Obama: “Young Muslim Socialist that I used to be”


Is it okay to ask about Obama’s religion?

June 4, 2009 in Cairo was one of several occasions when Barack Obama reminded us: “I’m a Christian.”

President Obama there chose to again broach the sensitive matter of his personal religious belief, which is a topic that he has also addressed in two books and on the campaign trail. This makes some sense because consistent public-opinion polling shows that most Americans want a political leader to have religious conviction, and are interested in learning something about their leader’s religious faith.

The “birthers” helped Obama

Including careful research by reputable biographers, a range of evidence now shows that Barack Obama was indeed born in Honolulu, Hawaii, in August 1961. The birthers’ far-fetched claims that he was born in Kenya have helped Barack Obama discredit opponents as crackpots.

The birthers’ egregious failure to prove false allegations about a Kenyan birthplace has gone a long way toward tarring all critical inquiry into Barack Obama’s past. The birthers have also harmed by distracting attention from Barack Obama’s significant connection to Indonesia and the related issue of his worldview from childhood.

This importantly includes long-standing ties to Islam, which is not only a religion, but also a civilization — with distinct ways of interpreting the world historically, politically and militarily. For example, the general Muslim perspective is that Israel’s existing nuclear weapons are a far greater threat to world peace than Iran’s current efforts to develop an atomic bomb.

Focus on Indonesia not Kenya!

In 1967 child Obama moved to Jakarta, Indonesia, to be reunited with his Muslim step-father Lolo Soetoro, who was significantly the only father Obama knew daily during childhood. Obama’s particular worldview was also derived from his anthropologist mother, Stanley Anne Dunham. She married two Muslims; and spent almost all of her professional career in Indonesia, where she encouraged her son to adopt local culture. She was sharply critical of her fellow Americans, but deeply committed to both Indonesia and its people.

Indonesia is almost 90% Muslim, with the largest Muslim population in the world. While living in Indonesia, child Obama was perceived to be Muslim and he practiced Islam. This simple statement about Islamic practice should not be exaggerated into the bogus claim that child Obama studied in a fundamentalist medrese. Nor should it be “read down” to accommodate the politically convenient falsehood that Obama had a secular childhood. As we shall see below, the “secular” claim is inconsistent with some of the bare facts about Obama’s life in 1960’s Indonesia, which is not to be confused with the USA either then or today.

Early ambition to be a President

From childhood, Barack Obama’s enduring goal was to lead a country, whether the USA or much earlier Indonesia, to which he long retained ties. Thus, in eventually opting for the USA, Obama likely sought political advantage in his significantly late conversion to Christianity. This probably occurred around age thirty, but in any event no later than his October 1992 marriage to Michelle Robinson. For about fifteen years thereafter, he attended services at Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, where his long-time pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright frequently used the pulpit for anti-USA rants.

Self-serving denials

During the 2007-2008 Democratic nomination campaign, candidate Obama made the improbable claim that he had been unaware of Wright’s bitter anti-USA pronouncements. But, this self-serving denial directly contradicts what had previously been written about Wright in Obama’s 1995 autobiography, Dreams From My Father.

Similarly, both Barack Obama and his campaign staff specifically denied that he had ever practiced Islam. For example, in Pleasantville, Iowa, on December 22, 2007, candidate Obama explained:

My father was from Kenya, and a lot of people in his village were Muslim. He didn’t practice Islam. Truth is he wasn’t very religious. He met my mother. My mother was a Christian from Kansas. I’ve always been a Christian…. The only connection I’ve had to Islam is that my grandfather on my father’s side came from that country. But I’ve never practiced Islam.

This unequivocal denial does not square with the salient facts that are presented below. Thus, President Obama should be encouraged to speak about his early religious experience in a way that would be more intelligible to ordinary Americans who from childhood are generally people of faith.

Does childhood matter?

During the Cairo speech, President Obama specified:

My father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims. As a boy, I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the azaan at the break of dawn and at the fall of dusk.

Psychologists tell us that childhood experience is exceptionally significant. And, the Jesuits believed: “Give me the child until the age of seven and I will give you the man.” Because President Obama is a pivotal public figure who himself raises the matter of his Muslim roots, we are fully entitled to ask about his childhood to help better understand the foundations of his current ideology and predict his policy directions — for example, with respect to Israel and the various Muslim countries, including the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Did child Obama practice Islam?

Theologically, Islam regards all children to be born Muslim and to remain such until adults teach them otherwise. On the balance of probabilities, child Obama was Muslim also because:

  • his paternal grandfather in Kenya was Muslim;
  • his Kenyan birth-father (though ideologically Marxist) always used his two Muslim names; and Dreams From My Father tells us that, when he died, his family wanted him buried with Muslim rites;
  • he was given his birth-father’s two Muslim names, “Barack” and “Hussein”;
  • his Indonesian step-father was also Muslim;
  • his Indonesian classmates and playmates recall that he attended Muslim religious services both at school and in mosques, when they believed him to be Muslim;
  • he was explicitly registered as Muslim at two elementary schools in Indonesia;
  • he then studied the Koran, as indicated in Dreams From My Father;
  • an Indonesian teacher recalls that child Obama was then also learning Arabic recitation of the Koran, a part of which adult Obama could still recite by memory, as demonstrated during his 2007 interview with New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof;
  • reflecting on her childhood with her older brother, Obama’s half-sister Maya Soetoro in 2007 told the New York Times: “My whole family was Muslim”; and
  • speaking to ABC commentator George Stephanopolous in September 2008, candidate Obama inadvertently referred to “my Muslim faith” — a slip of the tongue that could never have passed the lips of a lifelong Hindu, Buddhist, Christian or Jew.

Young Muslim socialist?

The high probability that Barack Obama practiced Islam as a child in Indonesia does not necessarily mean that his close connections with Islam and Muslims abruptly ended in 1971, when he moved back to Hawaii.

Barack Obama himself specifically pointed to this possibility on April 28, 2013, at the annual White House correspondents’ dinner, which is traditionally an occasion for presidential humor. There, as a subtle political ploy, he spoke truth in jest, in saying:

I’m not the strapping young Muslim socialist that I used to be.

This quip recalls information in Dreams From My Father which, inter alia, details his many continuing ties to Muslims, e.g., close friends and roommates. Thus, Dreams From My Father and some other statements by Barack Obama, and by his family and friends, raise the possibility that he did indeed retain something of a Muslim self-identification beyond his first decade.

This hypothesis is supported by recent testimony from his former New York lover, Genevieve Cook who is the daughter of a prominent Australian diplomat. Referring to her diary for the years 1983-1985, she recalls that, after his graduation (1983) from Columbia University, Barack Obama was still socializing mostly with Muslims from Pakistan:

Me and the Paki mob and that was it pretty much.

Relevant to this track record of strong ties to Muslims was Barack Obama’s 1981 visit to Muslim Pakistan, a trip which he discussed during the 2008 presidential campaign. Barack Obama’s three-week stay in Pakistan was immediately preceded by a visit to Indonesia, where he had lived as a child until 1971. Thereafter, Obama returned to Indonesia on no fewer than five occasions, at various times in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

With a master’s and doctor’s degree in divinity, Jeremiah Wright is also a prominent USA theologian. From this expert perspective, he recently specified that, when he first met Barack Obama in 1987, he was immediately impressed by how much Obama then knew about Islam, by contrast with Obama’s slender knowledge about Jesus. Asked if he had converted Obama from Islam to Christianity, Wright replied:

That’s hard to tell. I think that I convinced him it was okay for him to make a choice in terms of who he believes Jesus is. And I told him that it was really okay and not a put down of the Muslim part of his family or his Muslim friends.

As a new law student at Harvard University in 1988, Barack Obama was told by the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Senior:

If you want to succeed in politics in this country, you had better get yourself a Christian religion.

What did Jackson then know about Obama’s religious background? And why twenty years later (October 2008), did Jackson significantly predict that an Obama victory in the presidential election would certainly mean a reversal in USA policy toward Israel?

 Like Nixon to China?

Though earlier Presidents spoke about the Mideast or the Arab world, Barack Obama was significantly the first to frequently refer to “Muslims around the world” and the “Muslim world.” Both historically and currently, this Muslim world is as much a political as a religious concept.

Certainly, President Obama’s 2009 journey to Cairo for “a new beginning” with Muslims around the world cannot be compared with President Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip to Beijing to begin direct dialogue with the communist leaders of China. As a long-time “Cold Warrior” with sterling anti-communist credentials, Nixon was hard to challenge on his motives for talking with Chairman Mao. By contrast, ought there not to be some degree of skepticism about the motives of a President with publicly avowed Muslim roots, reaching out to the Muslim world, notably including appeasement of the Islamic Republic of Iran?

Conflicting loyalties?

With respect to President Obama, the potential political problem falls under the familiar headings of bias and conflict of loyalties. Acute danger arises because:

  • USA stakes are the very highest with respect to the race to nuclear weapons of the Islamic Republic of Iran;
  • Islam is not just a religion, but also a political program; and
  • President Obama makes his own Mideast policy solo like 19th-century “Emperor of the French,” Napoleon III — whose ideology-driven conduct of foreign affairs ignored vital interests and led to both humiliating defeat and France’s permanent loss of primacy in Europe.

There is no responsible way to avoid the disturbing possibility that this President neglects vital USA interests, due to peculiar ideological preconceptions. Specifically, the risk is that he harbors sympathies and self-identifications that historically have been both outside the American mainstream and hostile to the Western world.

Killing Osama and drone strikes are political theater!

Personally approving targets, this President puts special emphasis on drone strikes, which are no substitute for effective foreign policy. To the contrary, drone strikes complicate foreign policy by damaging relations with Pakistan and stirring anti-USA sentiment in other countries.

Killing Osama bin Laden and the continuing drone strikes against Al-Qaeda and other selected terrorists are partly political theater — a Rambo-style show aimed at deflecting attention from Barack Obama’s own Muslim past toward a contrived narrative portraying him as a tough sheriff, riding posse on Islamists.

Drone strikes are also partly intended to distract from the philo-Muslim architecture of President Obama’s peculiar Mideast policy. This appeases a dangerous enemy like the Islamic Republic of Iran, which daily gets closer to nuclear weapons. The Iranian ayatollahs also persistently project power via Iraq to Syria, and then onward to Lebanon. President Obama helped make this possible by rushing to withdraw USA forces from Iraq. He also abandons Afghanistan and betrays old friends like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

A Jewish-American President?

Charges of bias and conflict of loyalties would certainly be raised were there a Jewish-American President, perceived to favor Israel to the slightest extent. For example, consider the case of Al Gore’s year 2000 vice-presidential running-mate, former Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, who practices Orthodox Judaism. Had Joe Lieberman become President, we can be dead certain that countless critics would have pointed to his Jewish descent and faith to challenge his Mideast policies, unless egregiously hostile to Israel.

But, still remaining are two essential differences: Firstly, Senator Lieberman was always completely open about both his Judaism and his affection for the Jewish State. Secondly, by contrast to any Muslim country, Israel is more closely linked to the USA and consistently admired by a solid majority of Americans.

About the Author
Allen Z. Hertz was senior adviser in the Privy Council Office serving Canada's Prime Minister and the federal cabinet. He formerly worked in Canada's Foreign Affairs Department and earlier taught history and law at universities in New York, Montreal, Toronto and Hong Kong. He studied history at McGill University (B.A.) and Columbia University (M.A., Ph.D.). He also has international law degrees from Cambridge University (LL.B.) and the University of Toronto (LL.M.).