Despite this, Mandell Ganchrow, a former Orthodox Union president and longtime leader of a major pro-Israel political action committee, recently posted an item on his Web site suggesting Obama’s early exposure to Islam could make him a danger to Israel.
“In the Jewish religion when someone is far away from observance, however at a certain time he has a spark of Jewishness, we call it a ‘pintele Yid’ — a smattering, or a deep-seated unconscious attachment to one’s roots,” Ganchrow wrote. “With a Muslim father, and being surrounded in his early youth in a Muslim environment, is there such a thing as a ‘pintele Muslim,’ with deep-seated feelings which could color decisions re: terrorism and the Middle East?” ~The Jewish Week
This wouldn’t be quite so ludicrous if Obama had ever shown the slighest hint of disagreeing with most U.S. policies in the Near East and had ever gone beyond beyond standard left-liberal criticisms of the treatment of Palestinians. Of course, except for Iraq (which a rather large number of non-Muslims who actually knew something about the Near East also opposed), he hasn’t. I have argued before that this perception of an affinity for Muslims or attachment to the Islamic world would hurt him politically, and that it was crazy for him and his supporters to keep emphasising his foreign roots and attachments. Whatever else you want to say about this, it really isn’t a vote-getter.
I would like to use some of my personal history to explore just how ridiculous this line of criticism of Obama is. First, as any long-time readers know, I am not a fan of Obama and I think he would make a terrible President. The problem with his foreign policy views is not that they are too passive or “friendly” (or whatever counts as a grave sin in the eyes of such people) to Near Eastern and Islamic countries, but that he is essentially indistinguishable from the foreign policy consensus views of Washington, except when he overcompensates out of fear of looking “weak” by proposing sending American forces into Pakistan whether or not Islamabad agrees. In other words, when he isn’t being merely conventional, he may be more dangerous than the people we have in power now. This is not the result of his family background or upbringing, but a result of his inexperience and his misguided ideas about the U.S. role in the world that many of his colleagues share.
As has been brought up elsewhere, for a very short time (about six months) I professed Islam (albeit pretty idiosyncratically–I doubt if my “conversion” would have ever been recognised as a proper one), mostly out of an attraction at the time to a somewhat coherent monotheism that was neither Jewish nor Christian, since I had been raised with no real religious education and had been conditioned by my multiculti private schools to an aversion to Christianity about whose teachings I knew relatively little and which I understood even less. After a few years of syncretistic dabbling in various religious literatures, I came to Islam, mostly through the English translations of Rumi and the like, but rather like the dabbling before it this was not, on reflection, a serious conversion and it was one I could never enter into fully. (Incidentally, anyone who would like to make more out of this than that is wasting his time.) In a way slightly similar to Obama’s conversion to Christianity, I approached Orthodoxy at first intellectually that then became more firmly grounded in a practicing Orthodox parish. So while I have no sympathy with Obama’s politics, I have found the persistent effort to label him falsely as a Muslim or crypto-Muslim, when he very definitely decided, as I did, to become a Christian (however liberal a denomination he may have joined), and the credulity of stupid voters to believe this falsehood, to be obnoxious. There are dozens of reasons not to support Obama. But the problem is not that he was raised for a few years in Indonesia with an Indonesian step-father or that his grandfather was a Muslim, but that he actually claims that living for a few years in Indonesia in his youth and having a Kenyan grandmother still living in a village in Kenya give him relevant foreign policy experience. The problem is not where he grew up, but that he is substituting a kind of symbolic capital for expertise.
As for the effect of my brief time as a self-described Muslim on my policy views, my attitude towards the world overseas had been poisoned much more by reading The Economist and The Wall Street Journal than by reading the Qur’an. I had far more sympathy for Bosnian Muslims and Chechens as an ignorant American teenager than as a putative Muslim thanks to interventionist agitation on their behalf. By the time of this brief Islamic phase, I had stopped thinking of foreign policy as a morality play in which other countries could be simplistically portrayed as incarnate evil. Indeed, perhaps this kind of thinking only really works for thoroughly secular people who must find their great moral struggles in politics rather than in asceticism and worship. Who knows? In any case, Western media reported incessantly that the perpetually evil Slavs were the villains of the story, and that it was as simple as that, and, young, foolish kid that I was, I believed them. Mujahideen in the Balkans? Why worry? Truthfully, as a result of reading Chronicles more regularly, becoming better educated in European and Near Eastern history and becoming more familiar with Christianity, I began to move away from the pro-jihadist positions of the WSJ, Weekly Standard and the like, while the war against Yugoslavia and its aftermath finally brought me around to the non-interventionist views that I have held ever since. I base my current views on what is in the American interest and how justice obliges us to act towards other nations.
If there were anything to this idea that Obama’s experience of growing up around and among Muslims (for a relatively shot period of his life in his earliest youth) would have an effect on his policy views, he would have to have policy views that were not virtually identical with every other conventional Democratic hawk.
P.S. Ross, Yglesias and Ambinder talk about Obama and the Muslim charge.