By Lolla Mohammed Nur, Engage Minnesota
It is 7 a.m. on November 5th, and I am in my living room in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia with the TV on. CNN has just announced that Barack Obama has won the electoral vote and is therefore the new president-elect of the United States. An endless flow of tears start streaming down my face. My tears are those of joy and victory, not of sadness.
This was the moment of victory Obama and so many others—including me—had been waiting for so long. This was the announcement of success Obama had strived so hard to achieve, regardless of the never-ending attacks that he had to endure all year long on his policies, experience, personal life, and roots. As I tried to dry my face which was proving to be impossible, I reflected on why I was crying so much.
I realized the reason for my dramatic reaction to Obama’s victory is that, ever since following his campaign in January, I have felt a deep connection with Obama. Despite the labels of guilt-by-association pointed at him throughout the campaign by his desperate Republican opponents and the racist comments that were thrown at him by some Americans themselves—some of which I never thought could be used as insults, and all of which I took very personally—Obama has made history by winning the Presidency, and I feel like I have won with him.
Being an East African Muslim, I have some things in common with Obama. Two of these things are the color of my skin and my roots. I am black as Obama is black. I am Ethiopian and he is Kenyan—our countries even share a border. And I am Muslim as his roots are Muslim also.
Although he has stated clearly—almost defensively—that he is and always has been a follower of Christianity and not Islam, most of his Kenyan family members are Muslim. Therefore, I have felt, as do most other Africans and especially African (American) Muslims, that I share a special connection with this inspiring African-American. It is because of this, in some ways intangible, connection that I feel as if I have gone through the twisting rollercoaster of emotions and unexpected moments the election campaign of 2008 has turned out to be.
I was never interested in politics until I came to Minnesota as an international student in the fall of 2007. I grew up in Saudi Arabia with the ever-present idea that meddling in politics is dangerous. I only had to look at the long list of political leaders and activists who have been assassinated in the past century, or have been made to live in paranoia all of their lives, to confirm the fears of being affiliated with the political world. In high school, I never even dreamed of studying, let alone having a career in, politics.
Although I never thought about it much in high school, looking back now I can say that there were several reasons for my indifference to anything political. Not only is politics considered dangerous by many in my family and my home country, Ethiopia, but I also never had the encouragement, inspiration, and confidence to ever think of trying to be a political leader. To be a politician of a country, a person has to feel attached to that country and be able to call that country “home.” However, I grew up in a country that was not mine, a country that I did not feel I belonged, Saudi Arabia.
Although I was born in Riyadh, the capital city, as were my siblings, we were not given Saudi citizenship. Also, while Arabic is the main language used in Saudi Arabia, my first language is English because I studied at the American School in Riyadh ever since Kindergarten, the same school where I received my high school diploma. Finally, while I look like an Ethiopian, I was not born and have never lived in Ethiopia.
Thus, being what is called a “third culture kid”—a kid born in a country other than his or her parents’ and then living somewhere else—I have never felt like I can call any country my home. As a result, I never had the interest and courage to be a political leader of any country, or share any connections with a leader of any country. I think also growing up in the society of Saudi Arabia—a society composed of a monotonous demography whose members are almost all Muslim, Saudi and/or Arab, most of whom are either doctors, engineers, businessmen or otherwise very wealthy, a society in which women are not encouraged to be independent and get involved with government and politics, and a society in short, which I believe to not be as dynamic as the American society—automatically forced my brain to switch to the default setting of tuning out anytime someone brought up something not meshing with the status quo, such as politics.
My freshman year in Minnesota, however, has changed my political apathy, and I truly believe that Barack Obama has everything to do with this change.
I started getting interested in the election campaign in January 2008, which was primary season. I was surprised at how politically involved other university students were, something which I had never encountered back at my American high school in Riyadh. There was a recent buzz in Coffman Memorial Union because the Hollywood actors Scarlett Johannsen and Kal Penn, as well as Representative Keith Ellison, were coming to visit the University of Minnesota as part of their nation-wide campaign for Barack Obama. My friends and I were excited and went early to the theater to get front row seats. I remember the tingle of excitement I felt when Scarlett, Kal, and Keith spoke about a future African-American president so passionately. Everything they said about Obama appealed to me, especially his plan to help reduce university tuition, a problem I was having since the tuition for international students is very inflated.
I think it is very powerful that although I am not an American, the connection I felt with Obama on that day—and more days to come—even though he was not present, was very real. Little did I know that I was only beginning to be enwrapped by the rapidly-spreading phenomenon later to be called “Obama-mania”.
I remember my ecstatic excitement when I heard Obama was coming to Minnesota in January (just two weeks after Scarlett, Kal, and Keith came to the University) to speak at a rally at the Target Center in Downtown Minneapolis. My first question was: Can I go? My second was: If so, how? I had never, in my life, seen a politician with my own eyes (besides Keith Ellison), never met or talked with a politician, or any sort of leader for that matter. In short, I have never had some of the opportunities my American peers and friends have been so lucky to experience all of their lives, and probably have taken for granted. Therefore, anyone would understand the reasons for the sheer excitement I felt at the prospect of receiving two free tickets to see and hear Obama speak at the Target Center.
That day was unforgettable. That day I cried and cheered so much that my eyes and throat were sore by the end of Obama’s deeply touching and beautiful speech. That day I was inspired by Obama—his presence, his words, his eloquence, his calls for change, and the fact that he was a symbol of all minority groups. His audacity to hope so much, his slogan “Change we can believe in,” as well as his mantra “Yes, we can” all made me feel alive in a way I have never felt before. It was from that day that I really felt the connection I share with Obama materialize and envelope my very being.
It was from that day I fell in love with politics.
Caucus week in Minnesota is also very memorable for me.
I was pleasantly surprised when I heard that the University of Minnesota was reserving several locations around campus to allow students to vote. My friends—most of them Muslim and all supporting Obama—were planning to vote in Coffman Memorial Union, and I remember wanting to vote but knowing I couldn’t because of my international student status. All three floors in Coffman were stacked with students in line; most of them would be voting for Obama, proof of the phenomenon he has caused amongst young Americans.
I think it is the profound ability Obama has to speak eloquently and articulate his passions and goals so clearly that allows him to engage people of all ages, faiths, and racial backgrounds. Not only has Obama engaged Americans, but also the world. He has literally caused a world-wide “Obama-mania”, a phenomenon steering all Americans and non-Americans—Africans, Arabs, Asians, Europeans, Muslims, Jews, and Christians—to feel as if Obama is representing all of us.
Obama outside America
I recently visited my extended family in Ethiopia, none of whom speak English, all of whom know who I am talking about when I mention Obama’s name. Even my four-year-old cousin would randomly chant “Obama! Obama!” Taxis across Addis Ababa, the capital city, were plastered with pictures of Obama, and clothing stores displayed T-shirts depicting Obama’s smiling face. My mother, like myself, never used to be even remotely interested in politics. In fact, I remember her discouraging me from involving myself with politics, because of the inherent fear of politics she has—a fear that has been rooted in her mind since her childhood.
However, when Obama came into the picture, she became as engrossed in his campaign all year long as I had been; she felt hurt as I had felt when Obama was insulted and attacked by his opponents; and she cried with me when Obama was announced the President-elect of the United States. Obama has touched my mom’s, my relatives’, and fellow Ethiopians’ hearts in a way no other American politician has.
Barack Obama has also specifically impacted the Muslim world in a unique way.
Islam is not exclusive to any ethnic background, but Muslims do represent every racial background and ethnicity. Therefore, many Muslims feel the same connection I feel with Obama because of his color, although color is not the only reason for the massive international support he has gained. Obama’s passion and his evident will for diplomacy and fair play appeal to the international world—especially the Arab and Muslim worlds—which are hungry for America to restore its image and regain its leadership role on the world stage. When Obama said he will pull the U.S. out of Iraq if elected president, and that he will talk with Iran without pre-conditions, he won the hearts of Muslims worldwide who feel that the Muslim world has suffered very much under previous U.S. administrations’ foreign policies in the Middle East.
Muslims can’t help but also hope (as Obama himself has repeatedly encouraged Americans to do) that with an Obama administration, perhaps the Israeli/Palestinian conflict can be somehow conciliated within the next four years. Many Muslims and Arabs believe that the root of the world’s problems, such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Iran problem is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many also believe that the U.S. has not done anything concrete yet to help solve the conflict but has only aggravated it, especially in recent years. However, Muslims hope as do I, that Obama’s calls for change, his will for peace and unity, as well as his policy of diplomacy first will all play out when it comes to dealing with the Middle East, as with the rest of the world.
The ever-presence of racism in America
I think the huge victories Obama has gained have and will continue to inspire Americans of all minority groups to be more involved with politics. As Colin Powell said in an interview when he endorsed Obama last month, there may very well be a Muslim- or Arab-American president in the near future, since Obama has just paved the way for all minorities to succeed.
Obama has truly made history, and let us not forget how hard he has fought and how long he has toiled to do so. However, there is a dark side to all of this as well. Although many Americans would like to ignore the harsh truth, racism unfortunately still lurks in America. Many Americans, particularly in the South, did not vote for Obama because of his skin color. Throughout his campaign, Obama was falsely called an “Arab” and a “Muslim,” as if these are terrible things to be associated with. He was also labeled a “terrorist” because of his name.
Some McCain supporters deliberately emphasized his middle name “Hussein” when referring to him, and others even went as far as to call him “Barack Hussein Osama bin Laden”. In a desperate attempt to discredit Obama last month, a McCain ad called him “risky,” while Sarah Palin put much of her effort talking about his decades-ago friendship with an American who’d committed terrorist acts; both were trying to attack Obama personally.
All of this labeling hurt me because in truth, these were attacks on my personal identity. I am black, Muslim, and grew up in the Arab world and have many Arab friends, yet I know that I, my Muslim, African, and Arab family, friends, and relatives are not even remotely harmful.
What has disappointed me the most and unfortunately has made Muslims around the world skeptical is that Obama did not say anything in defense of Muslims or Arabs when he was insulted with those racist comments.
Muslim- and Arab-Americans are two rapidly growing communities in the U.S. which have for the most part supported and voted for Obama. We Muslims would have liked him to say that there is no problem with being Muslim or Arab, and that being a follower of Islam does not mean you are a terrorist. I also wish that he had talked more about his Kenyan Muslim family as a solid example of peaceful Muslims who he knows personally. A possible reality is that perhaps if he had spoken on behalf of Muslims and Arabs, he may not have been where he is right now. He probably guessed this and decided to play it safe by defensively stating several times that he was not and never has been Muslim, and just left it at that.
As much as this does disappoint me, I am still waiting for Obama to redeem himself because I believe he will. I genuinely feel that Barack Obama as the next U.S. president will be a huge benefit to the Muslim community, all minority groups, the American community as a whole, the Arab world, and the wider world also. For the first time possibly since JFK, an American president has caused an unforgettable phenomenon, one which allows him to connect and engage with others like no other president has done before.
The major difference this time is that the phenomenon—of Obama’s persona, of what he represents, and of his resonating calls for peace, unity, and change—is global. Obama’s message has crossed America’s borders and has reached all continents of the world.
I know that Obama has inspired the world as much as he has inspired me.