Monday, October 13, 2008

My Name as an Albatross

In the more than two decades that I have been working at various high-tech companies in Silicon Valley, I have never encountered any prejudice at the workplace because of my race or religion. But lately a thought has been steadily creeping into my mind: If I were to run for public office even, say, at the local school board level, would my name become an albatross around my neck?

I have been thinking about this since John McCain and Sarah Palin began encouraging the use of Barack Obama’s middle name – Hussein – in their rallies to suggest that he was the Other, and therefore is “not a man who sees America the way you and I see America.” I find attempts by them to associate Obama with terrorists and America-haters a smokescreen for the real accusation: Obama carries a Muslim middle name and that is reason enough to bar him from contesting for the highest office in the land.

This is the mindset that says: American Muslims can rise in their profession and shine in their fields, but if they to aspire to high public offices, they must be prevented by any means necessary since they pose a threat of one kind or another to America.

You can count on your fingers the number of Muslims holding high public offices in America. One of the most notable is Keith Ellison, a converted Muslim Congressman from Minnesota, who is known not for the legislation that he helps frame and pass but that he is a Muslim who took the oath of office holding a Quran that belonged to Thomas Jefferson.

I find the desperate tactics of John McCain in the last days of the 2008 presidential election particularly disappointing. In his book “Character is Destiny,” McCain wrote that “It is your character, and your character alone, that will make your life happy or unhappy. That is all that really passes for destiny.” He gives us glimpses into the lives of Gandhi, Lincoln, Mandela, Joan of Arc, Leonardo da Vinci and many others from the past and the present to teach us what constitutes character: qualities like honor, purpose, understanding, forgiveness and love.

As the harsh and ugly rhetoric of McCain and Palin show, however, occupying the Oval Office trumps the “Character is Destiny” stuff. When the presidency of the United States is at stake, winning at any cost, including encouraging your supporters to call your opponent a “traitor,” a “terrorist,” a “liar,” even approving with silence the threat by some in the crowd to “kill him,” is fair game. This is hypocrisy.

Barack Obama is a more practicing Christian than John McCain is but that does not prevent millions of Americans into believing that he is a Muslim, not just because of the fake stories circulating on the Web but because that's what they want to believe. The implication is that being a Muslim is somehow un-American, a real show-stopper to running for the presidency. It's a reincarnation of McCarthyism in the 21st century. Does it say anywhere in the U.S. Constitution that even if you are born in America, you cannot run for the presidency if you happen to be a Muslim?

Still, I am thankful that Obama’s candidacy has forced this issue on the conscience of Americans. I am optimistic that we will come to grips with it in a way consistent with the vision of the founding fathers. Many Americans forget that the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965), giving full citizenship powers to African-Americans, passed less than fifty years ago. (It is also worth noting that the hero of the Republican Party, Ronald Reagan, opposed both these Acts). While racism still persists in subtler forms in America today, African-Americans are not fighting for a seat at the table but are focused on reducing the achievement gap with whites. The goal is loftier because the majority of Americans made the difficult sacrifices in the past to banish our baser social and political institutions.

So I am hopeful that whether it is Ashoka or Ahmed or Aparna or Almaraz or Ming or Nguyen who may be contesting the presidential election, a time will soon come when race, religion or name will matter as much to the voters as the brand of toothpaste that the candidate uses. I may be reluctant to contest in any election now but my children may not think twice about running for public offices if they choose to when that time comes. When that happens, we Americans will learn to appreciate the wisdom of one of our greatest poets, Walt Whitman, who said in his “Poem of Salutation” in the timeless “Leaves of Grass” (1856): "I hear the Arab muezzin calling from the top of the mosque, . . . / I hear the Christian priests at the altars of their churches, / I hear the Hebrew reading his records and psalms, . . . / I hear the Hindu teaching his favorite pupil."

P.S. (10/19/08) - This morning Gen. Colin Powell, a Republican, forcefully endorsed Barack Obama as president of the United States. His endorsement included these words: "I'm also troubled by, not what Sen. McCain says, but what members of the party say, and it is permitted to be said such things as: "Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim." Well, the correct answer is: he is not a Muslim. He's a Christian. He's always been a Christian. But the really right answer is: What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer is: No, that's not America. Is there something wrong with some 7-year-old Muslim-American kid believing he or she can be president? Yet I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion: he's (Obama) a Muslim, and he might be associated with terrorists. This is not the way we should be doing it in America."

Gen. Powell also cited the death of a 20-year-old Muslim soldier named Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan of Manahawkin, N.J., who was killed in Iraq on Aug. 6, 2007, who was awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star, and who was buried in Arlington National cemetery. “He was 14 years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he could go serve his country, and he gave his life,” Gen. Powell said. “Now, we have got to stop polarizing ourselves in this way.” He was moved to comment on Sultan Khan after seeing a picture of the young soldier's mother pressing her head against her fallen son's gravestone at Arlington.

The larger implications of Powell's endorsement can also be read in this excellent review.

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