When he learns that I live in New York, Ridha Mohammed leans toward me and lowers his voice to a conspiratory whisper. "I will tell you a secret that the Americans don't know," he says. "Their next President is a Shi'ite."
It's not just right-wing kooks in Middle America who believe Barack Obama is secretly a Muslim: conspiracy theorists across the Middle East have embraced the idea with the same fervor they bring to other bizarre notions. I am not a bit surprised when, later in the conversation, Mohammed assures me that Israel was responsible for the 9/11 attacks and that Saudi Arabia had agreed to bail out the U.S. economy in exchange for an American invasion of Iran.
A Pew opinion poll a month ahead of the Nov. 4 election showed that 12% of Americans still thought Obama was a Muslim. There are no reliable statistics on how many in the Middle East believe that, but there's some anecdotal evidence that the notion is especially popular among poor, undereducated Shi'ites in Iran and Iraq.
Ridha Mohammed is an exception, however: he trained as an engineer at Baghdad University and owns a flourishing plumbing business. He lives just outside Sadr City, Baghdad's giant Shi'ite slum, where preachers at several mosques routinely assure their congregants that Obama is a fellow sectarian. "When Obama won," says Mohammed, "it was a big day in Sadr City. Many people felt, Now we have a brother in the White House." (Sadr City estimated pop. 2 million is a bastion of anti-Americanism, where the radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his militia, the Mahdi Army, hold sway. Few Americans would dare visit the neighborhood without a massive military escort.)
The notion that Obama is a Shi'ite may be traced to Iran. In the run-up to the U.S. presidential election, state-run papers published articles claiming that the Democratic nominee's paternal ancestors had hailed from southwestern Iran. In reality, of course, Obama's father and his ancestors came from Kenya, where Shi'a Islam is rare. Most Kenyan Muslims are Sunnis and leaven their faith with pre-Islamic African traditions and beliefs. Obama himself has said he has no idea if his paternal grandfather (who converted from Christianity) was Sunni or Shi'ite.
Undeterred, some Shi'ite scholars trawled through ancient texts to find proof and came up with increasingly far-fetched theories linking the rise of Obama to important Shi'ite figures like the Imam Ali. Some pointed to a prophecy sometimes attributed to Ali that the arrival of the Mahdi a messiah-like figure who, Shi'ites believe, will ultimately defeat evil will be presaged by the appearance of a messenger, a tall black man who will rule the West. Others read meaning into Obama's name. In Persian, O-ba-ma means "He's with us," and Barack Hussein can loosely be translated as "blessings of Hussein," an allusion to Ali's son, another imam revered by the Shi'ites. Obama's strenuous denials made no difference to these theorists: they simply reasoned that he must be practicing al-Taqqiya, or dissimulation; Shi'ite jurists say believers may conceal their faith from infidels in order to protect themselves from harm.
By Election Day, these theories had become so commonplace that a prominent Shi'ite scholar based in Dubai felt compelled to issue a statement rejecting them. It made little difference.
Vali Nasr, a Tufts University professor and expert on Shi'ite history, understands why the theories are popular with some Shi'ites. Since they have historically been viewed as inferior to the dominant Sunnis, he says, Shi'ites are eager to claim ownership of "anything or anyone that can show them to be superior." Since Obama is widely popular among Muslims, "assuming that he is Shi'ite and also the most powerful man in the world gives the Shi'ites pride and confidence," Nasr adds.
Back in Sadr City, one community leader laughed off the Obama-as-Shi'ite theory but acknowledged it was popular. He suggested it might work in the U.S.'s favor. "The fools who believe this kind of thing, once their fellow Shi'ite is President, they will become less hostile to America," he said.
Me, I sense the birth of a whole new conspiracy theory!