Are We Ready for a Muslim Pres?

A new Gallup poll shows that a (slight) majority of Americans would elect a Muslim POTUS. We may only be half-way there, says Dean Obeidallah, but we’ve got history and young people on our side.

02.20.14 7:10 PM ET

Could a Muslim be elected President of the United States? And I’m not talking a person who is “secretly” a Muslim, which is what approximately 50 percent of the Republicans in Mississippi and Alabama believe President Obama is per a 2012 poll. I’m talking a presidential candidate who publicly identifies as a Muslim.

Well, a new Gallup poll released this week makes it clear that America think so. This survey posed the question: “If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be ___________, would you vote for that person?” Respondents were given a host of possible fill-in-the-blanks, such as a Catholic, Hispanic, Muslim, etc.

Overall, 58 percent of those polled said they would support a Muslim presidential candidate. That’s a solid majority! Of course, the poll results weren’t all great news for us, Muslims: Forty percent of those polled responded they would oppose a candidate simply because he or she were Muslim.

And when compared to other faiths, we were far behind. Over 90 percent said they’d vote for a Catholic or Jewish presidential candidate and 80 percent for a Mormon. (Cue to Mitt Romney, who must be thinking, “Where was that 80 percent in 2012?!”) The only group with less support than Muslims were atheists at 54 percent.

So why am I so optimistic that an American Muslim will have a real shot at being President of the United States in the near future? Two reasons: history and young people.

First, American history is filled with examples of minority groups being widely accepted once people got to know them. Lets take Catholics, for example. In 1958, only 67 percent of Americans would support a Catholic for President, not much higher than the current support we see for a Muslim presidential candidate.

Flash forward 20 years to 1978 and support for a Catholic president had jumped to a whopping 91 percent. Obviously, the 1960 election of President John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic to hold that office, played a big role in that increase.  But lets not forget that while running for President, Kennedy had to fight allegations similar to the ones Muslims are subject to today, namely that Catholics weren’t as loyal to our nation as people of other faiths.

The other reason we should be optimistic—and when I say “we,” I don’t mean just Muslims, I mean all Americans who celebrate our nation’s diversity—is that the Gallup poll found that 73 percent of people 18 to 29 would support a Muslim for President. That open mindedness bodes well for our nation’s future regardless of your faith—or lack thereof.

In contrast, however, the support for a Muslim presidential candidate by those over 65 fell dramatically to 34 percent. I don’t blame older people for their views on Muslims. It has to do with exposure. Many older Americans grew up in a nation with very little interaction with Muslims. In fact, a 2010 Time poll found that 62 percent of Americans had never met a Muslim.

And to be brutally honest: If I didn’t know any Muslims personally and my entire understanding of them was based on watching news reports about terror attacks and from TV shows like Homeland, I, too, would be apprehensive of Muslims. If you’re constantly bombarded with negative images of Muslims, compounded by right wing politicians trying to gin up the fear of Muslims for political gain, it makes perfect sense that you have less than a warm and fuzzy feeling about us.

The younger generation, however, is growing up in a nation that’s far more multicultural. I have seen it first hand when I give lectures or perform stand up at colleges. I typically ask the audience: How many have at least one Muslim friend? Most do. And if they don’t, I offer to be their Muslim friend (via Facebook). And I make the same offer to those reading this article.

But with that said, before we will see a Muslim POTUS, it will take not only more exposure, but also a considerable effort by the Muslim community. That very sentiment was made clear to me by Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), who in 2006 became the first Muslim ever elected to the US Congress. (There are currently two Muslims in Congress: Rep. Andre Carson (D-Ind) elected in 2008 and Ellison.)

Rep. Ellison explained via email that the key to American-Muslims building bridges with our fellow Americans is this: “Serve. Muslims need to serve and help their neighbors. Healthcare, hunger, homelessness, prison re-entry, and interfaith dialogue are all key areas plus more. Muslims must be and be seen as useful to their neighbors.” I couldn’t agree more.

Going forward, our nation will undoubtedly and proudly make history with the Presidents we elect, be they women, Latinos, Asians, Jews, gays, etc.  And in time, there will likely be a Muslim-American President. My hope, though, is that the first Muslim elected President is a woman because then we may finally see someone breakthrough the gridlock in Washington. And if you don’t know why I say that, then you really need to make a female Muslim friend.