'Shop Talk': Why Do Americans Think Obama Is Muslim? One in five Americans believes President Obama is Muslim, according to a recent survey by the nonpartisan Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Host Michel Martin and the guys in this week's Barbershop discuss the survey results and debate public perceptions of Islam.
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'Shop Talk': Why Do Americans Think Obama Is Muslim?

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'Shop Talk': Why Do Americans Think Obama Is Muslim?

'Shop Talk': Why Do Americans Think Obama Is Muslim?

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

It's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop, where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Sitting in the chairs for our shapeup this week are freelance writer Jimi Izrael, syndicated columnist, civil rights attorney and editor Arsalan Iftikhar, Sports Illustrated reporter Pablo Torre and syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette. Take it away, Jimi.

Mr. JIMI IZRAEL (Writer): Hey, thanks, Michel. Hide your kids, hide your wife, it's the shop. What's good, fellas?

Mr. RUBEN NAVARRETTE (Columnist): Hey, hey, hey.

Mr. ARSALAN IFTIKHAR (Columnist, Civil Rights Attorney): Yo.

Mr. PABLO TORRE (Reporter, Sports Illustrated): I'm good, man.

MARTIN: You ain't right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: Great. All right, let's jump right into it.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: You know, what would it be like without the adult supervision that Michel provides? That's what I want to know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Thank you.

Mr. IZRAEL: All right. You know what? President Obama is a Muslim at least that's what 18 percent of Americans think, Michel.

MARTIN: Yeah, I must tell you that this poll has been the buzz in Washington this weekend. Probably elsewhere. And just to be clear, this survey, according to the Pew Research Center, was taken before the president weighed in on the whole question of whether Muslims had the right to build a community center a couple of blocks away from ground zero.

Time magazine, by the way, has its own poll putting the number at 24 percent. And it is actually an increase from previous years, when there's always been a percentage of people who have thought that. And a White House which - there's an interesting story in The Post today where the White House points out that the president likes to keep his religious life as private as possible felt a need to respond point by point to point out that the president isn't Muslim. So, that's it.

Mr. IZRAEL: Well, Ruben.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Yo.

Mr. IZRAEL: You know, A-train, I want to get you in here in a moment, but, you know, Ruben, out in San Diego, listen. Wouldn't all the rumors about President Obama being a Muslim be quashed if he was more open and forthcoming about his Christian faith? Or does it even really matter?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: I think it doesn't matter. I think that for people who are paying attention, they know that he has been open about his Christian faith. He's not, like - you know, what's this mean really? Bill Clinton used to walk out of a church with a Bible in his hand, okay? But what he did after hours, different thing, right? Different thing.

Mr. IZRAEL: Right, right, right, right.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: So what's that mean to be a good Christian? And it's oftentimes, when politicians are trying to project the idea of being a good Christian, you've got to be skeptical about that. And so I think to come down on Obama side about this, he's not doing anything wrong. The problem isn't Obama. The problem is people are coming to grips with the different, and he is different.

He's different in every single way that you can imagine from previous presidents, other than the fact that he's a male, right? We've only had male presidents. In that regard, he's mainstream. But other than that, people are trying to deal with the difference. And this is just one way of separating him out and thinking of himself as they think of him as not really American, not really patriotic, not really the same as everybody else. And he's different, and it's all wrapped up together.

Mr. IZRAEL: You know what, ladies and gentlemen? Mark today on our calendar, because the R and me we agree. Because, you know, this is...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: (unintelligible)

Mr. IZRAEL: This is all about his detractors needing to underscore his otherness. Look, you know, so if it isn't about his being well-educated, it's about the way he orders a hot dog using a certain kind of vernacular. And if it's not that, it's about where and how often he goes on vacation, and on and on and on. The running (unintelligible) is just Obama is not one of us. And it's troubling. A-train.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Yeah, well, you know, for me, just the surreal absurdity of this all has just been one big whiskey-tango-foxtrot moment for me. I mean, I feel like every time, you know, people say that President Obama is a Muslim, that Jerry Seinfeld should pop out and say, not that there's anything wrong with that. You know, I mean, it's completely absurd, you know, to think, you know, when the Reverend Jeremiah Wright thing came out, he was this militant Christian black liberation theologist. And now, conveniently, you know, he happens to be a Muslim.

Let's not forget after he was elected, you know, for weeks, Rush Limbaugh and his, you know, syndicated radio show referred to him as President Hussein. You know, whenever they, you know, the whisper(ph) campaigns of Barack Hussein Obama being some sort of crypto-Muslim Manchurian Candidate, you know, it really is pandering to the lowest common denominator in American society. And it took a Republican, General Colin Powell, former secretary of State Colin Powell, to go on "Meet the Press" before the election to say, you know what? Even if he was a Muslim, so what?

And it was only then that the right wingers, you know, started to stop, you know, these campaigns. And so it's really just American politics at its worst again.

MARTIN: You know, there's an interesting piece on The Washington Post op-ed page today, like, from Greg Sargent's blog on domestic politics, and he says that there's an interesting nugget buried in the poll's internals. It says that 60 percent of those who believe that Obama - who falsely and incorrectly believe that Obama is a Muslim say they quote-unquote, "learned it from the media."

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And so he's raising the question of what does this mean about our media culture. Is it that this, you know, we know that the cable sphere has - and the blogosphere has become kind of polarized politically, so does it mean that there's such an alternate reality out there now that people think that anything they read from these outlets is true? Or, he raises the question, is it that other media outlets haven't been as aggressive enough in knocking down these kinds of rumors? So he raises the question about the media, along with the whole question of should Obama himself be more public about his faith. You remember there was this big frenzy about which church he was going to go to?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right. Right.

MARTIN: It's my understanding that they, as a family, decided that there was just too much drama attached to that, there was just too much attention being paid to that, so they're worshiping privately at Camp David.

Mr. TORRE: Right. And...

Mr. IZRAEL: Pablo?

Mr. TORRE: Yeah.

MARTIN: Which is what President Regan did, I have to say.

Mr. TORRE: Right.

Mr. IZRAEL: Pablo, P-Dog, get it.

Mr. TORRE: And so, I mean, yeah, I mean I agree. There is a lot of misinformation. But as far as like what President Obama needs to do, I mean this isn't like the highest of intellectual hurdles here. I mean like, you can just sort of look it up on the Internet and you're sort of oh, if you go to a reputable source, it'll probably tell you the right thing.

And what it really just hints at, I mean going back to the whole construction of the mosque and the cultural center thing, is this, to be very blunt, inherent distrust that still is very pervasive in American, you know, populous, that, you know, being a Muslim is still a odd and scary thing. And, you know, if President Obama is associating himself, he has this weird name, I mean again, it's still like we're tripping over this very small hurdle here - a very short hurdle here - and it's troubling.

I mean the bottom line is, and this is - hints at the reason why, I think you don't turn to - I mean obviously, found a majority of people, but the fact that so many people believe that, I mean you need to apply sort of this intellectual rigor to all these ideas, whether it's the fact that this mosque or cultural center is associated with extremist Muslims or the president is associated with extremist Muslims. I mean it's just ridicules.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Right.

Mr. TORRE: And you don't take people's opinions and polls at face value without applying them to some sort of standard here.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well, and did anyone think for a moment, you know, there's seven million American Muslims, including myself, who live in this country today, who are patently offended by this dialogue because of the fact that it inherently insinuates that being a Muslim is some sort of slur. You know, as though, you know, President Obama having to say, oh no, don't worry, I'm a Christian, we all know that...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Right.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: ...to be a material fact but, you know, the fact is oh, don't worry, I'm not one of them, sort of thing. And, you know, it does, you know, demonize, you know, a significant, you know, portion of the American populous. More importantly, we have two wars going on in two Muslim countries right now. We talk about, you know, the notion of why do they hate us. Well, this is one of the reasons that they hate us abroad.

MARTIN: Let me jump...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Arsalan, let me ask you a question.

MARTIN: Let me just jump in briefly, Ruben just to say...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Go.

MARTIN: ...if you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having our weekly visit to the Barbershop with Arsalan Iftikhar, Ruben Navarrette, Jimi Izrael and Pablo Torre.

Back to you, Ruben.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Well, you know, let me ask the question this way, Arsalan, and all the folks out there, it's really got to be a tough spot to be a moderate Muslim, you know, in this kind of climate. But a lot of people seem to be saying that they want to hear more from moderate Muslims condemning the radical extreme Islamic, you know, fanatics that we're at war with. And I hear that all the time in my community. Obviously, there are a lot of folks out there who want me and other Mexican-Americans to constantly beat the idea that we're in favor of border security. So I don't fight it. I say I understand where that's coming from and I want to ask you that same question: Do you think that moderate Muslims have brought some of this on themselves because they have not been more vocal condemning the extreme...

MARTIN: But what else should they say?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Ruben? Ruben? Hold on, Ruben, I am...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: I'm just asking. I'm just asking.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: I have spent eight years, 10 months, however many days since the moment of September 11th, 2001, at 8:46 in the morning, at Eastern Standard Time, spending the entirety of my life, living and breathing 24/7, condemning every act of terrorism that has ever occurred from that day forward. And there have been thousands and thousands of Muslims who have gone to the airwaves and have dedicated our lives to doing it.

Ruben, you have to admit...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Okay. All right.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: ...there are just some people in this country that, we could stand on a corner with a bullhorn condemning terrorism for the rest of our life and it still would not be enough. They want to paint things in an, us-versus-them, black-versus-white mentality. And, you know, unless we, you know, dance the George Bush jig, you know, they're not going to be happy with anything that we do.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: One other element, foreigner-versus-native, that other, that's a really important thinking here.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: I was born in Norfolk, Virginia, man.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Exactly.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: I grew up in Chicago.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: We talked about Barack Obama and whether or not people think he's a Muslim. Don't forget, just a few days ago when we were still having this conversation about whether he was born in the United States. It's all part of this dialogue...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: ...about somebody being different and foreign. And foreign is quickly thought to be, you know, unpatriotic, un-American and inferior.

MARTIN: (unintelligible) he knows about. Yeah.

Mr. IZRAEL: Well, speaking of your home town, A-Train, Rod Blagojevich, oh snap. The ex-Illinois governor...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Oh, lord.

Mr. IZRAEL: ...somehow, he left his federal corruption trial virtually unscathed.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: That's true.

MARTIN: I don't know.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Love that guy.

Mr. IZRAEL: I mean he was up - I mean virtually, I mean he was up against 24 charges but only convicted of one. Only convicted of one.

MARTIN: Poor Arsalan, first he's got to defend being Muslim and now he's got to defend being from Chicago. That ain't right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Oh lord.

MARTIN: That just isn't right.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: The person who works for BP, this one is harder.

Mr. TORRE: This one is harder, yeah.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: This is one's harder.

MARTIN: But anyway, Blagojevich just surfaced today again, and prosecutors, of course, said that they're going to retry him and he's not happy about that. he talked about that on "The Today Show."

(Soundbite of NBC's "The Today Show")

Mr. ROD BLAGOJEVICH (Former governor, Illinois): The very thing that they're trying to convict me of, political horse-trading and in this case, it was merely discussing possibilities with lawyers, political advisers. And remember, there were emissaries sent to me by the president himself, political horse-trading, this is what they're trying now criminalize. These prosecutors, who by the - who act in a way where they're making deals with convicted felons, and in exchange for their testimony, these felons come in and say what these prosecutors want to say. The very thing they're charging me with, they ought to charge themselves with, and they ought to add an additional count of hypocrisy.

Mr. IZRAEL: Wow. And all righty then.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Man.

Mr. IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. You know what? I've always said this: You get the justice you can afford in America. I'm not surprised. You know, and I'm with the Washington Post, you know, their ed board this board this morning said you know what, back away. Don't try to retry this guy. I'm all about that.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Yeah.

Mr. IZRAEL: A-Train.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: He'll beat you again.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Yeah. You know...

Mr. IZRAEL: That's right. That's right.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: When special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald initially announced the charges, you know, he went so far as to say that the gravity of the charges would make Abraham Lincoln roll in his grave. And apparently, Abraham Lincoln didn't even sneeze in his grave because he was only convicted on one out of the 24 counts, and that was, you know, one of the lesser charges of lying to FBI agents.

You know, the huge charges of bribery, racketeering, mail fraud, he was - there was a hung jury, it was a mistrial. Now granted, you know, on some of the major accounts, there was an 11 to one vote and so, you know, essentially, they might be able to get the 12-0 jury vote necessary in order to convict him in a retrial.

MARTIN: Well, let me just briefly jump in on just to defend Fitzgerald before we move on to the sports, which I know you want to talk about, and that Fitzgerald says that the reason that they called for - arrested him without waiting to collect further evidence was that they felt that the seat would be tainted if they didn't. And, you know, you can argue with it but, because evidently, the jury wanted to see. They wanted to see the evil deed actually done, something completed, and when they didn't see that...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Right.

MARTIN: ...they weren't persuaded.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Ah. Yeah.

MARTIN: But, you know, just to speak for Fitzgerald, his argument was look, this would've tainted the seat in perpetuity and so we had to intervene before then. So you can argue...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: He blew it. He blew it.

MARTIN: Well, there you go. I'm just saying.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: He was thinking like a politician and not a prosecutor.

MARTIN: Well.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Abe Lincoln ain't rolling.

MARTIN: All right. Before we go, two very different stories involving two sports icons. The first is Major League Baseball pitcher Rogers Clemens. He was indicted on six counts of lying to Congress under oath, when he denied using performance enhancing drugs. And the other, of course, is Brett Favre, who officially returned this week to play in his 20th season in the NFL.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But, I don't know, Pablo, you got to tell me about Roger Clemens. How serious a story is that?

Mr. TORRE: Yeah, you know, it's not necessarily serious in that he's - I mean on the merits of the case, he's one of countless players who used steroids allegedly, performance enhancing drugs. And the reason why Roger Clemens is in this position is because he put himself there. I mean this is a guy who, when he perjured himself allegedly, you know, he had volunteered to go to the Mitchell Report hearing.

He's the guy who said I'm going to go to Congress and I'm going to clear my name because there are all these rumors out there...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Yeah.

Mr. TORRE: ...and then he said all this stuff. I mean he's a guy who actually in this world of players sort of skating on this and sort of fading into the background and letting their games speak for themselves, he's the guy who had the courage of his bizarre convictions to actually fight this thing until the end...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Yup.

Mr. TORRE: ...put himself in the spotlight and that's why he's having the force of the government come down upon him. Now, whether that's a good thing, whether that's a good use of public funds, I don't know, but all I can say is that Roger Clemens really just did the worst marketing job on himself as any athlete has done, once the best pitcher maybe in baseball history, now one of these exaggerated cartoonish jokes, the Barry Bonds equivalent, in many ways maybe even worse in terms of how vocal he's been.

MARTIN: This is really do you think taint baseball though, or is it because he's sort of old news, it doesn't really affect people's feeling about the game? That's kind of my question.

Mr. TORRE: Right. I think fans are sort of past the steroids thing for better and for worse. I mean they sort of understand, I think, at this point that the era was so dominated by pitchers like Clemens, like hitters like A-Rod and Bonds and so forth. So, you know, baseball I think, it's definitely the darkest age since, for example, the Black Sox scandal. The problem is just that everyone's being progressively and progressively more desensitized to it.

And Clemens, again, by virtue of putting himself out there voluntarily, is just, you know, misguidedly putting himself in front of the fan's eyes when they don't necessarily even care about him anymore.

MARTIN: Okay. Who's excited about Brett Favre? Me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: You know what? You know what? It's whatever. You take all the dope out of the professional sports, I mean who's even going to sell the hotdogs? I mean, come on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: I mean...

MARTIN: You can't be right.

Mr. IZRAEL: ...give me a break.

MARTIN: You can't be right. Well Jimi, what about you? Are you excited about Brett Favre?

Mr. IZRAEL: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: I mean it's just...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: No?

MARTIN: ...just some old - it's like he's like the old guy in the club. It's like who wants to see some guy, like an old dude...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: He's still good, though.

MARTIN: Step light. Step light.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: He's still good. He's still good.

MARTIN: Thank you, Ruben.

Mr. IZRAEL: You know, like drinking Budweiser.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Needless to say, come on. He is good.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Dude, he is good. But they should change the fable from, you know, the boy who cried wolf to the boy who cried Favre.

MARTIN: He was awesome.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TORRE: Which he does every - he's done it three year in a row and no one -I mean it's kind of like, you know, it's almost like Andy Kaufman-esque. It's kind of like, he's in on this, right? I mean like he knows what he's doing to everybody.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.

Mr. TORRE: We're still buying into it. But, yeah, I mean the other side of this is that he's actually really good. He had his best season maybe, you know, ever one of his best seasons last year and so, yeah he's (unintelligible).

MARTIN: You all such haters. If he can play...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: He's the Hamlet of the NFL.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: If he can play...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: You know, we would love for him to play until he's 89, but then don't always - don't flip-flop and say oh, you know, I might leave and come back. It's like we don't care about all this drama.

MARTIN: See, we women are used to that. We women are used to that, okay? It's all right with us. I'll call you. Maybe I'll you. I'll call when I feel...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: That's cold. That's cold.

MARTIN: That's what, see, you all just can't handle it when we, somebody flips the script on you all. Baby, I'm going to call you.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: It just got so cold in here. Somebody turn the air condition on in here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NAVARRETTE: I resemble that remark.

MARTIN: That's what I'm talking about.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, thank you everybody.

Jimi Izrael is a freelance journalist and author of the book, "The Denzel Principle." He joined us from member station WCPN in Cleveland. Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. He also writes for CNN.com. He was with us from San Diego. Pablo Torre is a reporter for Sports Illustrated. He joined us from our studios in New York. And Arsalan Iftikhar was with us from Washington. He's the founder of themuslimguy.com, a legal fellow for the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding, and the author of a forthcoming book.

Thank you so much.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Peace.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Thank you.

Mr. TORRE: Thank you.

Mr. IZRAEL: Yup-yup.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more on Monday.

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