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The really right answer about Obama

By Helen Pringle - posted Monday, 3 November 2008

A recent endorsement of Barack Obama for the American presidency came from Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Bush I and Secretary of State under Dubya.

Powell explained his endorsement in an interview screened on MSNBC’s Meet the Press. In the course of the interview, Powell noted that he was troubled by what some McCain supporters said, and permitted to be said, on the question of Senator Obama’s religion. That is, the supporters had fostered in some way the claim that Obama is Muslim.

Senator Obama is a Christian. However, a study conducted in September by the Pew Research Center found that 46 per cent of Americans surveyed were unable to identify Obama as a Christian, with 13 per cent maintaining that he is a Muslim. These numbers were if anything slightly higher than those from similar Pew studies done in March, at the height of the Reverend Wright controversy, and in July.


General Powell argued that rebuttals of the claim that Obama is Muslim often fail to address the underlying assumption that there is something prima facie unpatriotic about being a Muslim. When a woman at a rally told Senator McCain that she could not trust Obama because he was an “Arab”, McCain replied, “No, ma’am, he’s a decent family man, citizen who I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.”

McCain’s answer to the woman’s claim, if seemingly well-intentioned, was clumsy in not challenging the equation of “Arab” or “Muslim” with “disloyal”. According to Powell, the “really right answer” to such claims about Obama is: “What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?”

Powell said that his strong feelings on the issue were provoked by a photo essay, by the photographer Platon, picturing men and women who had volunteered to serve in the military in Iraq or Afghanistan. The picture that drew Powell’s particular attention was one of Elsheba Khan mourning at the grave of her son in Arlington Cemetery.

Khan’s son, Corporal Karim Rashid Sultan Khan, was killed in Iraq in 2007. The dates of his birth and death, and his decorations, are inscribed on his headstone - along with his religion, in the shape of a crescent and star. General Powell suggested that Karim’s memorial should give us pause in making lazy assumptions about the patriotism of Muslims.

What is a little puzzling about this story, however, is that Powell should only just now have discovered the sacrifice of Muslims in the service of the West. As a military man, he must surely have visited cemeteries and memorials from Ypres to Basra to Singapore. Powell must surely have stood before the Menin Gate and seen the inscriptions of names like Khan and Ali and Muhammad. Or perhaps he stopped at the beautiful little graveyard of La Chapelette on the road outside Peronne, near the big American cemetery of Bony, and saw row upon row of graves of men like Abdullah Khan, Ahmad Ali, Ali Muhammad.

Almost any cemetery or memorial in the green fields of France tells a similar story, of Ali Muhammad lying alongside Willie McBride.


Or Powell might have visited Deir el Belah, in Gaza, where 727 Commonwealth troops are buried in the main cemetery. One of them is my grandmother's brother, a Lance Corporal in the Highland Light Infantry, a Glasgow boy who died on August 8, 1917. Alongside Alexander Love are the bodies of men from the Australian Light Horse like Alfred Septimus Bartlett, or men from the Auckland Mounted Rifles like Colin Black, as well as men like Abdul Karim Khan, from the 17th Indian Infantry. Some of the Khans and Alis and Muhammads who were killed near Deir el Belah lie in the main part of the cemetery, others lie in the Indian section. Still others lie in the nearby Egyptian Cemetery, where 285 bodies are buried, none of whom is identified by name.

For World War I, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has counted (PDF 1.14MB) 7,815 men and women from "Undivided India" (now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) with identified burial places, with a further 66,372 being commemorated on memorials. For World War II, there are 18,220 identified burials from "Undivided India", with 68,820 commemorated in memorials. Not all are Muslims, of course, and identifying someone as Muslim by their surname is not a rigorously scientific method. But these numbers also do not include men or women born in and citizens of countries like Australia. To read the honour rolls of Australia's war service is to be reminded of the brave service of men like Mahomed Khan or women like Ayesha Ali.

The gravestone of Elsheba Khan’s son, which so moved Colin Powell, is one of many memorials to the loyalty and sacrifice of Muslims to countries in which they are now frequently the target of suspicion and vilification. The sight of any of these memorials should move Australians as well as Americans not only to tears, but to giving the “really right answer” to accusations of disloyalty.

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About the Author

Helen Pringle is in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales. Her research has been widely recognised by awards from Princeton University, the Fulbright Foundation, the Australian Federation of University Women, and the Universities of Adelaide, Wollongong and NSW. Her main fields of expertise are human rights, ethics in public life, and political theory.

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