Exposure To Islam May Be Useful As President; Voters’ Reaction Unpredictable
JAKARTA, Indonesia — As a boy in Indonesia, Barack Obama crisscrossed the religious divide. At the local primary school, he prayed in thanks to a Catholic saint. In the neighborhood mosque, he bowed to Allah.
Having a personal background in Christianity and Islam might seem useful for an aspiring U.S. president in an age when Islamic nations and radical groups are key national security and foreign policy issues. But a connection with Islam is untrod territory for presidential politics.
Obama’s four years in Indonesia, beginning at age 6, underscore how dramatically his background differs from that of past presidential hopefuls, most of whom spent little, if any, time in other countries. No one knows how voters will react to a candidate with an early exposure to Islam, a religion that remains foreign to many Americans.
Obama’s campaign aides have emphasized his strong Christian beliefs and downplayed any Islamic connection. The candidate was raised “in a secular household in Indonesia by his stepfather and mother,” his chief spokesman, Robert Gibbs, said in a statement in January after reports began circulating that Obama had attended a radical madrasa, or Quranic school, as a child. The campaign denied the story.
“To be clear, Senator Obama has never been a Muslim, was not raised a Muslim, and is a committed Christian who attends the United Church of Christ in Chicago,” Gibbs’ Jan. 24 statement said. In a statement to the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday, the campaign offered slightly different wording, saying: “Obama has never been a practicing Muslim.” The statement added that as a child, Obama had spent time in the neighborhood’s Islamic center.
His former Roman Catholic and Muslim teachers, along with two people who were identified by Obama’s grade-school teacher as childhood friends, say Obama was registered by his family as a Muslim at both schools he attended.
That registration meant that during the third and fourth grades, Obama learned about Islam for two hours each week in religion class.
The childhood friends say Obama sometimes went to Friday prayers at the local mosque. “We prayed but not really seriously, just following actions done by older people in the mosque,” Zulfin Adi said. “But as kids, we loved to meet our friends and went to the mosque together and played.”
In his autobiography, “Dreams from My Father,” Obama briefly mentions Quranic study and describes his public school, which accepted students of all religions, as “a Muslim school.”
“In the Muslim school, the teacher wrote to tell my mother that I made faces during Koranic studies,” Obama wrote. “My mother wasn’t overly concerned. `Be respectful,’ she’d say. In the Catholic school, when it came time to pray, I would close my eyes, then peek around the room. Nothing happened. No angels descended. Just a parched old nun and 30 brown children, muttering words.”
Obama was born in Honolulu. When he was 2, his father, Barack Hussein Obama Sr., a Kenyan, and his Kansas-born mother, Ann Dunham, separated and later divorced.
Dunham later married Lolo Soetoro, who was a Muslim.