Early last week, an e-mail circulated among a loose network of like-minded voters here in the Washington area. They routinely trade humour, news alerts and commentary on subjects dear to their political hearts, especially anything related to Islam.
This particular alert, titled "A little scary to think about," was about Senator Barack Obama, the mixed-race, preternaturally charismatic Illinois Democrat who is gearing up to run for his party's presidential nomination.
Beware, said the e-mail: "Obama takes great care to conceal the fact that he is a Muslim."
It went on to explain that the Senator's birth father, a Kenyan, was a Muslim — something Obama has clearly acknowledged in his own autobiographical writings. (His mother was a white Kansan or, as the e-mail put it, "a white atheist.")
The e-mail then "revealed" something else Obama has acknowledged: When he was a young boy, his mother remarried an Indonesian man and Obama attended a predominantly Muslim school, as well as a Catholic school, in Jakarta.
The e-mail, though, upped the political ante. Obama's stepfather, it said, was a "radical Muslim."
"Osama," it read, shifting the spelling of Obama's name, "was enrolled in a Wahhabi school in Jakarta."
Wahhabists, of course, are the Saudi fundamentalists who chart the harshest, most aggressive path of Sunni Islam and seek to export that philosophy throughout the Muslim world.
The e-mail's message was unsubtle: If America's not careful, jihadists might even infiltrate the White House itself. "Let us all remain alert concerning Obama's expected presidential candidacy," the unsigned e-mail concludes.
About the same time, an article surfaced in Insight magazine, a publication of the conservative Washington Times, which is owned by the Unification Church.
The magazine touted a scoop: Relying on sources it said it had cultivated inside the organization of Hillary Rodham Clinton, Obama's main rival for the Democratic nomination.
Insight said it could now report that a "background check" on Obama, carried out by "researchers connected to Senator Clinton," had revealed a disturbing truth.
What followed was, essentially, what was contained in the e-mail, substituting "madrassa" for "Muslim school" in Indonesia.
Madrassa is a hot-button word in the U.S., and has been since 9/11. It derives from the Arabic word for "school," but implies jihadist teaching.
This, said the Insight story, was causing Clinton's camp to ask some pretty serious questions.
"Although the background check has not confirmed that the specific madrassa Mr. Obama attended was espousing Wahhabism," the story said, "the sources said his Democratic opponents believe this to be the case." The grounds for that belief are not specified.
Upon close inspection, the story quotes only one anonymous Clinton source, rather than the "sources" it cited near the top of the article.
An unnamed Obama aide is also quoted, saying he would have to check and get back to Insight. No one from Clinton's organization is quoted on the record.
By Friday, the Fox News show Fox and Friends has a big story it's touting: It's the Obama-madrassa tale, something Fox claims "he left out of the book that he wrote about his life, growing up."
"This is HUGE," exclaimed morning host and occasional weatherman Steve Doocy, who said he'd been wondering when the mainstream media is going to "stop giving this guy a pass."
Doocy then went on to explain the facts of Wahhabism to Fox viewers.
"Hillary Clinton … her campaign is making this, now, a major issue," said Doocy's co-host Gretchen Carlson. "And what else will come after this, is the big question?"
By that afternoon, Fox anchor John Gibson had taken up the story and in case the viewer was missing the significance, the show featured a loud gong, and graphics that blared: THE BIG STORY.
Same theme: Hillary outs Obama. Nasty brawlers, those Democrats. Gibson's broadcast, though, included a statement from an Obama spokesman to the effect that Obama is a "committed Christian." There was no comment from Hillary Clinton's office.
The headline in the conservative New York Post: "OSAMA MUD FLIES AT OBAMA." By Monday, the Clinton camp is finally on record saying the story is nonsense.
Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson to the Washington Post: "It's an obvious right-wing hit job by a Moonie publication that was designed to attack Senator Clinton and Senator Obama at the same time."
Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor to CBC News: "The notion that Senator Obama went to a radical Islamic school is ludicrous. He is a committed Christian who attends at the United Church of Christ in Chicago."
Vietor does not want to speculate where the story came from: "It's a very convenient way for them to put unsubstantiated falsehoods on the air."
Fox News did not contact Obama's office, says Vietor. But he contacted Fox News.
"This unfortunately is the state of politics in America," he says. "It is exactly the kind of politics, the kind of viciousness Senator Obama wants to change.
Monday morning, though, Fox had more to say. Obama's camp is upset and says the story is wrong, says Doocy on his show. He then explains it was Insight magazine's work in the first place, not Fox's.
"There was a firestorm created over that, so we just want to say, that's the story, the Obama camp was upset, and we hope they're not now," says Brian Kilmeade, another co-host.
"We're just trying to be fair," adds Doocy.
On Monday night, CNN broadcast a story from the Jakarta school itself. It's a mixed school in a wealthy neighborhood. Christians attend, as do Buddhists. The reporter had a picture of the faculty from Obama's time in the 1960s. They are men and women, all in Western garb. Some madrassa.
Insight, meanwhile, stands by its story. The "liberal media establishment," it says, just can't stand such aggressive, fearless reporting.
In the end, the story didn't get much traction. Not this time anyway. But it's out there, planted, like the stories in the 2000 campaign about John McCain's supposed love child and the ones in 2004 about John Kerry's supposed Vietnam cowardice.
This one has months to grow. And you will hear it again, especially if Obama stays as popular and threatening to some as he currently is.
Labels: Barak Obama, Canadian muslim congress, fox news, jihadists, madrassa, moonies, osama, unification church, Wahhabi