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Can a past of Islam change the path to president for Obama?
The Illinois Democrat spent much of last week refuting unfounded reports that he had been educated in a madrassa, or radical Islamic school, when he lived in Indonesia as a boy.
“The Indonesian school Obama attended in Jakarta is a public school that is not and never has been a Madrassa,” said a statement put out by the senator’s staff.
But the school did teach the Quran, Islam’s holy book, along with subjects such as math and science, according to Obama, who attended when he was 9 and 10.
“In Indonesia, I had spent two years at a Muslim school,” he wrote in his first memoir, “Dreams from my Father.” “The teacher wrote to tell my mother that I made faces during Koranic studies.”
Obama — whose father, stepfather, brother and grandfather were Muslims — explained his own first name, Barack, in “Dreams”: “It means ‘Blessed.’ In Arabic. My grandfather was a Muslim.”
In his second memoir, “The Audacity of Hope,” Obama added: “Although my father had been raised a Muslim, by the time he met my mother he was a confirmed atheist.”
Still, when his father, a black Kenyan named Barack Obama Sr., died in 1982, “the family wanted a Muslim burial,” Obama quoted his brother, Roy, as saying in “Dreams.”
The statement put out by Obama’s office last week referred to his father simply as “an atheist,” without mentioning his Muslim upbringing.
But with pundits already making faith a major issue in this presidential campaign — as evidenced by questions about Republican Mitt Romney’s Mormonism — Obama’s religious background is likely to come under further scrutiny.
“He comes from a father who was a Muslim,” said civil rights author Juan Williams of National Public Radio. “I mean, I think that given we’re at war with Muslim extremists, that presents a problem.”
Obama’s grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, for whom the senator was given his middle name, Hussein, was fiercely devoted to Islam, according to an account in “Dreams.” The grandfather, who died in 1979, was described by his widow when Obama visited Kenya in the late 1980s.
“What your grandfather respected was strength. Discipline,” Obama quoted his grandmother as telling him. “This is also why he rejected the Christian religion, I think.
“For a brief time, he converted, and even changed his name to Johnson. But he could not understand such ideas as mercy towards your enemies, or that this man Jesus could wash away a man’s sins.
“To your grandfather, this was foolish sentiment, something to comfort women,” she added. “And so he converted to Islam — he thought its practices conformed more closely to his beliefs.”
When Obama was 2 years old, his parents divorced and his father moved away from the family’s home in Hawaii. Four years later, his mother married an Indonesian man, Lolo Soetoro, who moved his new wife and stepson to Jakarta.
“During the five years that we would live with my stepfather in Indonesia, I was sent first to a neighborhood Catholic school and then to a predominately Muslim school,” Obama wrote in “Audacity.” “In our household, the Bible, the Koran, and the Bhagavad Gita sat on the shelf.”
Obama’s stepfather was a practicing Muslim.
“Lolo followed a brand of Islam that could make room for the remnants of more ancient animist and Hindu faiths,” Obama recalled. “He explained that a man took on the powers of whatever he ate: One day soon, he promised, he would bring home a piece of tiger meat for us to share.”
“It was to Lolo that I turned to for guidance and instruction,” Obama recalled. “He introduced me as his son.”
Although Obama wrote of “puzzling out the meaning of the muezzin’s call to evening prayer,” he was not raised as a Muslim, according to the senator’s office. Nor was he raised as a Christian by his mother, a white American named Ann Dunham who was deeply skeptical of religion.
“Her memories of the Christians who populated her youth were not fond ones,” Obama wrote. “For my mother, organized religion too often dressed up closed-mindedness in the garb of piety, cruelty and oppression in the cloak of righteousness.”
As a result, he said, “I was not raised in a religious household.”
Later in life, however, he was drawn to the writings of an influential American Muslim who served as the spokesman for the militant Nation of Islam.
“Malcolm X’s autobiography seemed to offer something different,” Obama wrote. “His repeated acts of self-creation spoke to me; the blunt poetry of his words, his unadorned insistence on respect, promised a new and uncompromising order, martial in its discipline, forged through sheer force of will.”
He added: “Malcolm’s discovery toward the end of his life, that some whites might live beside him as brothers in Islam, seemed to offer some hope of eventual reconciliation.”
While working as a community organizer for a group of churches in Chicago, Obama was repeatedly asked to join Christian congregations, but begged off.
“I remained a reluctant skeptic, doubtful of my own motives, wary of expedient conversion, having too many quarrels with God to accept a salvation too easily won,” he wrote.
But after much soul searching, he eventually was baptized at Trinity United Church of Christ.
“It came about as a choice and not an epiphany; the questions I had did not magically disappear,” he explained. “But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side of Chicago, I felt God’s spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth.”
Obama’s family connections to Islam would endure, however. For example, his brother Roy opted for Islam over Christianity, as Obama recounted when describing his 1992 wedding.
“The person who made me proudest of all,” Obama wrote, “was Roy. Actually, now we call him Abongo, his Luo name, for two years ago he decided to reassert his African heritage. He converted to Islam, and has sworn off pork and tobacco and alcohol.”
Meanwhile, Obama remained sharply critical of what he called “the religious absolutism of the Christian right.”
In “Audacity,” the senator wrote that such believers insist “not only that Christianity is America’s dominant faith, but that a particular, fundamentalist brand of that faith should drive public policy, overriding any alternative source of understanding, whether the writings of liberal theologians, the findings of the National Academy of Sciences, or the words of Thomas Jefferson.”
As for the Democratic Party, Obama observed that “a core segment of our constituency remains stubbornly secular in orientation, and fears — rightly, no doubt — that the agenda of an assertively Christian nation may not make room for them or their life choices.”
Although the overwhelming majority of Americans describe themselves as Christians, Obama does not believe that any one religion should define the United States.
“We are no longer just a Christian nation,” he argues in “Audacity,” which was published last year. “We are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.”
Obama calls the Iraq war “a botched and ill-advised U.S. military incursion into a Muslim country.” He is also protective of civil rights for Muslims in the U.S.
“In the wake of 9/11, my meetings with Arab and Pakistani Americans … have a more urgent quality, for the stories of detentions and FBI questioning and hard stares from neighbors have shaken their sense of security and belonging,” he laments. “I will stand with them should the political winds shift in an ugly direction.”
Sen. Barack Hussein Obama
» Born: Aug. 4, 1961, in Hawaii to Barack Obama Sr. and Ann Dunham.
» Education: Graduated from Columbia University in 1983; graduated in 1991 from Harvard Law School, where he was the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review.
» Family: He and wife, Michelle, were married in 1992. They have two daughters: Malia, 8, and Sasha, 4.
» Residence: Chicago’s South Side
» Political career: Served seven years in the Illinois state Senate; sworn in as U.S. senator in January 2005. Serves on the Environment and Public Works Committee, the Veterans’ Affairs Committee and the Foreign Relations Committee.
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