January 03, 2008


SAM SMITH - Those who bring up Barack Obama's Muslim connections are accused of Swifting Boating him. In fact, it is Obama and his own supporters who would better be accused of John Kerrying him, because, in the end, it was John Kerry, and not his critics, who really did himself in. Kerry's braggadocio about his Vietnam time - beginning with that pretentious salute at the Democratic convention - would come back to haunt him because real heroes keep their mouths shut and let others do the talking. Kerry opened the door to disputes over all sorts of details, many of which were either never resolved or were irresolvable, simply by the way he handled the subject. If the tale had remained a vague saga his past, cited in every introduction, it would have been no problem, but Kerry couldn't let well enough alone.

It seems that Obama may be doing the same thing with his Muslim background. By any normal standard it should not be an issue - where one went to school or played with as a kid shouldn't be important. Besides, it's difficult to be a practicing anything as an elementary school boy. But from the start Obama has handled this like a Harvard Law School graduate trying to parse his past as though preparing a Supreme Court brief. The result inevitably results in his critics doing the same. Further, it puts some his liberal defenders in the strange position of sounding like pre-integration white southerners denying that their candidate once had some black friends.

To get a sense of the ridiculousness of it all consider two quotes, the first from the LA Times:

"The childhood friends say Obama sometimes went to Friday prayers at the local mosque. 'We prayed but not really seriously, just following actions done by older people in the mosque,' Zulfin Adi said. 'But as kids, we loved to meet our friends and went to the mosque together and played.' . . . Obama's younger sister, Maya Soetoro, said in a statement released by the campaign that the family attended the mosque only 'for big communal events,' not every Friday."

And now the Chicago Tribune:

"Zulfan Adi, a former neighborhood playmate of Obama's who has been cited in news reports as saying Obama regularly attended Friday prayers with Soetoro, told the Tribune he was not certain about that when pressed about his recollections. He only knew Obama for a few months, during 1970, when his family moved to the neighborhood."

In fact, if you're 6 to 10 years old and living in a Muslim country, the chances that you'll end up in a mosque or participating in Muslim events is pretty high. It's the sort of thing you don't want to deny because someone might have a better memory to the contrary.

In the end, however, why should it matter? Because both the Obama campaign and his critics think it does. Which is why you never heard Obama say, "Yeah, I guess I went to the mosque from time to time, but I never inhaled."

So we can look forward to endless arguments about Obama's ties to Islam when he could have ended the discussion by saying something like this:

"You know, I was pretty young back then. I don't remember a lot of things from back then. My first serious religious experience was at the age of XX as a Christian. But I'll tell you this: I have never regretted having had some natural relationship with members of the second largest religion on earth. And voters shouldn't regret it either, because one of the ways that Christians and Muslims will resolve their differences is to understand each other better. And I'm glad I got a head start."