problem of our age, where it is sufficient to repeat two words in the same sentence in lieu of proving a link. Had they actually studied Asbahi's faith, words, and deeds, they would have seen him a part of the subtle and beautiful community of the Nawawi Foundation, one of the leading lights of the American Muslim community. Yet we have seen how simply putting Iraq and 9/11 in the same sentence is sufficient to persuade significant portions of the American public. And now we have another casualty in this game of insinuation.
The real casualty is that these types of episodes are precisely what the Muslim-haters like Daniel Pipes count on, with their public and stated agenda of fighting against the participation of Muslims in civic life, a goal of engagement that Muslims like all other citizens re entitled to. This is their stated goal, after all: "[The] increased stature, and affluence, and enfranchisement of American Muslims...will present true dangers to American Jews." The goal is to make sure that other Muslim activists, leaders, public intellectuals, and citizens retreat from the public space into a self-exile.
We refuse to be part of this campaign of fear-mongering. To the right-wing bloggers and their emissaries of hate, we have to respond by saying that we will meet your hate with soul force, your ignorance with a will to educate, and your xenophobia with a capacity to love. And yet we cannot do it alone. Here the Arab-American and Muslim-American community is in need of help, of alliance, of networking with others committed to the dignity of all, to make sure that there are no more innocents thrown under the bus. And yes, even the most ardent supporters of Obama need to hold the Obama campaign responsible and ask that we go not gently into this abyss of fear-mongering.
The casualty is not just Mazen Asbahi and the next Mazen Asbahi.
The real casualty is the dream where politics can be an arena for the good.
The Almighty Allah says,
"When a servant thinks of Me, I am near.
When he invokes Me, I am with him.
If he reflects on Me in secret, I reply in secret,
And if he acknowledges Me in an assembly,
I acknowledge him in a far superior assembly."
- Prophet Muhammad (SAW), as reptd by Abu Huraira