The Conversation - Joel Hall

In the course of this presidential election, a lot of nasty, hateful, and ignorant things have been said.

While hard to listen to, many of those conversations are part of the necessary growing pains as America moves toward being a more open, and tolerant society.

However, I believe America is slowly missing out on a valuable opportunity to have a worthwhile discussion about Islamic tolerance.

While voting Republican does not make you ignorant, racist, or xenophobic, it has become painfully apparent in the last few weeks, that the Republican Party stands to benefit from white ignorance as much as the Democratic party stands to benefit from black pride.

During one of the recent John McCain support rallies, one woman stood up and said that she didn't trust Obama because she believes he is an "Arab." There are a lot of things about that accusation. Only about 12 percent of the people in the world who practice Islam are people who Americans consider to be "Arab," or rather, Middle Eastern. The vast majority of Muslims are from sub-Saharan Africa, many of whom resemble people of African descent on the opposite side of the Atlantic Ocean.

McCain chastised the woman, which I respect, but instead of saying, "This statement is wrong in so many ways, let me tell you why," his response was, "No, he's a decent family man that you don't have to be afraid of."

Clarity is very important in an election, and while it may have not been McCain's intention, the statement seems to imply that people who are Arab cannot be decent family men. Furthermore, the statement somewhat implies that Arab people are people you need to be afraid of.

Of all the people I went to high school with, I have only stayed in contact with a few people whom I consider my closest friends. One of the friends I trust the most is Iranian.

A long time ago, his family moved to my hometown of Virginia Beach, Va. His father opened a car lot and eventually opened an Italian restaurant. At many intervals during my high school career, his family invited me into their home and even offered to assist me in finding a car.

My friend and I have had lots of conversations about racial profiling, how Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is ruining the country, and how most Iranians like Americans, but believe as a sovereign nation, Iran should have the right to nuclear energy.

As one of my most dependable high school friends, he is hardly someone I fear.

It is regrettable that McCain, rather than risk offending some of the more xenophobic people in his party, chose to address the woman's statement rather than the root of the problem.

Barack Obama has not done a great job of addressing this issue, either. Obama's defense to accusations of him being a Muslim has for the most part been, "No, I'm not a Muslim."

It is true that Obama is not a Muslim, but perhaps a better answer may have been, "It shouldn't matter."

Perhaps that is too risky given the stakes and the hopes of the many disenfranchised people voting for him, but I believe there is an intelligent, thoughtful way to approach the topic.

Throughout America's history, its people have slowly become more comfortable with the Irish, Italians, Jews, and even African Americans. Muslims, while misunderstood by the majority of Americans, are as much of a part of the fabric of America as everyone else.

If we are truly to become a tolerant nation, we must eventually have that conversation.

Joel Hall covers government and politics for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached via e-mail at jhall@news-daily.com.