Over the past month, there have been heated protests over plans to build a mosque near New York City’s “Ground Zero” – the site of the twin towers that were destroyed by the September 11 terrorist attacks.
As a result, attention has again focused on whether the president of the United States, Barack Hussein Obama, was born a Muslim.
In fact, it is indisputable, because Islamic heritage comes from the father and the President’s Kenyan-born father was a Muslim.
As well, Obama grew up in a Muslim home in Muslim Indonesia and attended compulsory Islamic classes in a state school.
But after returning to America at age 10, he left all that behind.
Decades later, after a non-religious life as a young man, he was baptised as a Christian in Chicago’s United Church of Christ.
So is he a Muslim? Most Americans say no, but an astonishing 18 percent now say yes, up from 11 percent last year.
Does it matter? Well, it does in this region, where – as I discovered in Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta – even the more moderate followers of Islam say that born a Muslim means always a Muslim.
Former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong never fudged the issue the way Obama did.
In their view, it is not permissible to give up the faith. Doing so means committing apostasy and is punishable by death.
Of course, non-Muslims say that the pre-teen Obama was far too young to be held accountable, and that any reasonable person could not possibly rule him an apostate.
Unfortunately, there are many unreasonable mullahs – and just as many unreasonable Christians, as those wild-eyed protesters in Manhattan proved this month.
What is puzzling is why the normally incisive Obama equivocated by saying that Muslims had a right to built the mosque, but that he did not want to say whether it was a good idea or not.
That fudge did nothing to assuage Islamophobia in the Christian world – nor anti-infidel feeling in the Muslim world.
Obama could have dealt with it more efficaciously by looking at how countries like Singapore have done so in the past.
For instance, when asked why Singapore’s armed forces discriminate against Malays because they cannot be trusted in any conflict with Muslim neighbours Malaysia or Indonesia, former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong never fudged the issue the way Obama did.
Goh told me there was no formal prejudice, but said that when Muslims heard the cry “Allahu Akbar” (God is great), they might feel divided loyalties. It was a brave reply that cut to the core of the issue.
Likewise, his predecessor, Lee Kuan Yew, told me about allocating government flats according to the country’s racial makeup.
In a block of 100 units, roughly 70 would be taken by Chinese, 16 by Malays, 8 by Indians, and the remainder by Eurasians and others.
They were all mixed up, Chinese next to Malay-Muslims, next to Indians.
Of course, as Lee himself admitted, people did not like it, but they accepted it. And a potential racial and religious tinderbox was defused.
It is still far from perfect, of course.
When transitting at Changi recently, I asked a Singapore Airlines official about my connection to Cotabato City in the southern Philippines.
The woman looked uneasy.
“It’s very dangerous in Cotabato, you know. They have a lot of Muslims there,” she said.
Such instinctive, but bigoted remarks, are heard often these days, even from otherwise intelligent and tolerant people.
Watch the Christian protesters in New York, consider how Malaysia stops non-Muslims using the word “Allah” for God despite it having been used
that way since long before Islam arose, and ponder the nonsense about whether Obama is a Muslim or not.
Then realise that the American social commentator Christopher Hitchens had a valid point when he said that religion is superstition practised by hypocrites.
Roger Mitton is a former senior correspondent for Asiaweek and former bureau chief in Washington and Hanoi for The Straits Times.