"Barack Obama is a secret muslim," perhaps the most pervasive meme this campaign season. There’s this picture of him in his onion head hat, there’s the incessant e-mail chains about how he was OMG TRAINED IN A MADRASSA, his middle name is Hussein, and, of course, he’s brown. There are a lot of reasons that "Obama is a secret muslim" line is so difficult to scrub out of the mass consciousness. On the basest level, it appeals to latent xenophobia as well as the myth of the "sleeper cell," that wonderful post-9/11 idea that the "Muslim next door" could, in fact, be a terrorist agent waiting for the right moment to flip. Together, these two concepts bind the "secret muslim" label quite strongly (see: sleeper cells).
Of course, at this stage, with less than three months until the election, the only people who believe that "Barack Obama is a secret Muslim" would not have voted for him anyway. Think the archetypal redneck that votes against his root economic interests because of carefully calibrated anti-liberal fear mongering.
And yet, the "secret Muslim" meme tells us a lot more about our country than it does about its half-black Democratic standard bearer. Barack Obama elicits a kind of subconscious fear that someone like, say, Jesse Jackson doesn’t. As alien, as different, as "other" as Jesse Jackson may be to the typical white man, at the end of the day Jesse Jackson has a well defined and well observed, if not well understood, role in American society; he is an ‘integral’ part in the race narrative in America. Barack Obama is different. His father is a Kenyan herdsman, an other’s other. His parents met at a Russian language class at the height of the Cold War. Mrs. Obama had a thing for ‘colored’ men; her second husband and B-Dot’s step-father was an Indonesian at a time when interracial marriage was still largely taboo and an interracial kiss on Star Trek involving body snatchers could be the apex of controversy.
So Barack Obama would be the first President in many generations to have at least one parent who was not "American." And yet, from Punahou to Harvard to Washington politics, Barack Obama has outperformed his more American peers. On some level, this threatens the American idea of American superiority. At a time when the American brand name is tarnished and America has hit a ‘rough patch,’ it could be even more deflating to see that for relief the country turns to someone with such foreign roots to fix it. And look at how loved he is overseas, more to make Americans uncomfortable. Barack Obama brings out discomfort in the mass consciousness because he is a personification of the forces of globalization that have transformed our world in the last 60 years; his far-flung origins (Hawai’i via Kenya and Kansas, two years in Indonesia) serve to remind Americans that the America (and the world) of the 20th century has been relegated to the dustbin of history. The 21st century is a different time place; USA cannot SMASH at will its enemies and two oceans are no longer a sufficient barrier from the rest of the world. Barack Obama piles on to this: the image of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant can no longer be neatly grafted onto America as its "archetype," and, of course, the youth have taken over. So Barack Obama is not a Secret Muslim, and no rational educated person thinks so anymore, but the idea persists because he is just so different from what we expect of our leaders, be they white or black, from the mainstream or the margins, and as the great open-ended signifiers he has become the globalization and ‘change’ that we are only now realizing has already completely engulfed our reality. Rejecting B-Dot won’t turn back the clock on that process, but embracing him may make the remainder of the transition smoother.