I am not naive. It's obvious why the "madrasah" smear against Barack Obama is harmful and unfair. The idea that Obama might be a "crypto-muslim" with secret allegiance to the Enemy is a pernicious one that has spread almost entirely via email, with one purpose, to play into the xenophobic and racist impulses that still lurk at the heart of our society, despite the lip service we pay to MLK's lofty visions to the contrary. And those impulses cross the political divide (though, despite pundit claims to the contrary, it certainly originated from the Right, and has been legitimized by right-leaning news outlets). Still, this is primary season, not the general election, so what matters is how the smear plays out in Left-leaning audiences, not Right-leaning ones. Given that in the South Carolina Democratic primary yesterday, white voters went preferentially for Edwards, there's clearly a reservoir of antipathy for the Other to contend with.
So by all means, Obama must (and has) vigorously defend himself from the charge. Obama's website has a fact-check article that flatly states "Obama is not and never has been a muslim", and which also debunks the assertion that Obama attended a madrasah as a child in Indonesia. However, what the fact-check does not do is to tackle the deeper assumptions behind the smear, and that is a genuinely wasted opportunity.
What if Obama were a muslim? The better response would have been, "So what" and confront the underlying prejudice head-on. That is a risky strategy of course, given the hardball Obama is facing from the Clinton camp (with Bill linking him to Jesse Jackson, as if Obama's politics could remotely be akin). Obama is playing it supremely safe and distancing himself from race and religion to come off as "safe" as possible. He will still lose some votes by virtue of his skin, as SC showed, but not enough to matter (as SC showed). Why risk it by embracing muslims?
As I said, I am not naive, and given that Hillary's record on muslim issues is substantially worse, I would rather Obama not be dragged down by the likes of, well, me. For the greater good. Still, should Obama take the nomination, it will be instructive to see whether he maintains the same cautious stance towards Islam, and continues to keep American muslims at arms' length. Listening to his rhetoric, one would assume so, but the singular question about Obama has always been, can he deliver actions to match his words? hen he's facing off against the Right, the time for caution will be over.