The Untrustworthy Arab


The novelist Khaled Hosseini, an American of Afghan origin, has written a commentary for the Washington Post condemning the reaction of the Republican candidates when responding to those who use Barack Obama's middle name, Hussein, as a term of abuse. He observes:

Never mind that such jeers are deeply offensive to millions of peaceful, law-abiding Muslim Americans who must bear the unveiled charge, made by some supporters of Sen. John McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin, that Obama's middle name makes him someone to distrust—and, judging by some of the crowd reactions at these rallies, someone to persecute or even kill. As a secular Muslim, I too was offended. Obama's middle name differs from my last name by only two vowels. Does the McCain-Palin campaign view me as a pariah too? Do McCain and Palin think there's something wrong with my name?

But never mind any of that.

The real affront is the lack of firm response from either McCain or Palin. Neither has had the moral courage, when taking the stage, to grasp the microphone, turn to the presenter and, right then and there, denounce the use of Obama's middle name as an insult. Instead, they have simply delivered their stump speeches, lacing into Obama as if nothing out-of-bounds had just happened.

The commentary came amid reports of mounting rage among Republican voters at the likely victory of the Democratic candidate in November, with Obama's alleged origins frequently being used against him. At a rally in Minnesota this week, for example, one woman told John McCain: "I don't trust Obama. I have read about him and he's an Arab." McCain responded by saying, "No ma'am, no ma'am. He's a decent family man… [a] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues. That's what this campaign is all about."

Hossein's point is valid. McCain was trying to be decent, but you would have expected him to answer in a million different ways than the way he did, instead of just focusing on Obama's personal qualities. He could have, first of all, corrected the woman's inaccuracy, the confusion of one fallacy (that Obama is an Arab) with another (that he is a Muslim), before adding: "So what?" Substitute the name of most other ethnic groups for the word "Arab", and the candidate would have been—and quite legitimately so—apoplectic with rage at the bigotry on display. But denouncing someone because he or she is an "Arab" or a "Muslim" all too often seems fair game in American popular political discourse, with little visible backlash.

And if it's not fair game, then it would be useful to see the country's prominent politicians affirm that with a bit more conviction.