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(photo credit: AP)
A great deal has been reported - and misreported - about the religious affiliation of Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama. He has been described in the media as both a Muslim and a Christian.
His alleged Islamic affiliation derives from his middle name, Hussein, which certain sleazy pundits and bigots are quick to associate by innuendo with terrorism. In fact, Hussein is a popular Arab and Islamic name. It means "good," "proper" or "handsome."
Just because there was once an Iraqi dictator with the same name doesn't mean that all Husseins are questionable. A great ally of the United States, for example, was the late King Hussein of Jordan. And for that matter, are all Josephs to be associated with Joseph Stalin?
"If I were a Muslim I would let you know," Obama has told reporters. In fact, he is a practicing Christian, a member of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ. But although he is not now a Muslim, he was born to a Muslim father and spent four impressionable years of his childhood in the world's most populous Muslim country, Indonesia.
In a meeting with voters last December at a coffee shop in Oskaloosa, Iowa, MSNBC reported, Obama described his Muslim background in simple terms:
"My father was from Kenya, and a lot of people in his village were Muslim. He didn't practice Islam. Truth is he wasn't very religious. He met my mother. My mother was a Christian from Kansas, and they married and then divorced. I was raised by my mother. So, I've always been a Christian. The only connection I've had to Islam is that my grandfather on my father's side came from that country. But I've never practiced Islam.
"For a while, I lived in Indonesia because my mother was teaching there. And that's a Muslim country. And I went to school. But I didn't practice. But what I do think it does is it gives me insight into how these folks think, and part of how I think we can create a better relationship with the Middle East and that would help make us safer is if we can understand how they think about issues."
HOWEVER, OBAMA's Muslim background - besides gaining him "insight into how these folks think" - might also give "these folks" reason to kill him.
All versions of Obama's biography agree on certain basic facts. He was born in 1961 in Honolulu to a non-practicing Muslim Kenyan father and a Christian American mother and spent his early childhood in Hawaii. After his parents divorced, he lived from age six to 10 in Jakarta with his mother and Indonesian stepfather, a non-practicing Muslim described by neighbors as someone who hung prayer beads over his bed but enjoyed eating bacon - anathema to Islam.
He returned to Honolulu to live with his Christian maternal grandparents while attending school there from the fifth grade until his graduation in 1979.
In Jakarta from 1967 to 1971, from first through fourth grade, Obama's religious upbringing depended more on the practices of the schools he attended than on any decision by his non-practicing Christian mother or his non-practicing Muslim stepfather. While enrolled at a Catholic school, Fransiskus Strada Asisia, for three years, the Chicago Tribune reported, Obama was required to pray as a Catholic - four times a day.
When he attended a public school, Sekolah Dasar Nasional Menteng No. 1, as a fourth grader during his last year in Indonesia, he learned about Islam for a compulsory two hours a week. This was because he was registered, by law, under his step-father's name as a Muslim. Whatever Islamic instruction he managed to absorb as a nine-year-old, he did so for only two hours a week - plus occasionally accompanying his step-father on a rare visit to a mosque.
It should also be pointed out that Obama's school was not the fundamentalist Islamic madrassa depicted in media reports, but a public school progressive enough for its women teachers to be allowed to wear miniskirts and ecumenical enough for pupils to be encouraged to celebrate Christmas.
So why all the concern about a candidate who really had little formal religious upbringing from either the Muslim or Christian side of his family, and who was baptized as an adult in 1988 when he embraced Christianity and became an enthusiastic churchgoer? The real concern is not over how Obama views his conversion, but how the Islamic world will deal with it.
WHETHER OR not his father was a devout Muslim, under Islamic law (Shari'a) Obama was born into Islam, which follows patrilineal descent. "I've always been a Christian," Obama tells the public - apparently meaning "always as an adult" and disregarding his lack of connection to Islam as a child. To believers, however, once a Muslim always a Muslim.
Obama's conversion to Christianity makes him what is called a murtadd, an apostate, under Islamic law. Strictly fundamentalist Islamic regimes, like that of Saudi Arabia, might have difficulty dealing with an American president whose abandonment of Islam they consider punishable by death.
The writer is a former chief copy editor of The Jerusalem Post.