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'Madrassa link' haunts Obama

The Indonesian childhood of the US presidential candidate rears its head, reports Pramit Pal Chaudhuri.

india Updated: Jan 24, 2007 23:19 IST

The Indonesian childhood of US presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama reared its head in the campaign with a rightwing magazine accusing him of being madrassa-educated. The claim was denied by Obama’s team and refuted by other media organisations.

The latest issue of Insight magazine claims background checks by Hillary Clinton’s campaign team had found the young Obama spent "four years in a so-called madrassa, or Muslim seminary, in Indonesia." Clinton aides were quoted as saying Obama had hidden the nature of his Muslim past. "The idea is to show Obama as deceptive."

Clinton is Obama’s principal rival for the Democratic Party nomination. Her campaign team denied having been the source of the story.

It is well-known Obama is the son of a white American woman and a Kenyan Muslim politician. His father abandoned the family when Obama was two years old.

Later his mother, a development worker, moved to Indonesia and married a local Muslim, Lolo Soetoro. Obama’s autobiography says Soetoro first enrolled his son into a local Catholic school for two years and then moved him to what Obama refers to as a "predominantly Muslim school" for the following two years.

The debate revolves around the exact nature of the school Obama attended. Madrassas have come under special scrutiny post-9/11 because many serve as recruiting grounds for terrorists and their curricula is heavily salted with anti-Western sentiments.

Many Indonesians madrassas today are Saudi-financed and propagate the ultra-orthodox Wahhabi school of Islam.

Obama’s own autobiography seems to indicate he attended a local Indonesian school for financial reasons. This seems to have had little influence on his religious beliefs. Obama wrote that his teacher complained to his mother that "he made faces" during Quranic class. Other media organisations failed to confirm the Insight report.

Indonesian experts noted that Saudi influence on Indonesian schools was minimal in the time Obama lived there. His family lived in Indonesia from 1967 to 1971. They left the country when he was 10 years old.

Obama has irregularly attended a Congregationalist Christian church in his present home of Chicago since 1988.

Obama has made a standing joke of the burden of his name. On Wednesday he said, "When your name is Barack Obama, you’re always an underdog in political races." On the stump he often tells the audience, "My name is Obama, not Osama." Named after his father, his middle name is Hussein, a fact he rarely mentions in public.

The present controversy is already fading from the news and has left no perceptible mark on Obama. However, the two-year long campaign has just started and the issue can be expected to return again.

First Published: Jan 24, 2007 23:19 IST