Barack Hussein Obama: Campaigning While (Allegedly) Muslim

Posted: September 26, 2011 in discourse analysis, media stereotypes of native americans, media studies, mia moody
Tags: , , , , , , ,
Barack Obama campaigning in Akron, Ohio.

Barack Obama campaigning in Akron, Ohio. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Citation: Tariq, A. and Moody, M. (2009). Barack Hussein Obama: Campaigning While (Allegedly) Muslim. American Communication Journal (ACJ) American Communication Journal (11) 4



This textual analysis looks at how diverse news outlets framed the rumor that Sen. Barack Obama is Muslim during the 2008 Presidential Election.  Researchers argue such an analysis provides insight into the nature of American attitudes toward Arabs and Muslims, and the power of these attitudes to influence an event as extensive as a national campaign.  Common frames were “Arabic words,” “concealment of past” and “Obama’s foreign sounding name.”  In the United State’s current atmosphere post September 11, Arab ethnicity, Islamic faith, and the evils of terrorism and war have been fused together so that association with one of these factors inevitably leads to implication in the others. Thus, suggesting that a U.S. presidential candidate is an Arab or a Muslim translates into a much more sinister accusation.


Religion was a prominent frame in the coverage of Sen. Barack Obama during the 2008 Presidential Election.  Many myths and misrepresentations emerged, but perhaps the biggest one was Obama is Muslim.  Commentators carried out this frame by mentioning his middle name Hussein and by associating him with Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan.

On Oct. 10, 2008, with only 25 days to go before the 2008 Presidential election, Republican nominee Sen. McCain fielded an uncomfortable question from an audience member during a town hall debate. “I can’t trust Obama,” a woman confessed. “I have read about him and he’s not… he’s an Arab.” McCain quickly recaptured the microphone from her hands. “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man, citizen.”

Though his statement served as a respectful defense of his opponent, McCain’s words unwittingly revealed a significant undercurrent in the American consciousness—Muslims are bad.  To counter the woman’s claim, McCain did not state that Obama was of Caucasian and African heritage.  Nor did he address the implicit allegation in the comment–that as an Arab, Obama must also be a Muslim–by informing her that Obama was a Christian and a longtime member of the United Church of Christ. Instead, he refuted the accusation of “Arab” with the words “decent family man, citizen,” as though the two labels were mutually exclusive.

Colin Powell addressed Christian fear and bigotry surrounding Muslims in America on Meet the Press.  He concluded that if a American Muslim wanted to run for president of the United States, there should not be negativity associated with it.  Here is the excerpt:

I’m also troubled by, not what Senator 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’s no, that’s not America.  Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president?  Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, “He’s a Muslim and he might be associated [with] terrorists.” This is not the way we should be doing it in America

The September 11 terrorist attacks are undoubtedly the most significant incidents to have occurred in the United States so far in the 21st century.[1] Citizens living in the United States endured changes in their lives both physically and mentally, economically and spiritually after witnessing the vulnerability of their country at the hands of terrorists (Moody, 2008).  According, to Said (2001), since September 11, an organized media campaign imposes the Israeli vision of the world on Americans, with practically nothing to counter it. The main themes of this school of thought are Islam and the Arabs are the true causes of terrorism; Israel has been facing such terrorism all its life, and Arafat and Bin Laden are the same thing. Moreover, he asserts that most U.S. Arab allies, especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have played a clear negative role in sponsoring anti-Americanism, supporting terrorism, and maintaining corrupt societies.

Less than a decade after the worst terrorist attacks waged in the name of this religion, Obama has felt its affects in spite of his real and imagined ties to a faith that many Americans have come to associate with enmity and violence. In the current atmosphere, it is not difficult to imagine why opponents of Obama promote these untruths. In the words of scholar Jack Shaheen (2007), “…they believe that by falsely proclaiming that Obama is an Arab Muslim, they can destroy him” (para. 5).

While Obama’s links to Islam exist through his extremely limited contact with his father, who was born a Muslim but had become an atheist before his son’s birth, and a few childhood years Obama spent in Indonesia with a non-practicing Muslim stepfather, these facts have sufficed in creating a palpable attitude of fear and distrust among a segment of the electorate. Obama’s efforts to distance himself from Islam and Muslims are best understood in this context, as evidence of his awareness that even weak links to the religion could cost him heavily in the political arena.

The following analysis attempts to gauge the extent to which both the false accusations and the efforts to disprove them have played into, and possibly even strengthened, the extremely negative conceptions of Arabs and Muslims that exist in the United States.

Review of the Literature

The frame of reference with which Americans perceive Middle Easterners today began forming in the mid-19th century when Western historians, geographers, ethnographers, and Western Christian missionaries visited Palestine. They conveyed their impressions of the land and its peoples to readers and congregations in Europe and America (Christison, 1997).

Arabs and Muslims first gained national attention in the late 1890s and early 1900s when immigrants began appearing in mainstream publications (Pulcini, 1993). Initially characterized as peddlers and beggars, Arabs soon became the villains of choice for the motion picture industry (Shaheen, 1984). Historians speculate that the stereotype of Arabs that began with Rudolph Valentino in “The Sheik” has developed into the transnational villain of television and film and culture in general (Barsamian, 2001). Establishing such otherness has historically been a fluid undertaking applicable to any number of racialized groups (Ali, 2003). Although Americans probably did not have a clearly defined perception of Arabs, they used their exposure through the mass media to form a vague sense of Arabs as distasteful (Christison, 1997).

Even today, the media usually portray Arabs and Muslims on TV or in movies as evil or foolish. Hollywood movies both reflect and perpetuate these stereotypes: Arabs are often villains or financial backers of espionage. For example, plots as in “The Seige,” which portrays the U.S. military declaring martial law and imprisoning American Muslims and Arab Americans following a series of terrorist bombings. In addition, the “Mummy” included negative stereotypes such as the comment: “I’ll trade you my two sisters for a camel” (Saito, 2001). By using such representations in news, movies, and magazine stories, the media have fostered the construction of an evil Arab stereotype that includes a wide variety of people, ideas, and religions (Merskin, 2004; Shaheen, 1984). These negative portrayals and stereotypes coupled with the circumstances surrounding September 11 add to the noteworthiness of this study.

Susan Akram (2002) attributes the demonization of Arabs/Muslims to “deliberate mythmaking by film and media” and purposeful stereotyping by government officials and independent polemicists who seek to justify the United States’ agenda abroad. She claims that these actions prey upon a vulnerable public, growing evermore fearful of the “unwelcome ‘other’ in our midst” (p. 61). When describing the media’s treatment of Arabs/Muslims in further detail, Akram explains how members of this group are never depicted as “ordinary people, families with social interactions, or outstanding members of communities.” Instead, Arabs/Muslims conjure images of “holy war,” terrorism, and oppressive patriarchy among the American public (p. 66).

Media Views of Muslims Post Sept. 11

Although stereotypes existed prior to September 11, Arabs were more often invisible in the Western press. In fact, researchers, in general, have found the media ignored them all together; when not ignored, they are usually presented unfavorably.  Arabs and Muslims have historically been characterized in a negative manner, yet the advent of the War on Terror has added new dimensions to the established stereotype by which even slight association with the ethnicity or religion has come to signify membership or sympathy with the “enemy”.  A number of studies have been conducted dealing with the media’s portrayal of Arabs and Muslims after the events of Sept. 11. In popular American usage, the terms “Arab” and “Muslim” have been conflated so that either word may refer to an individual who belongs to the religion and is necessarily non-Western in ethnicity. These studies generally agree that perceptions of Arabs/Muslims have grown increasingly negative after the attacks, due at least in part to the media’s coverage of this minority group.

Other studies explore how the media participates in the construction of “enemies” during times of crisis, such as the aftermath of Sept. 11. Bakalian and Bozorgmehr (2005) outline the phases of backlash faced by minorities who are of the same ethnicity or religion as the enemy group: first, the general public scapegoats the minority group; second, the media promotes existing hostile stereotypes, or creates new ones; finally, the government undertakes a systematic regime of “scrutiny and repression” (p. 7).  In a related study, Debra Merskin (2004) addresses how the spread of false information contributes to the process of “enemy image construction.” Like Akram, Merskin cites film and media, in addition to government authorities, as the parties responsible for the perpetuation of negative stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims among the public.  She stipulates, as do the others, that these media behaviors function as a means of legitimizing and expanding political power (p. 158).

Violence against Middle Easterners and Muslims heated up across the country after September 11. In fact, agencies reported more than one thousand bias incidents against Arabs, Muslims, and South Asians during the weeks following the tragedy. These crimes included damage to businesses, homes, and places of worship as well as harassment by law enforcers. Not surprisingly, September 11 increased national awareness of the potential for terrorism, and the stance the government took during the aftermath of September 11 ignited a broad range of reactions. For example, federal officials arrested hundreds of Arab and Muslim aliens, then questioned, detained, and deported many of them. Officials subjected others to special registration procedures. Also, in the first two years after September 11, the United States created immigration laws that, by design, applied almost exclusively to Arabs, Muslims, and South Asians. The final regulation issued in August 2002, required all male non-citizens over the age of sixteen from twenty-five countries to report to the local Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) office for registration and fingerprinting[2] (Chon & Artz, 2005).

Nailing Down a Group

Identifying groups by religion presents a problem for officials after September 11. For example, Arabs and Muslims are often lumped together but are fundamentally different identity groups. In fact, the majority of Arabs in the United States are Christian, and Arabs constitute a minority of Muslims worldwide (Chon & Artz, 2005). Because census reports do not track religious affiliations, the number of Muslims in the United States is difficult to assess. The best estimate is six to seven million (Chon & Artz, 2005).

The various ethnicities of Muslims also presents a challenge. For example, many records indicate that more than two-thirds of persons of the Muslim faith are African American, and a study by the American Muslim Council indicates that Blacks make up as much as one-half of all Muslims in the United States and are the fastest growing segment (Bellinger, 2002). The group’s interpretation of Islam includes nationalistic and separatist theology that boasts of the virtues and superiority of the Black race. For example, many of its followers believe the white race, through its own wickedness, faces impending extinction, and that the Black man would one day rule the world (Bellinger, 2002).  For many of the members of the Nation of Islam, September 11 was a double-edged sword because they were now marginalized for reasons related to their religion, in addition to their race (Eisenberg, 2005). In a January 24, 2005, Newsday article Eisenberg provides this example of sentiments during this period. A young African-American Muslim who was asked what it’s like living in America after September11, responded: “It’s like being black — twice.”

Religion and Politics

Finally, the issue arises of how Americans have dealt with religion in relation to political candidates.  The religion frame was particularly common in the coverage of Obama.  For example, on Fox News, commentators often discussed what they called some of Obama’s questionable associations with Muslims, donations by Obama’s church to Louis Farrakhan.  On a February 27, 2008 edition of Fox News Network, Alan Colmes said, “I still get e-mails, at least three an hour, saying, he is a secret Muslim…  We’ll talk about his middle name, whether that’s appropriate.  Even Karl Rove says, don’t go there (Discussion of the Media’s Treatment of Sen. Hillary Clinton).”

Similarly, on a CNN October 11, 2007, report, Ann Coulter said “I think Democrats have hit on the perfect candidate with Barack Obama or as I call him, B. Hussein Obama (Barack Obama Criticizes Hillary Clinton).  “B. Hussein Obama is half-white, half-black, so there’s somebody for every democrat to vote for,” she added.

In contrast to prominent coverage given to Obama’s religion, very little attention was given to Sen. Hillary Clinton’s religious beliefs and church membership.  Maybe many mainstream media outlets assume Blacks as a whole rely on clergy for guidance and representation in important issues such as political races.  Also noteworthy in this election was Mormon Mitt Romney’s bid for the Republican nomination. Although he dropped out of the race long before its conclusion, Pew Research Center (as cited in Larison, 2008, p. 21) found that a quarter of Americans and more than a third of evangelicals stated that were “less likely to vote for a Mormon.”

Certainly, association with a non-mainstream religion effects the public’s selection of political officials. David Campbell (2006) conducted a study on the influence of religious “threat” on voters’ decision-making. Based on an existing theory of the “threat effect” –  which states that “whites are more likely to vote for racially conservative candidates as the percentage of African Americans in their community rises” – Campbell stipulates that people will act in a similar manner when the critical issue is religious, in lieu of racial, identity. Applying his notions to a modern context in which evangelicals constitute a significant voting bloc, he argues that the perceived threat of secularism, and, implicitly, the absence of Christianity) could have a significant impact on the group’s voting decisions. Campbell adds that the threat is no longer conceived in strictly geographical sense, but can also be conveyed through “pop culture” as disseminated through the media (p. 104-106). Thus, a cultural threat as relayed by the media could play an important role in national elections.

The Framing Effect

A media frame is a particular way in which journalists compose a news story to optimize audience accessibility (Edelman, 1993; Entman, 1992, 1993).  Within the context of coverage of ethnic groups, media analyses demonstrate the manner in which dominant framing of ‘other’ cultural and political groups within national boundaries has been negative and stereotypical (Martindale, 1990; Bagdikian, 1983; Entman, 1992; Dates & Barlow, 1993).  Most of those studies point to the “invisibility” of minority communities in the news and of the prevalence of stereotypes in the news that are covered.  Lippmann (1922) defines a stereotype as a form of perception that imposes ways of seeing.  Stereotypes precede reason and thus unavoidably shape the story of the storyteller.  Since Lippmann’s studies, literature on race and the media has affirmed the press represents minorities in narrowly defined stereotypical roles (Gutierrez, 1995).

Many media studies concerning race focus on mainstream ideas of minorities (e.g., Lule, 1995; Peer & Ettema, 1998).  Such scholarship is important in illustrating the obstacles that people face; however, it only tells part of the story (Squires, 2007).  Flores &

McPhail (1997) write that through comparing alternative media with mainstream media, researchers are reminded that although the dominant media have great influence and reach in society, the influence and reach of dominant media are not all encompassing.  Media resources produced by and for minorities provide interpretations of events and identities that may run counter to mainstream representations.  In addition, the comparison of mainstream with minority media should yield a richer study of the processes of interpretation and representation of cultural identities (Squires, 2002).

Notion of Hegemony
News stories send viewers, readers and listeners hidden messages that suggest a story’s importance, and ultimately people’s importance within society.  In their exploration of news narrative structures that are repeated over time, Bennett and Edelman (1985) argued that most news stories maintain the status quo by presenting social problems within comfortable cognitive frames that disallow the entry of alternative renditions.

Others applied the notion of myth making to news-framing theory.  According to Frye (1957), myths are not intentional fiction, but socially and culturally recognizable stories that reassure and attempt to impose order on chaos.  News tends to reduce complex phenomena into neat mythical packages that reflect the ideological practices of news-making structures (Bird & Dardenne, 1988).

Gitlin (1980) applied Gramsci’s (1971) notion of hegemony to deconstructing the news-making process.  Hegemony does not refer to a deceitful plan crafted purposefully by those in positions of power to manipulate the system to serve dominant interests.  Instead, hegemony is “manufactured consent” (Herman & Chomsky, 1988).  The process aims at building consensus among the masses that a certain ideology is normal and that any contradictions to it are deviant (Berger, 1995; Schiller, 1973).  Gitlin (1980) explicated that those in positions of power do not directly maintain the status quo: “The task is left to writers, journalists, producers and teachers, bureaucrats and artists organized within the cultural apparatus as a whole” (p. 254).

Researchers chose to conduct a textual analysis to assess frames because simply collecting numbers about people does not tell researchers much about the ways in which frames are represented and understood in societies (Mickler and McHoul, 1998).  If researchers want to understand society, they must understand how people make sense of the world.  Mickler and McHoul (1998) state that simply collecting statistics about people does not tell researchers much about the ways in which they are represented and understood in their environment.  However, one can get some sense of that by doing textual analysis on such texts as newspaper stories, television stories–even on statistics and government reports.  By doing this, researchers get a better idea of how members of that community interpret the world around them (McKee, 2001).


This paper undertakes a textual analysis of print and online media addressing the rumors that Sen. Obama is secretly a Muslim.  Three newspaper articles from various key sources are examined. A qualitative analysis is suited to this study because of the possibility that a single news item could solidify or dispel the accusations in the minds of the readers. While the original rumors spread via the internet and word-of-mouth, newspapers were selected for this analysis as they contain more measured, detailed responses to the allegations. Individuals who seek this type of information are more likely to be influenced by it than those who believed the rumors without further investigation. In other words, newspapers are one of the “trustworthy” sources which could make or break the opinion of an undecided public.

The first article, “Hillary’s team has questions about Obama’s Muslim background,” is from the online conservative magazine Insight; this is the original piece that broke the “news” to the public, and was widely quoted by other media outlets, including Fox News, as they developed their own stories.  The next article, entitled “Islam an unknown factor in Obama bid,” was taken from Obama’s official web site, under “Religion” in the “Know the Facts” section. This piece was initially published in Los Angeles Times, and will be taken as representative of the campaign’s official stand on the issue.  The final article, “Campaign allegation a source of vexation,” appeared in the The Washington Post. This story was selected as an example of a major, national newspaper’s treatment of the subject.   All of the articles were printed within two months of each other.  The first, which was published on Jan. 17, 2007, introduced the allegations that are the focus of the subsequent stories.

Among the three articles, it is expected that the Insight story will demonstrate the heaviest use of Arab/Muslim stereotypes to discuss the rumors that Sen. Obama is covertly a Muslim. In addition, this story will convey the least amount of established facts about Obama’s personal life which would mitigate his connection to Islam.  It is also anticipated that the tone of this article will be the most credulous in addressing the allegations. Because this piece comes from a conservative source, it will naturally highlight those elements of the story, which undermine Obama’s bid for the presidency.

The article taken from Obama’s Web site is expected to strongly refute the accusations that Obama is Muslim, and to do so without any attempt to condemn the general hostility implied towards Arabs/Muslims in these accusations. It is believed that this story will studiously avoid inflammatory, stereotypical terms, and instead will focus on those events and facts which prove that Obama is a Christian. These expectations are based on previous exposure to Obama’s handling of allegations that he is Muslim.

Finally, the story taken from The Washington Post is anticipated to be neutral in tone, but containing many of those loaded terms that will be freely used in the Insight article, and totally eschewed in the story from Obama’s Web site. As a major, national newspaper with a wide readership, this source will seek to minimize bias yet will include the controversial aspects of the rumor due to the interest they generate among readers.

The first article examined is “Hillary’s team has questions about Obama’s Muslim background” from conservative, online magazine, Insight. As anticipated, this article most frequently links Sen. Obama to Arab/Muslim terminologies and concepts. In addition to basic statements quoted from an unidentified source that contend Obama was and possibly still is Muslim, the author employs a number of different methods to strengthen the association. One techniques is repetition. Some particularly loaded accusations are reiterated multiple times.

One of the most common framing tactics was the continual use of Arabic words such as “madrassa” and “Wahhabism.” The fact that Obama attended a madrassa, or Muslim school, is brought up three times. The phrase “raised as a Muslim” appears two times. These repetitions do not clarify context or serve any other structural reason; they are included just for the sake of being there.

While the other articles define such words and use their English translations to discuss them subsequently, this article employs the foreign terms throughout. Gradually, Obama becomes as alien as the terms that are used to describe him.

Another manner in which the author emphasizes Obama’s link to Islam is through the inclusion of information that is both irrelevant and inflammatory. For example, the story states:

Although Indonesia is regarded as a moderate Muslim state, the U.S. intelligence community has determined that today most of these schools are financed by the Saudi Arabian government and they teach a Wahhabi doctrine that denies the right of non-Muslims (Insight, 2007, para. 12).

The simple question that this statement inspires is what any of the aforementioned facts have to do with Obama’s enrollment in a Muslim school forty years ago. Why does the reader need to know that where he used to study may now espouse an intolerant form of Islam?

Sizing and Omission of Details

One of the more important areas of framing is sizing/emphasis or perceived importance of the issue. The essence of framing according to Entman (1991) is sizing, or to what extent a communicator magnifies or miniaturizes any depicted reality and thus, makes it more or less significant. According to previous studies, one can assess the event’s importance by how much material is available and its prominence.

It was hypothesized that the Insight article would downplay the established facts about Obama’s personal life, particularly those that serve to mitigate accusations that he is Muslim.  Over halfway into the article, during which Obama’s “life-long relationship with Islam as a faith and Muslims as a community” (para. 15) is examined, the author writes: “Mr. Obama attends services at Trinity United Church of Christ…  However, he is not known to be a regular parishioner (para. 14).”

It is important to note that the article never states Obama is Christian – he “attends services” (even that irregularly) and at best “characterizes himself as a Christian” (para. 18). The author clearly attempts to diminish Obama’s association with Christianity in the midst of a tremendous amount of information that tries to link Obama to Islam. The last fourth of the article does contain two quotes from Obama’s autobiographies addressing his parents’ religiosity and his educational experiences in Indonesia. The late appearance of this information suggests that Obama’s own comments on the subject of his religion are nonessential, or unimportant to understanding the issue. It is questionable whether most readers would make it that far into the article, and obvious that the information linking Obama to Islam is given precedence by the author.

Concealment of Past

Finally, researchers expected that the Insight article would exhibit a credulous attitude towards the supposition that Obama is a Muslim.  While the author gives weight to the contention in a number of ways, as described above, the striking feature of the article is its accusatory tone toward Obama’s supposed concealment of his past. It is not just that the article gravitates toward believing the allegations, but that it participates in the denouncement of Obama for his “hiding” of the truth. The article describes how he “does not expand on his Muslim background” (para. 8) in either of his autobiographies, and then mentions how Obama doesn’t publicly use his middle name, “Hussein” (para. 9) – incidentally, another example of irrelevant and inflammatory information. The accusation of concealment is palpable, and fits easily into the broader narrative of Obama as a devious individual.

While the article in the conservative magazine matched up to previous expectations, a close examination of the article taken from Obama’s Web site disproved several elements of the original hypothesis. It was supposed that the story – specifically chosen as it was by the Obama camp to provide a solid negation of false rumors – would aggressively refute the claims that Obama was secretly a Muslim.

This was expected to be achieved through the avoidance of inflammatory Arab/Muslim terminology, and the active promotion of Obama as a Christian. The opening paragraph dispelled at least one of these notions:

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 (Watson, 2007, para. 1).

It is somewhat shocking to see the word “Allah” in the article at all, (particularly in the context of Obama bowing to Him,) let alone in the story’s lead. “Allah,” the Arabic name for God, is no less charged a word than “madrassa,”  yet its presence in the article immediately signals that there will be no attempt to ignore, hide, or even mindlessly shoot down the allegations; rather, the inflammatory elements of the accusations are incorporated into their refutation. This is the basic structure underlying the entire story:  the inclusion of a false and controversial piece of information, followed by a response that negates untruths, creates a broader context and ultimately seeks to humanize Obama.  For example, following a quote from a childhood friend that “Barry was Muslim. He went to the mosque,” the author relates a statement from Obama’s half-sister:

“My father saw Islam as a way to connect with the community. He never went to prayer services except for big communal events… He was not religious” (para. 19)

Sizing By Omission

After acknowledging that Obama spent time in mosques, the author diffuses the potential damage in this fact by relating the context in which Obama must have visited mosques and further adding that his stepfather – commonly acknowledged to be the only person in Obama’s family who self-identified as a Muslim – was not religious. Another example is found in the follow-up to the revelation that the young Obama partook in Koranic study:

“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” (para. 13).

Again, one can see how the author includes information that rules out any negative connotations that might arise from mention of “the Koran,” all the while reminding the reader that Obama was but a child when he had these experiences. The chief effect of this method is the depiction of Obama as an individual whose life experiences do not differ so greatly from those of the readers’.

Though it was anticipated that the Obama campaign would choose an article that put heavy emphasis on evidence that Obama was a Christian, there was only one mention of it in the whole text. Furthermore, the story contained only one reference to the Muslim rumor as a “smear,” as stated by the campaign. The tendency to discuss the allegations as though they are offensive originates from the campaign itself; since this article was written by an independent source, it did not contain such comments.

The Washington Post

The final article was taken from The Washington Post as representative of mainstream, national coverage of the issue. The story was expected to be neutral in tone yet inclusive of the charged terminology surrounding the rumor that Obama is Muslim. While the article includes information and perspectives from both sides of the controversy, and is in that sense balanced, the author clearly framed the contention that Obama was/is Muslim to make its proponents look ridiculous. The second sentence of the story reads:

The allegation… raised questions about whether the Illinois senator had been schooled in Islamic radicalism when he was all of 6 years old.

The writing reveals the author’s skeptical attitude toward the accusations, yet simultaneously includes the loaded references that were correctly anticipated. For example, after including in capital letters the headlines from The New York Post – “OSAMA’ MUD FLIES AT OBAMA” – the author goes on to comment how the allegations lack “a single named source.”

Thus, unlike the previous two articles – each of which utilized methods in line with its end purpose, whether it was to condemn Obama or clear his name – this article contains conflicting techniques.  On the one hand, the author paints the accusations as foolish; on the other, the incorporation of content such as speculations whether the Muslims at Obama’s school were “the kind that want to blow us up” may play on the reader’s suspicions and actually cause them to escalate rather than diminish.

Importance is given to a topic just by including it in an article.



This textual analysis looked at how diverse news outlets framed the idea that Sen. Barack Obama might be Muslim during the 2008 Presidential Election.  Researchers argued such an analysis provides insight into the nature of American attitudes toward Arabs and Muslims, and the power of these attitudes to influence an event as extensive as a national campaign.

A close reading of the articles that were written to convey, counter, or consider the rumor that Sen. Obama is a Muslim provides insight into the nature of American attitudes towards Arabs and Muslims, and the power of these attitudes to influence an event as extensive as a national campaign.  Common frames were “Arabic words,” “biographical facts” and “Obama’s foreign sounding name.”  In the United State’s current atmosphere post September 11, Arab ethnicity, Islamic faith, and the evils of terrorism and war have been fused together so that association with one of these factors inevitably leads to implication in the others. Thus, suggesting that a U.S. presidential candidate is an Arab or a Muslim translates into a much more sinister accusation.

The news stories examined revealed three completely different approaches to the issue. Both the Insight article and the Obama Web site had an agenda to promote, while The Washington Post tackled the subject in the absence of a vested interest. All three stories utilized inflammatory terms, though to very different ends. The Insight story used these charged words to strengthen the readers’ association of Obama with Islam, while the article from Obama Web site incorporated them into its refutation of the rumor. The Washington Post story included these terms to present a balanced account of the controversy, yet may have simultaneously spread or escalated the suspicions about Obama. The tone of these articles also varied between accusation and ridicule, with the Obama Web site story revealing itself to be the most neutral in its commentary.

None of the stories discussed how the accusations that Obama is Muslim, as well as some of the defenses, demonstrate an inherent hostility towards Muslims and Arabs. In an editorial on the subject, Naomi Klein (2008) describes how Obama was quick to condemn anti-Semitic comments from Louis Farrakhan, but has remained largely silent as one “scandal” after the other – the pictures of Obama wearing a turban, the e-mail rumors that he was educated in a madrassa or sworn in on the Koran – reinforces public animosity towards Arabs and Muslims (p. 10).

While it may be politically expedient for Obama to deal with the issue in this manner – or simply unavoidable if he wants to maintain a viable bid for the presidency – the wider implications of this issue should not be overlooked. Obama may be the one on trial, but Arabs and Muslims have already been condemned.

It was not until Sunday, October 19, 2008 that America heard for the first time that being Muslim does not necessarily make one evil.  Although Colin Powell’s talk on Meet the Press was downplayed, it was profound.

Works Cited

Akram, Susan M. (2002). The aftermath of September 11, 2001: The targeting of Arabs

and Muslims in America. Arab Studies Quarterly, 24(2&3), 61.

Bakalian, Anny, and Mehdi Bozorgmehr. (2005). Muslim American mobilization.

Diaspora, 14(1), 7.

Campbell, David E. (2006). Religious “threat” in contemporary presidential elections.

The Journal of Politics, 68(1), 104.

Hillary’s team has questions about Obama’s Muslim background. (2007 January 17).         Insight.

Klein, Naomi. (2008 March 17). Obama, being called Muslim is not a smear. The Nation.   p.10.

Kurtz, Howard. (2007 January 22). Campaign allegation a source of vexation. The

            Washington Post.

Larison, Daniel. (2008 January 14). Devaluing doctrine. The American Conservative. p.


Manjoo, Farhad. (2008 March 16). Rumor’s reasons. The New York Times Magazine.

Merskin, Debra. (2004). The construction of Arabs as enemies: Post-September 11             discourse of George W. Bush. Mass Communication & Society, 7(2), 157.

Muslim issue a “no-win” for him, says Obama. (2008 August 26). Christian Century.

Shaheen, Jack. (2008 May-June). Attacks on Barack Obama reinforce anti-Muslim             sentiment. Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. p. 47.

Spencer, Robert. Obama throws a million Muslims under the bus. Jihad Watch.

Watson, Paul. (2007 March 16). Islam an unknown factor in Obama bid. Los Angeles


Colin Powell’s Endorsement of Barack Obama and Eloquence About Anti-Muslim Bigotry in America. October 20, 2008 12:39 PM ET | John Aloysius Farrell

[1] On September 11, 2001, terrorists carried out a series of suicide attacks against civilians of the United States. Nineteen men simultaneously hijacked four U.S. domestic commercial airliners and crashed them into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and a field.

[2] The domestic registration program included citizens or nationals from Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Egypt, Eritrea, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Lebanon, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. However, to date, individuals from more than 150 countries have been registered in the National Security Entry/Exit Registration System NSEERS program.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s