back to top
Kenya: Exploring Obama's Religious Roots
October 27, 2008 11:48 AM
By Edwin Okong'o
Kenyan relatives describe Obama's religious roots as a very free and tolerant affair.
On a recent trip to Kenya, I sat down with Said Obama, Sen. Barack Obama's uncle, and asked him about his family and religion.
"We were born into a Muslim family in a predominantly Christian area," Said Obama said. "We went to Christian schools and studied Christian religious education. Whenever we were short of something we were sent into Christian homes (to borrow) and whenever they were short of something they were sent into our home. Religion never became an issue."
He added that the senator's father never practiced Islam.
"Other than Barack -- whom he gave his name to -- none of his other children have Islamic names," Said Obama said.
When I asked him about the fact that his famous nephew had carefully distanced himself from his Muslim roots during the presidential campaign, he told me that the senator's relatives in Kenya were not offended. That's because everyone in the Obama family is at liberty to join any religion.
"What I know is that we are a multicultural, multiracial and a multi-religious family," Said Obama said.
How Obama's Kenyan family sees religion is no different from the way most Kenyans do: Everyone has a personal relationship with God. People of the same religious beliefs may work together to convert souls, but they do not put conditions on those who fail to heed the word. Instead, they pray that one day the nonbelievers may see the light.
American Christian fundamentalists on the contrary seem so sure that their God is the right one that they do not hesitate to condemn other forms of worship on His behalf. A few months ago, a man at a bar in Minneapolis told me that Obama's "questionable religion" would cost him the presidency.
"There are people in this country who believe that America is the superpower it is today because of our belief in God," the man said. "And by 'God,' they mean the one Christians believe in."
Whether Obama will lose the presidency remains to be seen, but a particular type of rhetoric has surfaced since he took a clear lead in the polls. At a McCain rally in Minnesota recently, a woman called Obama "an Arab." (It should be noted that McCain admonished the woman and took the microphone from her telling her that Obama was a decent family man who he happened to disagree with on a number of fundamental issues.) She later told the Star Tribune: "You can't trust Barack Hussein Obama because he is a Muslim and a terrorist."
Kenya has been successful in religious tolerance because people see themselves only as messengers of God, rather than enforcers of God's law, as do Christian fundamentalists in America.
Before I spoke to Said Obama, I had not thought about how religiously diverse many Kenyan families are. My own family is no exception, so I went to my uncle, Henry, for an explanation.
"We were born into a Muslim family in a predominantly Christian area," Said Obama said. "We went to Christian schools and studied Christian religious education...Religion never became an issue."
"If your parents are Seventh-Day Adventists or Roman Catholics it doesn't mean that you are also supposed to be a Seventh-Day Adventist or Roman Catholic," Uncle Henry said. "You can pick whatever religion you want."
Members of my extended family don't agree on whether Saturday or Sunday is the God-mandated day of worship. Uncle Henry and his wife and children are Catholic and rest on Sunday. My grandfather, other uncles and aunts and my mother picked the Seventh-Day Adventist church, which has Saturday as the holy day.
There are also members of my family who believe in God but are not in any organized religion, and others who hold indigenous beliefs. At one time, a family member was married to a Muslim woman. Despite all these differences, I have never heard of an argument about whose God is the right one.
When I asked Uncle Henry about the role of religion in politics, he surprised me by pulling out a copy of The Obama Nation, the anti-Obama book by Jerome R. Corsi.
"I wanted to know exactly what Jerome is saying and if it is true," he told me, before I could ask him where he got the book. (He had his son ship it from California). "I found that there's no truth in it. First and foremost, the fact that Obama's grandparents were Muslims does not mean that Obama is Muslim."
According to Uncle Henry, religion has become a greater part of American politics because politicians have made the electorate hate Muslims.
"I think Americans, per se, do not have a problem with Islam," he said. "They have only the fear. Every time an American wakes up in the morning he thinks Osama bin Laden is next to him."
Uncle Henry has also been a campaign manager for many politicians in our West Mugirango constituency, so I asked him if he thought Kenyans would elect a Muslim president.
"If we get a good person, a good leader, who is Muslim, yes we can," he said.
Like many Africans, Kenyans are some of the most religious people in the world. Our national anthem begins with a call to "God of all creation" to "Bless this, our land and nation." Yet when it comes to politics, Kenyans never demand that a candidate has to be a particular faith to be elected to lead their God-given land.
After the meeting with my uncle, I went to nearby Jamia Mosque to hear what Muslims had to say about religion in Kenyan and U.S. politics. I asked men who had just completed their Friday prayers why it did not matter to them that Mwai Kibaki, the president, was a Catholic.
"In Kenya we don't ask, 'What are your beliefs? Are you a Catholic, Orthodox?' We don't mind," one man said. "But when Americans see a beard or a [Muslim] dress, the first thing that comes to their mind is terrorism or, 'This person ought to change their way of living.'"
In fact, as several Muslim men outside the Mosque spoke, there was a Christian man nodding to some of the things said in the discussion. When it was his turn to speak, the Muslims listened attentively and did not seem to mind that he was there.
"The greatest commandment in the Bible says love the Lord our God with all your mind, all your heart, all your soul, all your strength. If you follow the will of God, you are a Christian and you are a Muslim."
"I'm a Christian, I read the Bible, but I also read the Koran," the Christian man said. "All the religions are the same. The meaning of Islam is total submission to the will of God. The greatest commandment in the Bible says love the Lord our God with all your mind, all your heart, all your soul, all your strength. If you follow the will of God, you are a Christian and you are a Muslim."
The Christian man said that America had a "God-given mission" to be the moral authority in the world. But he said Americans were failing, not because they mix religion and politics, but rather because their religious politics contained hateful messages. This, according to him, was an abandonment of God.
Whatever happens in November, never in the history of the United States has a candidate inspired and appealed to so many people from different parts of the world. I spoke to people in Kenya -- including many Christians and Muslims who did not expect a President Obama to change America's aggressive foreign policy -- and they all agreed that they would be alright if Obama lost a fair election.
They also told me that if he loses because a group of Christian extremists repeated his middle name long enough for voters to start singing "terrorist," America would lose a rare opportunity to redeem its image.