Obama's Muslim Childhood
by Daniel Pipes
Translations of this item:
Barack Obama has come out swinging against his Republican rival, sponsoring television advertisements that ask, "What is Mitt Romney hiding?" The allusion is to such relatively minor matters as Romney's prior tax returns, the date he stopped working for Bain Capital, and the non-public records from his service heading the Salt Lake City Olympics and as governor of Massachusetts. Obama defended his demands that Romney release more information about himself, declaring in Aug. 2012 that "The American people have assumed that if you want to be president of the United States that your life's an open book when it comes to things like your finances." Liberals like Paul Krugman of the New York Times enthusiastically endorse this focus on Mitt Romney's personal history.
If Obama and his supporters wish to focus on biography, of course, this is a game two can play. Already, the temperate, mild-mannered Romney criticized Obama's reelection campaign as "based on falsehood and dishonesty" and a television ad went further, asserting that Obama "doesn't tell the truth."
Into this larger pattern of mendacity about his past life arises the question of Obama's discussion of his faith, perhaps the most singular and outrageous of his lies.
Asked about the religion of his childhood and youth, Obama offers contradictory answers. He finessed a Mar. 2004 question, "Have you always been a Christian?" by replying: "I was raised more by my mother and my mother was Christian." But in Dec. 2007 he belatedly decided to give a straight answer: "My mother was a Christian from Kansas. … I was raised by my mother. So, I've always been a Christian." In Feb. 2009, however, he offered a completely different account:
He further elaborated this answer in Sept. 2010, saying: "I came to my Christian faith later in life."
Which is it? Has Obama "always been a Christian" or did he "become a Christian" after college? Self-contradiction on so fundamental a matter of identity, when added to the general questioning about the accuracy of his autobiography, raises questions about veracity; would someone telling the truth say such varied and opposite things about himself? Inconsistency is typical of fabrication: when making things up, it's hard to stick with the same story. Obama appears to be hiding something. Was he the areligious child of irreligious parents? Or was he always a Christian? A Muslim? Or was he, in fact, something of his own creation – a Christian/Muslim?
Obama provides some information on his Islamic background in his two books, Dreams and The Audacity of Hope (2006). In 2007, when Hillary Clinton was still the favored Democratic candidate for president, a number of reporters dug up information about Obama's time in Indonesia. Obama's statements as president have provided important insights into his mentality. The major biographies of Obama, devote little attention to this topic, both the friendly ones (such as those by David Maraniss, David Mendell, and David Remnick) and the hostile ones (such as by Jack Cashill, Jerome R. Corsi, Dinish D'Souza, Aaron Klein, Edward Klein, and Stanley Kurtz).
I shall establish his having been born and raised a Muslim, provide confirming evidence from recent years, survey the perceptions of him as a Muslim, and place this deception in the larger context of Obama's autobiographical fictions.
"I Have Never Been a Muslim"
Obama readily acknowledges that his paternal grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, converted to Islam. Indeed, Dreams (p. 407) contains a long quote from his paternal grandmother explaining the grandfather's reasons for doing so: Christianity's ways appeared to be "foolish sentiment" to him, "something to comfort women," and so he converted to Islam, thinking "its practices conformed more closely to his beliefs" (p. 104). Obama readily told this to all comers: when asked by a barber (p. 149), "You a Muslim?" for example, he replied, "Grandfather was."
Obama presents his parents and stepfather as non-religious. He notes (in Audacity, pp. 204-05), that his "father had been raised a Muslim" but was a "confirmed atheist" by the time he met Barack's mother, who in turn "professed secularism." His stepfather, Lolo Soetoro, "like most Indonesians, was raised a Muslim," though a non-practicing, syncretic one who (Dreams, p. 37) "followed a brand of Islam that could make room for the remnants of more ancient animist and Hindu faiths."
As for himself, Obama acknowledges numerous connections to Islam but denies being a Muslim. "The only connection I've had to Islam is that my grandfather on my father's side came from that country," he declared in Dec. 2007. "But I've never practiced Islam. … For a while, I lived in Indonesia because my mother was teaching there. And that's a Muslim country. And I went to school. But I didn't practice." Likewise, he said in Feb. 2008: "I have never been a Muslim. … other than my name and the fact that I lived in a populous Muslim country for 4 years when I was a child I have very little connection to the Islamic religion." Note his unequivocal statement here: "I have never been a Muslim." Under the headline, "Barack Obama Is Not and Has Never Been a Muslim," Obama's first presidential campaign website carried an even more emphatic statement in Nov. 2007, stating that "Obama never prayed in a mosque. He has never been a Muslim, was not raised a Muslim, and is a committed Christian."
"Barry Was Muslim"
But many pieces of evidence argue for Obama having been born and raised a Muslim:
(1) Islam is a patrilineal religion: In Islam, the father passes his faith to the children; and when a Muslim male has children with a non-Muslim female, Islam considers the children Muslim. Obama's grandfather and father having been Muslims – the extent of their piety matters not at all – means that, in Muslim eyes, Barack was born a Muslim.
(2) Arabic forenames based on the H-S-N trilateral root: All such names (Husayn or Hussein, Hasan, Hassân, Hassanein, Ahsan, and others) are exclusively bestowed on Muslim babies. (The same goes for names based on the H-M-D root.) Obama's middle name, Hussein, explicitly proclaims him a born Muslim.
(4) Registered as Muslim at SD Besuki: Although Besuki (also known as SDN 1 Menteng) is a public school, Obama curiously refers to it in Audacity (p. 154) as "the Muslim school" he attended in Jakarta. Its records have not survived but several journalists (Haroon Siddiqui of the Toronto Star, Paul Watson of the Los Angeles Times, David Maraniss of the Washington Post) have all confirmed that there too, he was registered as a Muslim.
(5) Islamic class at SD Besuki: Obama mentions (Audacity, p. 154) that at Besuki, "the teacher wrote to tell my mother that I made faces during Koranic studies." Only Muslim students attended the weekly two-hour Koran class, Watson reports:
Andrew Higgins of the Washington Post quotes Rully Dasaad, a former classmate, saying that Obama horsed around in class and, during readings of the Koran, got "laughed at because of his funny pronunciation." Maraniss learned that the class included not only studying "how to pray and how to read the Koran," but also actually praying in the Friday communal service right on the school grounds.
(6) Mosque attendance: Maya Soetoro-Ng, Obama's younger half-sister, said her father (namely, Barack's stepfather) attended the mosque "for big communal events," Barker found that "Obama occasionally followed his stepfather to the mosque for Friday prayers." Watson reports:
(7) Muslim clothing: Adi recalls about Obama, "I remember him wearing a sarong." Likewise, Maraniss found not only that "His classmates recalled that Barry wore a sarong" but written exchanges indicating that he continued to wear this garment in the United States. This fact has religious implications because, in Indonesian culture, only Muslims wear sarongs.
(8) Piety: Obama says that in Indonesia, he "didn't practice [Islam]," an assertion that inadvertently acknowledges his Muslim identity by implying he was a non-observant Muslim. But several of those who knew him contradict this recollection. Rony Amir describes Obama as "previously quite religious in Islam." A former teacher, Tine Hahiyary, quoted in the Kaltim Post, says the future president took part in advanced Islamic religious lessons: "I remember that he had studied mengaji." In the context of Southeast Asian Islam, mengaji Quran means to recite the Koran in Arabic, a difficult task denoting advanced study.
In summary, the record points to Obama having been born a Muslim to a non-practicing Muslim father and having lived for four years in a fully Muslim milieu under the auspices of his Muslim Indonesian stepfather. For these reasons, those who knew Obama in Indonesia considered him a Muslim.
"My Muslim Faith"
In addition, several statements by Obama in recent years point to his Muslim childhood.
(1) Robert Gibbs, campaign communications director for Obama's first presidential race, asserted in Jan. 2007: "Senator Obama has never been a Muslim, was not raised a Muslim, and is a committed Christian who attends the United Church of Christ in Chicago." But he backtracked in Mar. 2007, asserting that "Obama has never been a practicing Muslim." By focusing on the practice as a child, the campaign is raising a non-issue, for Muslims (like Jews) do not consider practice central to religious identity. Gibbs added, according to a paraphrase by Watson, that "as a child, Obama had spent time in the neighborhood's Islamic center." Clearly, "the neighborhood's Islamic center" is a euphemism for "mosque"; spending time there again points to Obama's being a Muslim.
(2) He may have made faces and horsed around in Koran class but Obama learned how to pray the salat in religion class; his former teacher at Besuki, Effendi, recalls that he would "join the other pupils for Muslim prayers." Praying the salat in of itself made Obama a Muslim. Furthermore, he still proudly retains knowledge from that long-ago class: in March 2007, Nicholas D. Kristof of the New York Times, witnessed as Obama "recalled the opening lines of the Arabic call to prayer, reciting them [to Kristof] with a first-rate accent." Obama recited not the salat itself but the adhan, the call to prayer (typically chanted from minarets). The second and third lines of the adhan constitute the Islamic declaration of faith, the shahada, whose very utterance makes one a Muslim. The full adhan in its Sunni iteration (skipping the repetitions) goes as follows:
In the eyes of Muslims, reciting the adhan in class in 1970 made Obama a Muslim then – and doing so again for a journalist in 2007 once again made Obama a Muslim.
(3) In a conversation with George Stephanopoulos in September 2008, Obama spoke of "my Muslim faith," only changing that to "my Christian faith" after Stephanopoulos interrupted and corrected him. No one could blurt out "my Muslim faith" unless some basis existed for such a mistake.
(4) When addressing Muslim audiences, Obama uses specifically Muslim phrases that recall his Muslim identity. He addressed audiences both in Cairo (in June 2009) and Jakarta (in Nov. 2010) with "as-salaamu alaykum," a greeting that he, who went to Koran class, knows is reserved for one Muslim addressing another. In Cairo, he also deployed several other pious terms that signal to Muslims he is one of them:
Obama's saying "Peace be upon them" has other implications beyond being a purely Islamic turn of phrase never employed by Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians. First, it contradicts what a self-professed Christian believes because it implies that Jesus, like Moses and Muhammad, is dead; Christian theology holds him to have been resurrected, living, and the immortal Son of God. Second, including Muhammad in this blessing implies reverence for him, something as outlandish as a Jew talking about Jesus Christ. Third, a Christian would more naturally seek peace from Jesus rather than wish peace on him.
(5) Obama's overblown and inaccurate description of Islam in the United States smacks of an Islamist mentality. He drastically overestimates both the number and the role of Muslims in the United States, announcing in June 2009 that "if you actually took the number of Muslims Americans, we'd be one of the largest Muslim countries in the world." (Hardly: according to one listing of Muslim populations, the United States, with about 2.5 million Muslims, ranks about 47th largest.) Three days later, he gave a bloated estimate of "nearly 7 million American Muslims in our country today" and bizarrely announced that "Islam has always been a part of America's story. … since our founding, American Muslims have enriched the United States." Obama also announced the dubious fact, in Apr. 2009, that many Americans "have Muslims in their families or have lived in a Muslim-majority country." When ordering religious communities in the United States, Obama always gives first place to Christians but second place varies between Jews and Muslims, most notably in his Jan. 2009 inaugural speech: "The United States is a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and non-believers." Obama so wildly overestimates the Muslim role in American life that they suggest an Islamic supremacist mentality specific to someone coming from a Muslim background.
In the aggregate, these statements confirm the evidence from Obama's childhood that he was born and raised a Muslim.
"My Whole Family Was Muslim"
Several individuals who know Obama well perceive him as Muslim. Most remarkably, his half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, has stated: "My whole family was Muslim." Her whole family, obviously, includes her half-brother Barack.
In June 2006, Obama related how, after a long religious evolution, he "was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ on 95th Street in the Southside of Chicago one day and affirm my Christian faith" with an altar call. But when his pastor at Trinity United, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, was asked (by Edward Klein, The Amateur, p. 40), "Did you convert Obama from Islam to Christianity?" whether out of ignorance or discretion, Wright finessed the question, replying enigmatically: "That's hard to tell." Note his not rejecting out of hand the idea that Obama had been a Muslim.
Barack's 30-year-old half-brother who met him twice, George Hussein Onyango Obama, told an interviewer in March 2009 that "He may be behaving differently due to the position he is in, but on the inside Barack Obama is Muslim."
"His Middle Name Is Hussein"
Muslims cannot shake the sense that, under his proclaimed Christian identity, Obama truly is one of them.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the prime minister of Turkey, has referred to Hussein as a "Muslim" name. Muslim discussions of Obama sometimes mention his middle name as a code, with no further comment needed. A conversation in Beirut, quoted in the Christian Science Monitor, captures the puzzlement. "He has to be good for Arabs because he is a Muslim," observed a grocer. "He's not a Muslim, he's a Christian," replied a customer. No, said the grocer, "He can't be a Christian. His middle name is Hussein." The name is proof positive.
By way of explanation, Hasan mentions Obama's middle name. She concludes: "Most of the Muslims I know (me included) can't seem to accept that Obama is not Muslim."
If Muslims get these vibes, not surprisingly, so does the American public. Five polls in 2008-09 by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press asking "Do you happen to know what Barack Obama's religion is?" found a consistent 11-12 percent of registered American voters averring that he's really a Muslim, with much larger percentages among Republicans and Evangelicals. This number increased to 18 percent in an Aug. 2010 Pew survey. A March 2012 poll found about half the likely Republican voters in both Alabama and Mississippi seeing Obama as a Muslim. Pew's June-July 2012 survey found that 17 percent saying Obama is a Muslim and 31 percent not knowing his religion, with just 49 percent identifying him as a Christian. This points to an even split between those who say Obama is a Christian and those who do not.
That those who see him as Muslim also overwhelmingly disapprove of his job performance points to a correlation in their minds between Muslim identity and a failed presidency. That such a substantial portion of the public persists in this view points to a bedrock of reluctance to take Obama at his word about being a Christian. This in turn reflects the widespread sense that Obama has played fast and loose with his biography.
"He Was Interested in Islam"
While attending school in Indonesia, Obama famously attended Koranic class; less known, as he recalled in Mar. 2004, was his "studying the Bible and catechisms" at the Asisi school. As each of these classes were intended just for believers, attending both was irregular. Several of his former teachers there confirm Obama's recollection. Here are three of them on this topic:
This double religiosity, admittedly, is being discussed at a time when Obama is an international personality and when the nature of his religious affiliation had taken on political overtones; still, that three figures from his Indonesian past independently made this same point is striking and points to the complexity of Barack Obama's personal development. They also raise the inconclusive but intriguing possibility that Obama, even at the tender age of six through ten, sought to combine his maternal and paternal religions into a personal syncretic whole, presenting himself as both Christian and Muslim. In subtle ways, he still does just that.
Discovering the Truth
In conclusion, available evidence suggests that Obama was born and raised a Muslim and retained a Muslim identity until his late 20s. Child to a line of Muslim males, given a Muslim name, registered as a Muslim in two Indonesian schools, he read Koran in religion class, he still recites the Islamic declaration of faith, and he speaks to Muslim audiences like a fellow believer. Between his non-practicing Muslim father, his Muslim stepfather, and his four years of living in a Muslim milieu, he was both seen by others and saw himself as a Muslim.
This is not to say that he was a practicing Muslim or that he remains a Muslim today, much less an Islamist, nor that his Muslim background significantly influences his political outlook (which, in fact, is typical of an American leftist). Nor is there a problem about his converting from Islam to Christianity. The issue is Obama's having specifically and repeatedly lied about his Muslim identity. More than any other single deception, Obama's treatment of his own religious background exposes his moral failings.
Questions about Obama's Truthfulness
Yet, these failings remain largely unknown to the American electorate. Consider the contrast of his case and that of James Frey, the author of A Million Little Pieces. Both Frey and Obama wrote inaccurate memoirs that Oprah Winfrey endorsed and which rose to #1 on the non-fiction bestseller list. When Frey's literary deceptions about his own drug taking and criminality became apparent, Winfrey tore viciously into him, a library reclassified his book as fiction, and the publisher offered a refund to customers who felt deceived.
In contrast, Obama's falsehoods are blithely excused; Arnold Rampersad, professor of English at Stanford University who teaches autobiography, admiringly called Dreams "so full of clever tricks—inventions for literary effect—that I was taken aback, even astonished. But make no mistake, these are simply the tricks that art trades in, and out of these tricks is supposed to come our realization of truth." Gerald Early, professor of English literature and African-American studies at Washington University in St. Louis, goes further: "It really doesn't matter if he made up stuff. … I don't think it much matters whether Barack Obama has told the absolute truth in Dreams From My Father. What's important is how he wanted to construct his life."
How odd that a lowlife's story about his sordid activities inspires high moral standards while the U.S. president's autobiography gets a pass. Tricky Dick, move over for Bogus Barry.
Sep. 14, 2012 update: A few notes on what I did not include in the above analysis:
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