General Colin Powell – former Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, former National Security Advisor, former Secretary of State, and lifelong Republican – today endorsed Barack Obama on Meet The Press. It was a powerful endorsement.
The endorsement brought me nearly to tears because of this passage:
I’m also troubled by, not what Sen. 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 7-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.
I feel strongly about this particular point because of a picture I saw in a magazine. It was a photo essay about troops who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay was of a mother in Arlington cemetery, and she had her head on the headstone of her son’s grave. And as the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone. And it gave his awards — Purple Heart, Bronze Star — showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death. He was 20 years old. And then, at the very top of the headstone, it didn’t have a Christian cross, it didn’t have the Star of David, it had crescent and a star of the Islamic faith. And his name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, and he was an American. He was born in New Jersey. He was 14 years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he can go serve his country, and he gave his life. Now, we have got to stop polarizing ourself in this way. And John McCain is as nondiscriminatory as anyone I know. But I’m troubled about the fact that, within the party, we have these kinds of expressions.
I – a Muslim American – have been a rhetorical punching bag for the McCain campaign. Too cowardly to openly declare the racism that is the underpinning of his campaign, the McCain campaign has instead been using the "Obama is a Muslim" smear as a proxy for "Obama is Black". Obama has been forced to defend against the false charge. No one has been able to defend my faith. It is just not done in American politics – post 9/11.
General Powell was perhaps the only American leader with the stature necessary to effectively push back on the anti-Muslim hatred coming from the McCain campaign. He did it by invoking the sacrifice of a brave young American – a Muslim American – who rests in Arlington National Cemetery under a headstone adorned with a crescent. It was an important moment in American politics and for American society.
After this election is over, the wounds the McCain campaign have inflicted on America’s national fabric will need to heal. The racism that has been stoked in the service of a few additional votes will have to be contended with. The fear of the other that has fueled the McCain campaign will take time to subside. But, it is my hope, that what General Powell began today by his statement will hasten that healing.
Perhaps the substance of what General Powell said today will be forgotten in the years to come. Perhaps most people will only remember today as the day General Powell endorsed Barack Obama. But I will remember more. So will, I suspect, a lot of other Muslim Americans.
I am grateful to General Powell for his words. He need not have said them. His endorsement of Barack Obama would have been no less powerful if he had left out these words. But, nonetheless, he spoke them. For that I am grateful, for me and for my 7 year-old daughter who – with her fellow Americans – will inherit the America we leave behind.