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In December 2007, the Hillary Clinton campaign asked for the resignations of volunteers who forwarded a chain e-mail falsely saying that Barack Obama is secretly a Muslim. Those firings are just the latest reverberations from a relentless e-mail that has piled up in in-boxes for at least a year.
The e-mail makes a number of specious claims to promote its Manchurian Candidate-style conspiracy theory. It says Obama was raised Muslim and that as a boy he attended a radical Wahabi school in Indonesia. The most recent twist on the e-mail falsely alleges that Obama took his oath of office for the U.S. Senate by swearing on a Koran, the Islamic holy book. The facts, though, are that Obama is a Christian and took the oath of office on a Bible.
Like many Internet smears, it's difficult to tell who's behind the e-mail and when it got started. The earliest mention we found was on Snopes.com, a Web site devoted to investigating urban legends and other Internet oddities. Snopes checked out the e-mail it received in 2006 and found it false.
Also like many Internet smears, the e-mail starts with a bit of truth before wildly lurching into fantasy. It's true that Obama's father was from Africa, and Obama has said his father was born a Muslim. Obama's stepfather was from Indonesia, raised a Muslim. But there's no evidence that either man was particularly religious as an adult — Obama's father is sometimes described as an atheist, while his stepfather drank alcohol, forbidden in Islam. Obama's American mother, Ann Dunham, rejected organized religion, according to several accounts. Obama has summed up his own faith history by saying he didn't grow up in any particular religious tradition. (Obama's mother, father and stepfather are all deceased.)
The chain e-mail spread from in-boxes to the mainstream press in January 2007, when the conservative magazine Insight published a story saying unnamed sources in the Clinton campaign had discovered that Obama attended a madrassa in Indonesia for four years. Clinton campaign officials denied the story. From Insight, the story was picked up by Fox News, the New York Post and the Glenn Beck program on CNN Headline News.
The Insight story, still available on the Web, never makes clear that the rumors aren't true. An editorial in Insight recently defended the article: "The focus in our story in January 2007 was Hillary's campaign strategy, not Obama. We were right in our January report about Hillary's activities, the facts continue to prove us right that Hillary will do all she can to sabotage Obama, and we will ultimately be fully vindicated. Once again, the liberal media will have egg on its face."
CNN, the Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune investigated the facts behind the e-mail's madrassa claim, sending reporters to Indonesia to interview former teachers and students. ("Madrassa" is an Arabic word meaning "school," but Americans generally understand the word to mean a school where anti-Western Islamic ideology is taught.) These investigations found a public school where students wore Western clothing and prayer was a small part of the curriculum. The Chicago Tribune reported the school was "so progressive that teachers wore miniskirts and all students were encouraged to celebrate Christmas."
Another allegation that appears to have been tacked on to the madrassa e-mail at a later date is the notion that Obama took the oath of office using a Koran. That's false. Obama became a Christian as an adult, after working as a community organizer with African-American churches in Chicago, a process he recounts in his memoir Dreams from My Father . He is currently a member of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. When he took the oath of office for the Senate in January 2005, he used his own personal Bible, according to the Obama campaign and press reports from the time.
It's worth noting that a December 2007 NBC/ Wall Street Journal poll showed only a small minority — 17 percent — correctly identified Obama's religion as Protestant. Eight percent said Muslim, and 70 percent didn't know or refused to answer.
Because the chain e-mail is clearly intended to defame Obama (asking "Would you want this man leading our country?") and because it gets so many salient points wrong, we award it our Pants on Fire ruling.
UPDATE: Barack Obama resigned from Trinity United Church of Christ on May 31, 2008, after church pastor Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. made controversial remarks about U.S. foreign policy and other matters. Obama said he intends to join another church after the election.
Jakarta Post,Impish Obama couldn't sit still, says school pal, Jan. 31, 2007
Snopes.com, The Enemy Within, March 15, 2007
Chicago Tribune, The Not-So-Simple Story of Barack Obama's Youth , March 25, 2007
Chicago Tribune, Obama's Mom: Not Just a Girl From Kansas , March 27, 2007
Los Angeles Times, "As a child, Obama crossed a cultural divide in Indonesia," March 15, 2007.
Insight, Hillary's Team has Questions about Obama's Background, Jan 17, 2007
Insight, Washington Watch: Our focus was Hillary, not Obama's Muslim background, Dec. 11–17, 2007
CNN.com, CNN debunks false report about Obama, Jan. 23, 2007
U.S. Senate Office of Barack Obama, Debunked Insight Magazine and Fox News Smear Campaign , Jan. 23, 2007
Barack Obama, "Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance," 1995
Barack Obama Senate office, Call to Renewal Keynote Address , June 28, 2006
Read the full text of the anonymous e-mail here .