Former Sec. State Colin Powell during taping of NBCâ€™s â€œMeet the Pressâ€ 10/19/2008.
On NBCâ€™s Meet the Press this weekend, former Secretary of State Colin Powell formally endorsed Barack Obama in this yearâ€™s presidential election.
Pundits will spend the next few days debating whether or not this endorsement matters. In truth, his endorsement of a politician matters less than his strong rejection of the Islamophobia that has tainted this race and that continues to exist unabated in many parts of America.
In a moment that would have made Tim Russert proud, Secretary Powell firmly renounced the divisiveness that has been perpetuated by his own party. During his interview, Secretary Powell exhibited a gravitas that has been unmatched thus far by politicians and pundits alike when it comes to an honest discussion of the state of a presidential race that has increasingly gone negative.
Since the beginning of this way-too-long presidential campaign Americans of conscience have longed for someone of such stature to repudiate the blatant bigotry towards Muslims. On Sunday Colin Powell lived up to his billing as senior American statesman.
I know I was not the only one moved to tears by the following remarks of Colin Powell:
â€œIâ€™m also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the party say, and it is permitted to be said. Such things as â€˜Well you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.â€™ Well the correct answer is â€˜He is not a Muslim, heâ€™s a Christian, heâ€™s always been a Christian.â€™ But the really right answer is â€˜What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?â€™ The answer is â€˜No. Thatâ€™s not America.â€™ Is there something wrong with some 7-year old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she can be president? Yet I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion heâ€™s a Muslim and he might be associated with terrorists. This is not the way we should be doing it in America.
â€œI feel strongly about this particular point because of a picture I saw in a magazine. It was a photo-essay about troops who were 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 sonâ€™s grave. And as the picture focused in you can 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 didnâ€™t have a Christian cross, it didnâ€™t have a Star of David. It had a crescent and a star of the Islamic faith. And his name was Karim Rashad Sultan Khan. And he was an American, he was born in New Jersey, he was 14 at the time of 9/11 and he waited until he can go serve his counrty and he gave his life.â€
It is important that Secretary Powellâ€™s statement not be minimized to a political endorsement. It was so much more.
But despite the powerful imagery and language used by Secretary Powell, there are two unfortunate facts that accompany his statement. First, the fact that I was so moved by his statement highlights the fact that the many calls for denouncing bigotry towards Muslims have gone ignored. Many Americans, not only American Muslims, have been denouncing Islamophobia in the campaign for over a year, making comments from high-profiled public officials long overdue. Secondly, the portion of the endorsement that I chose to highlight above is likely to get lost in the news. That is because decrying Islamophobia, even though it seemed to be the most important reason for Powellâ€™s decision to endorse Obama, is simply not sexy. Very few in the media will give proper credit to Powell for rejecting prejudice towards Muslims. But of all the bigotries exposed in this election cycle, including racism and sexism, Islamophobia has been the most consistent and unchallenged.
Now, given todayâ€™s political climate, not holding or seeking office makes denouncing Islamophobia a lot easier. Furthermore, it should be noted that Islamophobia is not something that exists only within the Republican Party. After all, the man who has been the target of these so-called smears himself has not issued as strong and direct a rejection as Secretary Powell did this weekend. When Senator Hillary Clinton was battling Senator Obama for the Democratic nomination, she certainly allowed the Obama-is-a-Muslim whispers to continue. Obama has frequently denied the claim that he is a Muslim only by presenting the fact of his Christian faith and not addressing the crucial subtext of the claim: that there is something wrong with being a Muslim.
With his endorsement coming largely as a result of Obamaâ€™s ability to transcend party and race, Secretary Powell has raised the bar for whoever does win this historic election. Politicians of either party have been unwilling to denounce Islamophobia for fear of appearing both weak and willing to â€˜pal aroundâ€™ with â€˜terrorists.â€™ By unequivocally attacking the bigoted tenor of the campaign, he struck at the heart of what politicians have for this entire political season felt a taboo subject to address.
In addressing the Powell endorsement in the coming days, one can only hope that both candidates Obama and McCain see it more as a rejection of heightened bigotry than as a mere endorsement of any one politician.
Abed Z. Bhuyan is a recent graduate of Georgetown Universityâ€™s School of Foreign Service, where he studied International Politics and Muslim-Christian Understanding.