Colin Powell Defends Islam, Obama (and in doing so) Democracy

Sipping çay koyu in the lobby of my brilliantly located, straightforward hotel just off of Istiklal Caddesi in the heart of Istanbul, I had a Biden moment - or what was once known as a Hillary moment. It was long enough (and perhaps audible enough) a moment that the two Bulgarian tourists sitting across from me shifted their gaze from their guidebooks to me several times. But I wasn't recalling the tragic loss of my loved ones like Biden, or answering a question about perseverance like Hillary - I was overwhelmed by Colin Powell's sincere and poignant response to the same questions and rumors that leaders of his own party have been circulating for months on end:

Is Barack Obama a Muslim?

Powell's response:

"Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he's a Christian. He's always been a Christian."

He continued with a few questions of his own: (Click here to watch Powell)

"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 seven-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 terrorists." This is not the way we should be doing it in America."

It needs to be said, but Powell didn't have to say it, which makes it all the more admirable. He had already disappointed his party by endorsing Barack Obama - he didn't have to speak truth to justice, but he did. Then he told a story that he said deeply impacted him. It didn't seem political, thought surely might have political ramifications, in fact it seemed quite personal.

"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."

Powel's delivery was both sincere and troubled. I even sensed a bit of panic behind his persuasive remarks about the "narrowing" of the republican party, use of anti-Muslim sentiment and the general polarizations dividing in America.

Black vs. White, Islam vs. Christianity, East vs. West, Liberal vs. Conservative. Us vs. Them...

Sure, commentators such as Joe Scarborough on MSNBC continue to remind us that we are a 51/49 country, that we are destined for divisions, and perhaps its true. But it is also true that there are people like Kareem (a Muslim and brave patriot) Colin Powell (a lifelong republican leader endorsing Obama) and Barack Obama himself (a product of black & white, who is from the West, but familiar with the East).

As the Bulgarians giggled at me I questioned my visceral response to Powell's story. I wondered how others might react? For many in America this election seems to mean much more than previous ones have. Two wars, a crumbling economy, civil liberties...and the list goes on.

For so many of us there is so much at stake, almost too much. But that is not the only reason we are so emotionally attached to this election. Being in Istanbul (at least in terms of the stimuli surrounding me) may have something to do with my reaction to Powell's story about the crescent and star on Kareem's headstone.

In Powell's story he mentioned the Islamic crescent and star- a symbol I've seen on almost every street in Turkey. But this symbol, the symbol of Islam (that makes up the Turkish flag) is not only at the top of the many Masjids here, but also draped from rooftops covering half of a building that is also home to an "Erotik sex shop" a bar and possibly a gay nightclub.

The cultural clash of East and West (to put it broadly) has very much been a part of our collective history and as relevant now as ever. Turkey has often found itself at the center of these struggles. Since 9/11 (and as a large product of the very administration Colin Powell was once a part of) the apparent divide between east and west has been expanded and manipulated for political ambitions, leaving little hope for a cultural brassage where western culture and eastern religion may exist in harmony rather than in conflict and contradiction - except in Turkey.

The East vs West paradigm is fascinating to many, and that is the allure of Istanbul - a city dividing the west from the east, europe from asia, and if you stretch it, tradition from modernity. Istanbul disproves the notion that the easy and west are two mutually exclusive traditions.

In Beyoglu or Taksim on the European side you'll find scantily clad women (and many transvestites on the weekends) walking up Istiklal, the main shopping street, but you will also see veiled women in the same shops preparing traditional meals. There is a mixture, a sense of tolerance, a sense of acceptance, freedom and secularism that may be largely missing from the Arab world. In fact, in much of Istanbul, you will find minarets scattered along the horizon, hear the orchestral harmonies of Muadhin calling Muslims to prayer, but also a discotheque with not-as-but-still provocatively dressed women dancing the night away. Or perhaps see a couple held in an embrace, kissing on the street, with his hand slipped comfortably in her back pocket.

Sure, there are those who would like to see Islam play a more dominant role in society, as there are those who want to maintain the ban on the veil in public schools and the workplace across Turkey, but the sense of secularism and "freedom" is quite liberating, popular, if still somewhat controversial.

Perhaps what sets Turkey apart is that it got an early start since it was never colonized by Western powers, as much of the Arabs had. Regardless, Istanbul is both east and west, tradition and modernity, and more free than most Arab countries.

Even the language from afar can sound like a Slavic language, maybe Polish or Finish. But up close I found I recognized dozens of Arabic words and despite speaking no Turkish was able to communicate quite easily.

As I watched the rest of Powell's interview on Meet the Press and finished the last sips of tea, I couldn't help but feel relieved. If Obama wins this election (which is likely at this point in the game) it will be in part because the timing is right. His "fierce urgency of now" is certainly working for him (not to mention President Bush's appallingly low approval rating).

But before he winds I expect him to follow in Powell's footsteps. Given the potential political risk, he has largely avoided the "Islam issue". This has isolated quite a few Muslims and other Americans. Barack Obama needs to show courage and confront the smearing and slurring use of Islam in this political campaign, just as he gave a much applauded speech on race.

I am certainly not a practicing Muslim but I (like Barack Obama's father) was raised through Muslim traditions and I am disgusted by the anti-Islamic sentiment in America and the extent to which it is accepted and promoted by ordinary Americans and leaders in government. The growing amount of Islamophobic rhetoric flooding the media (and the internet) post 9/11 is dangerously divisive, uselessly provocative and simply un-American.

It is important for our country's leaders to dispel the notion that many Americans believe - that there is a conflict between being a devout Muslim and living in a modern society. If it is simply ignored due to "political sensitivities" it will only worsen and continue to drive divisions in our society rather than create coalitions. In Turkey, my hopes that it is not true were whimsically reaffirmed..

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About Ahmed Shihab-Eldin

Ahmed Shihab-Eldin grew up in California, Kuwait, Egypt and Austria. He has most recently worked as a news producer for The New York Times and as a web producer for the PBS international documentary series, Wide Angle. His work has been featured in Frontline/World online, TimeOut, Washington Week and other blogs. He graduated from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, where he know teaches a new media skills class. In 2008 Ahmed won a Webby award for a multimedia project called Defining Middle Ground: The Next Generation of Muslim New Yorkers. It can be seen here: His portfolio website can be seen at: His family is originally from Palestine

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