The Great American Smear is back. In 2000, the victim was Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, and the vector for transmission was telephone lines and leaflets left on windshields in church parking lots. This year, the victim is Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, and the vector is e-mail messages that appear to have originated in evangelical networks. As always, the smears play to the ugly underside of American politics: prejudice and hatred.
The 2000 rumor was that the white McCain had fathered a dark-skinned child out of wedlock. In the end, it did not matter that he and his wife had adopted the child from Bangladesh. The then-front-runner lost the South Carolina Republican primary to George W. Bush, whose campaign has always denied any involvement in the "push polling" that propagated the smear. It worked partly because the mainstream media didn't report what was happening until after the election. But mainly it worked because of the persistence of the prejudices that prompted the South's old anti-miscegenation laws.
So it's worth considering the persistence of the Internet rumors that Obama, well known to Chicagoans as a Christian, is actually a stealth Muslim, a "Manchurian candidate" who would take the presidential oath with his hand on the Koran.
The rumors first surfaced during Obama's run for Senate but took off in a viral e-mail campaign in 2006. One e-mail called Obama "The Enemy Within." GOP strategist Ed Rogers also pointedly mentioned Obama's middle name, Hussein. In January, the Obama campaign was forced to denounce Fox News for repeating a false Insight magazine report that he had spent fours years in an Indonesian madrasa, an Islamic school. Though CNN sent out a reporter who found that the school Obama had attended had nothing in common with the Pakistani incubators for jihadists, and though his campaign has set the record straight repeatedly, last week the Washington Post ran a front-page story about Obama's "Muslim ties."
That the rumors are false and vile is self-evident. That they persist in the face of the facts speaks to the power of the underlying calumny -- that Muslim Americans in positions of power in the United States represent a fifth column, an internal security threat of the sort believed to have been posed by Japanese Americans during World War II.
It also speaks to the post-9/11 revival of the ancient Christian loathing of Muslims that predated by centuries the 1529 Ottoman Siege of Vienna. Today, Muslim peoples are frequently stereotyped as mobs or hordes who are particularly prone to violence and generally supportive of terrorism. And an ugly undertone of the immigration debate has been the insinuation that efforts to restrict illegal immigration should focus on keeping out the "bad" Muslims who have overrun Europe, not the "good" Mexicans who only want to work here.
It's true that many American voters probably aren't ready for a Muslim president, as they once weren't ready to elect a Catholic to the highest office. But there are now believed to be more than 2 million Muslim Americans in the United States, and one of them is a member of Congress. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) won election without hiding his religion and did, in fact, swear the oath of office on the Koran. This tolerance of religious diversity is a founding American principle, and one that we hope will continue to distinguish the United States from theocracies such as Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Presidential candidates of both parties have a duty to denounce not only the smear against Obama but the bigotry that underlies it.