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Barack Obama: Secret Muslim?

During this year’s presidential campaign, widely-circulated e-mails claimed that Barack Obama was a secret Muslim. “Obama takes great care to conceal the fact that he is a Muslim,” one version of the e-mail asserted. “Barack Hussein Obama has joined the United Church of Christ in an attempt to downplay his Muslim background. ALSO, keep in mind that when he was sworn into office he DID NOT use the Holy Bible, but instead the Koran.” Setting aside the factual problems with this e-mail (the swearing-in claim confused Obama, a long-time practicing Christian, with Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, the first Muslim elected to Congress), how has the prospect of a secret Muslim as President taken such a prominent place among the cyber-myths of this election?

One might easily point to the fear of Muslim extremists generated by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, as a contributing factor to this rumor about Obama. The prominent role of evangelical Christians in American politics might be another cause. Anxiety about Islam has particular resonance among conservative Protestants: polls have consistently demonstrated that contemporary evangelicals have a substantially more negative view of Islam than other Americans. But American fears about Muslims precede 9/11 by hundreds of years, with origins as early as the founding of the first English colonies in America. History also shows conflicted American attitudes toward Islam, even among conservative Christians, whose views of Islam have ranged from studied respect to apocalyptic revulsion.

Colonial Americans, surprisingly, wrote about Islam regularly. Few Muslims passed through the colonies, although a number of African-American slaves had embraced Islam in West Africa. But those slaves’ faith did not shape colonial Anglo-Americans’ views of Islam. Instead, colonists saw Islam as a threat associated with the Ottoman Empire and the Barbary pirates. The Ottomans continued to menace Europe until their decisive loss at Vienna in 1683, while the Barbary pirates routinely enslaved European sailors from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. A number of American sailors fell prey to their attacks, generating a brisk trade in Barbary captivity stories in the colonies.

Biographies of the Prophet Muhammad also circulated widely in early America. The most popular of these was Humphrey Prideaux’s The True Nature of Imposture Displayed in the Life of Mahomet (originally published in London in 1697). The title of this work explained its agenda: Prideaux viewed Muhammad as a fraud who foisted his purported revelations on his followers. Anglo-American commentators routinely referred to the Prophet as the “impostor Mahomet.” Popular literature on Islam helped create the widespread impression of Islam as a dangerous, duplicitous religion.

Early American Christians also had a clear place for Islam in Bible prophecy. They believed that a specific passage, Revelation 9:2-3, prophesied the rise of Islam in the seventh century. This passage speaks of locusts swarming out of a smoky abyss, who wreaked destruction in a way interpreters found reminiscent of the expansion of early Islam. Many commentators also believed that the Bible forecasted the destruction of Islam in the last days. They especially pointed to verses such as Revelation 16:12, which predicted the drying up of the Euphrates River. Interpreters saw this as a symbol of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the end times.

Direct American Christian contact with Muslims increased in the nineteenth century, with the advent of the foreign missions movement. In 1819 the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions sent missionaries to Palestine, with great confidence that their arrival heralded Christian revival in the Muslim-dominated Middle East. But for most of the nineteenth century, American missions in Muslim lands were hamstrung by unrealistic expectations, poor planning, and legal strictures on Muslim evangelization in the Ottoman Empire.

The late nineteenth century saw critical turning points in American missions and theology of the last days. First, the most influential American missionary to Muslims, Samuel Zwemer, arrived in Beirut in 1890, beginning a sixty-year career of missions work and study of Islam. Zwemer organized major international evangelical conferences on Muslim evangelization, became editor of the key journal, The Moslem World, and eventually authored or edited about fifty books on Islam. The studious Zwemer, who finished his career at Princeton Seminary, introduced legions of American Christians to a more detailed, careful view of Islam. Zwemer saw Islam as a formidable religion, yet believed that it would soon crumble before the tide of the Christian gospel and Western civilization.

Other Americans maintained a place for Islam in their theology of the last days, but in a very different context than before. The late nineteenth century saw the replacement of earlier historical ideas about prophecy with dispensationalism, a system which presented most Bible prophecies as yet to be fulfilled. This meant that Revelation 9:2-3, for many conservative Christians, no longer referred to the rise of Islam, but to increased demonic activity in the so-called Tribulation, when the Antichrist would reign on earth.

Increasingly, dispensationalists saw Muslims as among the chief antagonists to the re-establishment of the nation of Israel, the center of action in the last days. The war for Israeli independence in the late 1940s focused many American dispensationalists on the ostensibly inevitable violence between Israelis and Palestinians. Following the Six-Day War of 1967, many conservative American Christians proclaimed that the “times of the Gentiles” and their rule over Jerusalem (a development to which Jesus referred in the Gospel of Luke) had ended.

Since 1967, every major conflict in the Middle East has set off a new round of theological speculation among some American Christians. After 9/11, certain Christian commentators offered extremely harsh characterizations of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad, sentiments that hearkened back to Americans’ negative views of the colonial era. Other Christian conservatives, especially those working in missions among Muslims, have called for more charitable understanding of Islam, despite the horrific violence of 9/11.

9/11 may have exacerbated the fear of Islam among Christian conservatives--and helped fabricate the notion that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim--but their worries are not substantially new. Since the colonial era, many Christian Americans have seen Islam as a religious and political threat.