Election 2008 The World is Watching


Kenya: Exploring Obama's Religious Roots

Kenyan relatives describe Obama's religious roots as a very free and tolerant affair

BY Edwin Okong'oOctober 14, 2008


A graduate of the U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, Edwin Okong'o is a writer and a freelance journalist.

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.

Said Obama

Said Obama, Sen. Barack Obama's uncle.

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.

Barack Obama visiting Kenya.

Sen. Barack Obama, pictured with his grandmother, on a visit to Kenya in 2006.

"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.

share your reactions

Minneapoli, MN
Thanks for the nice article. I am a Muslim and have no grain of doubt in my mind that president Obama is not a Muslim; he has made this crystal clear in numerous occasions.
He has in fact angered myself and many other American Muslims by repeatedly denying being a Muslim and implying that they {Republicans} are smearing his name. Why can't he be man enough and say, "I am not a Muslim and by the way, there is nothing wrong with Islam." Thanks to Collin Powell for telling the truth. It is sad that few bad Muslims gave all of us bad names. The term terrorists {by most Americans} is usually implied to Islam and not few bad Muslims. This is synonymous with calling all white Americans racists because all KKK members are white. Oabama has been visiting churches and synagogues but declined to visit mosques. Let us see if he will do it when he is a president.

d L - Atlanta, GA
I agree with the first comment; why distance oneself from Islam? What's wrong with Islam? As Colin Powell recently said, are we saying that a Muslim American cannot rise to be President of the United States. Once there was an "anti-catholic code" to ascend to the US Presidency.Those who argue that there is no religious intolerance among Americans, especially among Christian Americans are absolutely lying. I have lots of colleagues and I have dealt with several religious groups in my work with refugees and immigrants. These people talk about Muslims like they are all terrorists and violent. One told me that she was surprised Nigeria had the highest training for Catholic priests yet those aggressive Muslims control and want to take over the entire country (sic). The same ill assertions are made about "the nature of black people". And these are not all bible waving fundamentalists, no, regular people that one would think would treasure unity.The whole European colonial project in Africa was based on the Christian religion, bedeviling every African indigenous beliefs. Today, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in N. Uganda and its predecessor, Alice Lakwena's Holy Spirit Movement are all based on the ten commandments. And they have raped, maimed, displaced, murdered, defiled, and exterminated millions of Ugandans.

I Think it is very wise to have researched the above article. But, as much as I would like to say yes that you have a point i think there is a gross misrepresentation of the facts on your side. of course, Obama cureently might not be Muslim but the truth is he has been a Muslim one time or the other.The fact is he was at one time and he has even been to Indonesia so his Muslim status is not in question the question is why is everybody is trying to fight some of these facts.Having been a Muslim should not have been an issue of whether he is fit for the presidency, but the mere fact that we are very quick to distance him from it raises eye brows. He should admit that he was once a Muslim but that he is no longer. That should be enough.I respect your efforts to find out but the thing is you are his tribesmen and there is always a probability of bias. Dont try to cover the truth. Face it head on. None of this should question his abilities as president -- that wouldn't be fair. But if you are hiding some facts then we doubt you.

Boston, MA
To state that Christian Fundamentalists in the US view themselves as enforcers of God's will is either disingenuous or ignorant. While many believe theirs is the only way to heaven, they do not engage in arm twisting or other coercive tactics. Yes, a small number of extremists exist, but none have beheaded in the name of Christ. Let's be realistic, it's pointless to follow a religion if one does not believe it the path to take.

Atlanta, GA
Enjoyed the reading. It's obvious the writer has only read portions of the Bible. If the entire Bible was read he would know what Jesus said about GOD. There is only one God - God Almighty.

Good job you should let this American media get a copy so that they can stop whoring about his religion.

Minneapolis, MN
Outstanding reporting. Thank you for filing this in time for the election.

Lancaster, Lancashire
Thanks for your journalistic research which confirms what most sane people the world over already know; that Barack Obama's agenda is a far cry from a religious fanatical one. Even so, the fact that Barack Obama Snr never practised Islam, and BO neither grew up under his father's influence nor his Muslim relatives may beg the big question of the purpose of your research.An angry and muck-raking right wing person may still accuse you of covering for your "brother". Nevertheless, this is a great tribute to the religious "tolerance" that is still evident in Kenya, the land of BO's paternal grandfather.

Minneapolis, Minnesota
Good commentary. Thanks for the info. God willing, Obama will be the next president of our country, the USA.

Harun Busumu - Bloomfield, New Jersey
I agree with the findings of your investigation. It's true according to your uncle that Americans dont hate Islam and that politicians have made them hate Muslims. I have followed American politics with interest and what I have realised is that religious groups have no problem with each other. It's the politians fueling the hatred for their own gains. We have had many interdenominational meetings with no problems. Guess what? Most of the people who shout loud about religious affiliations belongs to neither! None. They just have anger and hatred.

Bonface Okoth - Columbus, OH
Thanks Okong'o for a well-written and well-researched article. I wish this article could reach a much broader American readership so that more people could get the opportunity to learn something about religious tolerance in Kenya. It is still a wonder to me that up to this particular point, no American has come out openly to explain their findings in the mainstream media about the origins of Senator Obama's middle name. And I believe that as long as most Americans remain "uneducated" about Senator Obama's ancestral roots, he'll still remain an "Arab" and a "Terrorist" in the eyes of folks that cannot stand anything Islam.