Does It Matter?

Does It Matter?


Muslim-Americans voted overwhelmingly in favor of President Barack Obama in 2008, and like many pro-Obama constituencies, were subsequently disappointed in his performance. Obama, from their perspective, certainly began his term on the right note, signing executive orders committing the United States to shutting down the infamous detention center at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and prohibiting the use of Bush-era “enhanced interrogation” techniques (commonly known as torture), and visiting Cairo, where he delivered a speech committing the United States to pursuing a new policy toward the Muslim world and achieving peace in the Middle East.[1] But Muslim-Americans did not support Obama solely for his potential “Muslim-friendly” policies; he also promised general policy changes ­– such as universal health care and a fairer system of taxation – that a substantial number of Muslim-Americans embraced. Most important, many people believed that Obama would transform the tone of political discourse in the United States, putting an end to the racially and religiously charged rhetoric of the Republican Party that had dominated the United States in the years after 9/11, making it more inclusive and rational.        To be fair, President Obama’s failure to deliver on his promises (with the exception of health care) was largely the fault of a fanatical and even racist opposition that refused to accord him any legitimacy, accusing him of being a socialist, a Muslim and, most remarkably, of having been born overseas. In addition, Obama took office in the midst of the nation’s worst economic crisis since the 1930s, which understandably became the president’s No. 1 priority. But Obama, despite repeated opportunities to display mettle in the face of Republican obduracy across a range of policies, regularly allowed the most extreme voices in the Republican Party to exercise an effective veto over his policies. In the case of his signature success, health care reform, Obama made substantial concessions even before negotiations began, not even proposing a “public option” as part of the reforms.

With respect to more narrowly “Muslim” issues, President Obama quickly beat a hasty, and a not too dignified, retreat. One stark example was his plan to try al-Qaida leaders and 9/11 planners such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi bin al-Shibh in the Southern District Court of New York. When he saw that the plan aroused fierce opposition from the right, he quickly reversed course and decided to have them tried before military tribunals. And while many Muslim-Americans were delighted when they heard the president speak of a new era in U.S.-Muslim world relations, the right in the United States took this as further evidence that Obama was a secret Muslim who was sympathetic to America’s enemies. Perhaps after seeing the backlash his outreach to the Muslim world had generated domestically, Obama chose not to follow up his speech with any concrete changes in U.S. policy in the Muslim world. Obama did attempt to stop ongoing construction of illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank, but he was thwarted by the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his politically powerful allies in the United States. Obama appears to have drawn the lesson from that failed attempt that it is far more politic, domestically at least, to appease Israel than to challenge it, no matter how destructive Israel’s policies are to peace prospects or to larger U.S. interests. As a result, Obama adopted a policy that applies minimal pressure on Israel, and more dangerously, delegates U.S. decision-making on Iran to Israel. Because of his failure to stand up to Netanyahu, Obama has paved the way for war against Iran sometime after the 2012 election, regardless of which presidential candidate wins. A war would certainly lead to a further degradation of the rights of Muslim-Americans.

One question remains. Why did President Obama promise so much and deliver so little in the face of Republican fanaticism? The answer, I believe, has to do with the structure of the United States government, itself a product of the U.S. Constitution’s idiosyncratic (and now thoroughly dated) combination of bicameralism and federalism.[2] The answer also lies in this particular historical moment, with the U.S. a nation that is more deeply divided, culturally and politically, than in any period of its history since the Civil War. The constitutional division of government combined with the nation’s deep ideological divisions means that entrenched special-interest groups are in a position effectively to veto any attempts to depart from the status quo unless a broad coalition can be assembled to confront them.

The difficulty of confronting status quo powers is compounded by the president’s own identity. His racial ambiguity and his father’s religion are a deep source of opposition, if not resentment, among large sectors of the American public, which produces a visceral, almost racist, rejection of almost any policy he proposes. In addition, Obama’s own personality makes him seek reconciliation within what is, ultimately, a purely American conception of community, one that is determined more by history and culture, rather than the public values enshrined in the Constitution itself. Obama’s failures, then, should not be written off as simple evidence of his hypocrisy; rather, they should be understood within the context of his own complex position as a racially and religiously ambiguous leader who wishes, above all, to be recognized as an American leader, not simply a minority leader. This means that while Obama may desire transformational change – and indeed, this is one reason so many Americans find him threatening – he is also too cautious, risk-averse, and even too eager, to gain the approval of the imagined community of America, to adopt policies that would actually promote transformative change.

In many ways, then, the structural and cultural obstacles that have limited President Obama’s ability to deliver transformational change are precisely those that prevent Muslim-Americans from exercising a greater influence on American public life. The choices Obama faces are exactly those that Muslim-Americans face: Should we defer the possibility of change by removing from our agenda issues that we care deeply about and that are least likely to gain acceptance from a majority of Americans who are indifferent to them? Or do we ignore retail politics in favor of another kind of political, social and cultural engagement with America? Whatever path Muslim-Americans choose, President Obama has abandoned any attempt to achieve the goals that made him so attractive to Muslim-Americans four years ago. Thus, it is clear that whoever wins the 2012 presidential election, current U.S. policies of most concern to Muslim-Americans – those relating to foreign policy, national security and civil rights – will not change. In fact, there is a high risk that these policies will become worse.

Red States, Blue States, and the Resilience of the Status Quo in American Political Life

The race between President Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, is likely to be much closer than the 2008 election, which Obama won relatively easily. Obama’s decisive victory over Senator John McCain in the Electoral College (Obama’s 365 to McCain’s 173), however, masked a much more competitive popular vote, where Obama received only about 54 percent of the votes. Nevertheless, Obama’s eight-point margin of victory in the popular vote was equal to, or exceeded the margin of victory enjoyed by all incoming presidents since President Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory over Walter Mondale in 1984, when Reagan received 58 percent of the popular vote.

In 2008, Democratic candidates also proved successful in congressional elections. They gained 21 seats in the House of Representatives, giving them a total of 257 seats in the House compared with 178 for the Republicans. Democratic candidates for the House garnered a total of 65.2 million votes (53.2 percent of all votes cast) compared with 52.1 million votes (42.5 percent) for Republican candidates. Democrats also dominated the Senate elections, increasing their representation in the upper house by eight, giving them a total of 57 senators out of 100. Democratic candidates for the Senate received almost 34 million votes (51.3 percent) compared with a little more than 30 million votes (45.4 percent) for Republican candidates.

Given the broad Democratic triumph in 2008, some argued that Obama had received a sweeping mandate for change comparable to that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932, when the Democrats swept the presidential and congressional elections, ushering in the era of the New Deal. In fact, the Democratic triumph in the early ’30s was substantially greater than in 2008: Democrats gained 97 seats in the House, establishing a three-fourths majority, and in the Senate, Democrats ended up with 59 of the 96 senate seats. (Hawaii and Alaska were not states at that time.)

President Obama’s triumph in 2008 may not have been as broad as FDR’s in 1932, or as large in terms of popular vote as President Reagan’s in 1984. But Obama could rightfully claim a mandate for meaningful change in U.S. policy across a range of fronts, both domestic and foreign. Nevertheless, with the exception of health care reform, Obama has failed in executing on his agenda of change. The most important reason for his failures is the dysfunction of the legislative branch. Congress’s current state of paralysis is a result of many factors: the bicameral system; the voting rules in the Senate; equal representation of the states in the Senate without regard to their population; and new techniques of gerrymandering House districts to make them more politically homogenous and potentially more politically extreme, in comparison to the national political community.

For example, when Obama succeeded in passing his 2009 economic stimulus bill, not one Republican member of the House of Representatives voted for it, and only three Republican senators supported the bill.[3] His health care reform bill likewise passed without any Republican support in the Senate and with just one Republican vote in the House,[4] despite the fact that a substantial majority of Americans supported increased government involvement in the health care system, including the expansion of Medicare or some other government-sponsored health insurance plan.[5] According to a New York Times/CBS News poll in 2009, for example, 72 percent of Americans supported a government-administered insurance plan.

How do these three factors – bicameralism, federalism and gerrymandering – combine to make it so difficult to pass legislation, even in cases where the proposed legislation enjoys majority public support? First, the voting rules of the Senate, in particular the right to filibuster, makes it possible for a determined minority – so long as it enjoys the support of 40 senators – to prevent a bill from reaching the floor for a vote. Second, the principles of federalism enshrined in the Constitution guarantee each state two representatives in the Senate, regardless of population. Idaho, with 1.6 million residents, has the same representation as California, with a population of 37.2 million. This would not be a problem if the various states had similar demographic profiles, but this is not the case: 60 percent of Californians, for example, are racial minorities, compared with only 16 percent of Idaho citizens. (At a national level, whites represent approximately 78 percent of the total U.S. population.)[6] The fact that so many states have demographic characteristics so sharply divergent from the national average results in political choices that are sharply skewed from average political preferences. This problem of unrepresentativeness is also evident in elections for the House of Representatives, where sophisticated gerrymandering techniques have produced districts with demographic profiles intended to ensure “safe” Democratic or Republican seats. As a result, only a relative handful of congressional seats out of 435 are competitive in any given year.

Political scientists who study voting behavior say politicians should compete to gain the support of the “median voter,” i.e. that voter whose preferences are consistent with the views of the 50th percentile of the population. In applying the median voter theorem to congressional elections, however, one must make allowances for the biased composition of the voting districts themselves. Accordingly, while it is true that a candidate for the presidency, all things considered, will try to appeal to the median voter, congressional candidates’ calculation of the median voter will be different from that of the national median because their constituencies diverge so sharply. Members of Congress therefore will adopt positions that, from the perspective of national politics, appear extreme, but from the perspective of their local constituency, may very well be close to the median. This disconnect has serious implications for passing national legislation. A bill, before it becomes law, must be approved by both houses of Congress. The members vote in accordance with the preferences of their local electorates, which have substantially different preferences from the national electorate. Thus, successful legislation must, as a practical matter, achieve close to super-majority approval if it has any chance of adoption. As a rule of thumb, then, advocating changes to long-established policies is bound to be unsuccessful unless the advocates of change can marshal massive public support or about two-thirds of the electorate. They must also be willing to expend substantial amounts of political capital to force Congress to go along with proposed policy changes.

American politics, by constitutional design, has a bias toward preserving the status quo; advances in computational and statistical methods have given political parties powerful tools that enable them to design, i.e., “gerrymander,” political districts in a fashion that maximizes their partisan character. Against this background, entrenched interest groups – even if they represent minorities of the national electorate – can be very effective in blocking changes that could threaten their preferred policy outcomes. As a practical matter, Muslim-Americans who wish to see a substantial change in the policies that have been so damaging to their rights as citizens need to move the needle of public support not just to 50 percent, but more realistically, to something approaching 70 percent, before the federal government might begin to change its policies.

In the absence of such a compelling coalition, change can only come about if a national political leader is willing to invest substantial amounts of political capital to convince Americans of the need to reverse course in the treatment of Muslim-Americans and the country’s foreign policy toward the Islamic world. In hindsight, it is no surprise that during the election campaign in 2008, only a figure like Colin Powell had the stature and legitimacy to object to the religious “othering” of Barack Obama, and by extension, of all Muslim-Americans. Obama, on the other hand, whatever other excellent credentials he brings to the office of the presidency, may be uniquely incapable of responding to the religious othering of Muslim-Americans, despite being its most prominent public victim.

Barack Hussein Obama, Cultural Authenticity and Becoming American

The United States Constitution is rightly considered a product of Enlightenment political thought, a defining feature of which is the priority of individual rights relative to the prerogatives of the group as represented by the government. In accordance with this feature of Enlightenment, the legally operative provisions of the U.S. Constitution speak of “persons” or “citizens,” rather than races or religions; indeed, even the infamous “three-fifths clause,” which counted enslaved Africans as three-fifth of a person for purposes of calculating the number of representatives to be allocated to each state, uses generic language, referring to them not racially (Africans) or by status (enslaved) but in the strangely neutral expression “three fifths of all other Persons,” all other persons being free persons and American Indians. However, its preamble is specific yet ambiguous, for unlike the French Revolution, which spoke generally of the “Rights of Man,” the preamble to the United States Constitution clearly states that it is a document for a particular group of people, a unique “we” that is the subject and author of the Constitution as exemplified in its opening line, “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union . . .”

So, who are “the People of the United States”? Who are the authors of this Constitution? And, who are its “natural” beneficiaries? From a legal perspective, the answer is easy: Any person who is a citizen of the United States is a member of “We the People.” While the native born is privileged over the naturalized citizen to the extent that only the former may be president, there is hardly any legal distinction between the two categories. It is a mistake, however, to think of citizenship solely as a legal category. It is also a cultural category and a performative one. Given the racialized history of citizenship in the U.S., it is also inextricably bound to racial categories, specifically whiteness and non-whiteness. The racial, cultural and performative aspects of citizenship are very real, even if they are not constitutive of legal citizenship. Despite the adoption of the Civil War amendments (the 13th to 15th amendments), explicit consciousness of white racial privilege continued to shape American political history for another hundred years. Even the celebrated Justice John M. Harlan, known as the great dissenter on account of his rejection of the constitutionality of racial segregation in the infamous case, Plessy v. Ferguson, wrote in that very dissent, not disapprovingly of white race-consciousness:

The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country. And so it is, in prestige, in achievements, in education, in wealth, and in power. So, I doubt not, it will continue to be for all time, if it remains true to its great heritage, and holds fast to the principles of constitutional liberty. But in view of the constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as man, and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved.[7]

In this conception, the white race is, in the natural order of things, the dominant race in the United States; by implication, if its dominance is undermined, something unnatural has taken place. The paradox of the U.S. constitution is that even as it commits itself to a racially blind political order, the specificity of the people’s history that is constitutive of the United States is marked as racially white. Indeed, if one takes Justice Harlan’s words literally, the loss of white privilege can only be the result of something sinister, a betrayal “of [the United States’] great heritage . . . and the principles of constitutional liberty.” While no respectable member of today’s political class would express Justice Harlan’s sentiments in the stark terms he used, there is little doubt that much of the animus directed against President Obama is motivated by the belief that his election signifies that the natural order of things has been undermined, and for that reason, he is tantamount to an illegitimate usurper from whom America must be reclaimed.

U.S. foreign policy today plays a crucial role in producing the informal racial categories of citizenship that were explicit in the 19th and much of the 20th centuries. While the United States has made much progress in combating the domestic racial caste system that prevailed for much of U.S. history, in many ways the project of asserting white racial dominance has been transferred from internal politics to foreign relations, whereby preserving U.S. supremacy in the world system – sometimes referred to as the idea of “American exceptionalism” – has become the defining feature of political orthodoxy in U.S. politics. To challenge U.S. foreign policy radically, as Ron Paul has, results in effective excommunication from respectable political discourse. President Obama clearly understands that to be an American in the post-World War II era, at least in the affective sense, is to embrace America’s role as the unchallenged global arbiter of justice, capable of enforcing its vision of justice with force if necessary, even if that violates international law. President Obama’s recognition of the centrality of America’s place in the world to modern American identity explains his evolution from the relatively rootless cosmopolitanism of his youth, to his current identity: One that is black, which reflects his domestic commitment to an egalitarian America, and which, in foreign affairs, reflects his commitment to the United States’ unique place in the world.[8]

Unfortunately for Muslim-Americans, a commitment to U.S. hegemony in the world system inevitably means conflict with Muslim-majority societies, given the United States’ determination to both provide unqualified support for Israel and to dominate the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf. And, given the foundational Islamic commitment of religious solidarity regardless of nationality, Muslim-Americans are structurally outside, and cannot be included in this crucial component of contemporary American identity. No matter how accomplished Muslim-Americans are, no matter how many contributions they make to civic or cultural life, they will be excluded from the political mainstream until they can endorse the idea of the United States as a moral global hegemon or until “American exceptionalism” ceases to be a central component of affective American citizenship. When opponents of the Murfreesboro, Tennessee, mosque complain that Muslims share the religion of “our enemies,” and use that as a reason to oppose the mosque,[9] Muslim-Americans should understand what this objection means in terms of their affective citizenship: Large numbers of Americans will refuse to treat Muslim-Americans as citizens because they believe that Muslim-Americans do not share the same beliefs about the moral goodness of America. For these Americans, it is not sufficient to believe that America is good or that its Constitution is just; to be an American requires a belief, essentially, in its unqualified and inherent superiority to the rest of the world and a concomitant belief that America’s “enemies” deserve whatever America gives them. To show sympathy to America’s enemies, even a sympathy so tepid and cautious as an explanation that “our enemies” may have legitimate grievances, risks exclusion from this cultural definition of “We the People.” Nor should Muslim-Americans believe that only the relatively unsophisticated and insular elements of American society subscribe to this notion of citizenship; respectable political scientists also express concern that Muslim-Americans’ religious commitments are too cosmopolitan and that they are too viscerally opposed to U.S. military intervention in the Muslim world, to be good U.S. citizens.[10]

This is not to say that President Obama’s view of the United States’ role as global hegemon is the same as that of Mitt Romney or the Republicans in general. Indeed, one could never imagine Obama say, as Romney did in his recent trip to the United Kingdom, that what binds the two countries is a shared “Anglo-Saxon” heritage. One suspects that much of Obama’s move from an “international” perspective to an “American” one, as documented in David Maraniss’ biography of the president, is as much affect as conviction, something that perhaps explains the visceral anti-Obama hatred among many whites: Just as they don’t accept Muslim-American claims of loyalty to the idea of the American people, they believe that President Obama is affecting a love for the American people that simply is either insincere or insufficiently deep. Hence, there is the repeated refrain from the American right that Obama simply doesn’t “believe” enough in America’s greatness.

But the popular belief that Obama is not American enough places real limitations on the kinds of policies he can pursue, especially overseas. Just as the current structure of congressional elections results in a system in which super-majorities are required to pass legislation, so too any shifts that Obama proposes in foreign policy that challenges the narrative of the inherent goodness of America, even if only implicitly, raises fanatical opposition and accusations that he is, secretly, an “enemy” of the American people, either a socialist, a Muslim, or both. As a result, Obama, precisely because of his ambiguous racial and religious identity, and his determination to act in an objectively “American” fashion, has less effective freedom to pursue substantive changes in U.S. foreign policy than a white president with similar substantive positions, for example, someone like Senator John Kerry or Hillary Rodham Clinton. It is not surprising, then, that Obama has felt the need to engage in policies of dubious significance to national security, such as his drone wars in Pakistan and Yemen, if only to convince his detractors that he does not, despite his history, sympathize with “America’s enemies.” Facing the choice between passing health care reform and changing the direction of U.S. foreign policy, Obama made the easy choice to appease his critics on the right by adopting most of the Bush-era policies from the war on terrorism, even if his rhetoric became less grandiose.


There are many reasons to prefer President Obama to candidate Mitt Romney. However, there are very few reasons to believe that if re-elected, Obama would ameliorate policies that are of specific concern to Muslim-Americans. We should not believe that enhanced surveillance of Muslims, dubious sting operations and entrapment of gullible and immature Muslim men, or the routine use of the state secrets privilege to block lawsuits seeking to hold the government accountable will end or even be reduced. Neither should we expect a re-orientation of U.S. foreign policy to make it more responsive to the concerns of the Muslim world.

The irony is that President Obama’s private positions may very well be more consistent with the views of Muslim-Americans than those of Romney, but Obama’s personal history makes him particularly ill-suited to be an agent of change, especially with respect to issues related to Islam and Muslims. Obama’s weakness is also a reflection of the political and cultural weakness of the Muslim-American community. It is unrealistic to expect a politician to expend political capital defending the future of a community that lacks significant heft in the political system: In almost all cases, defending Muslim-Americans would result in alienating a larger group of voters than the voters gained by acting on principle. Muslim-Americans must make it easier for politicians to come to their assistance.

This leaves Muslim-Americans with two choices: They can follow the path of President Obama and shed their internationalist outlook, or they can resign themselves to being excluded from national political life, at least for the short- and medium-term. From my perspective, religious commitments preclude the first path, and accordingly, our only reasonable choice is to work to change the political environment in which we live. Muslim-American political activism should be focused on two levels: The first is institutional, by working to reform the pathologies of the American political system that serve to empower entrenched special interests. Until the U.S. political system can become more responsive to the demands of its citizens, the U.S. faces increased risks of a broad-based governance failure, something Standard & Poor’s pointed to when it downgraded the United States’ long-term credit rating. Structural reform of U.S. politics in turn would make it easier for the U.S. to change the anti-Muslim policies in place as part of the war on terror because anti-Muslim bigots would lose their implicit veto power over domestic national security policies.

With respect to affective citizenship, Muslim-Americans should concentrate their civic activism in sectors that are far removed from foreign affairs. This does not mean that Muslim-Americans should engage in self-censorship on U.S. foreign policy, just that we as a community should not invest too heavily in institutions that directly seek to change U.S. foreign policy nor should we invest our careers in government service on the theory that we can change policy from within the government. Muslim-Americans must instead develop a discourse that challenges American militarism without denouncing American patriotism, while accumulating sufficient civic capital to enlist others in support of our demands. Muslim-Americans should consider active participation in programs such as Teach for America and the Peace Corps, as well as progressive nongovernmental organizations dedicated to improving the well-being of all Americans, in an attempt to build a Muslim-American conception of affective citizenship that provides an alternative to military service as the pre-eminent mode of public service. For Muslim-Americans who wish to consider a career in the armed forces, they should consider the Coast Guard Academy rather than better-known service academies such as West Point or the Naval Academy. Service in the Coast Guard provides crucial protection to the American people without being a threat to others.

It is not sufficient for Muslim-Americans to reject narratives of American exceptionalism and expect to attain recognition as part of “We the People”; Muslim-Americans must develop their own alternative conception of America identity. Too many Muslim-Americans believe that patriotism is simply an excuse for jingoism and xenophobia, and for that reason are suspicious of any discourse of patriotism. And while they are right to be suspicious of claims of patriotism that are used to justify violence, patriotism can be grounded in other values, for example, the love of neighbor rather than the affirmation of national superiority. Such a conception of patriotism is not, in fact, alien to Islamic tradition. The 19th century Egyptian reformer, Rifāʿa Rāfiʿ al-Tahṭāwī, for example, understood patriotism as the collective endeavor to build a political society in which members cooperate for their collective good, and is perfected only when its citizens internalize the prophetic teaching that “None of you are believers until you wish for your brother what you wish for yourself.” Al-Ṭahṭāwī’s conception of patriotism is both connected to one’s particular society and cosmopolitan; it wishes good for all rather than affirming the privileged status of one’s own community without denying the importance of the particular ties one has to one’s own community.

This analysis suggests that there is little for the Muslim-American community to gain at this time from formal public service in the federal government. Some Muslim-Americans with a strong desire to engage in public service may find this diagnosis to be excessively pessimistic, but I think one should be honest about the political realities in America today. Muslim-Americans are outsiders, and the only way a Muslim-American can have a successful career in national politics today is to reject, or substantially downplay, his or her Muslimness. Yet, this assessment should not make us excessively pessimistic. African-Americans were enslaved for almost the first 100 years of American history, and then, even after their nominal liberation, were subject to a system of apartheid for almost another 100 years. African-American men were routinely lynched to death as recently as World War I. The demand to end segregation, when first articulated by figures such as W.E.B Dubois, was dismissed as being hopelessly radical or idealistic, yet it eventually came to be. So too, it seems wildly utopian to believe that American foreign policy can be changed from one grounded in what is essentially a sectarian view of America’s role in the world to one grounded in genuine international cooperation based on international law. But, Muslim-Americans should not expect a president to come along and make these changes unless and until the political and cultural groundwork has been laid. It is especially unreasonable to believe that President Obama can be the agent for this change in the next four years. It is our job to work together with other Americans to help bring about the kind of America we wish to see. We should be thinking of how to do that rather than speculating which presidential candidate will save us from those who hate us.

[7]               Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 US 537, 559 (1896).

[9]               http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gRlqz3e9OrA.

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