When Barack Obama stepped onto the US political stage almost a decade ago, rumours swirled that he was secretly a Muslim. These rumours have frequently been debunked — the US president is a practicing Christian — but they persist nonetheless: In a poll conducted in 2014, 54 per cent of Republicans were found to believe that Obama was a Muslim "deep down".
The endurance of these conspiracy theories can probably be attributed to Obama's position as the first African American president of the United States — his two terms as president have been wrapped up in issues of race and identity. But it's also worth noting how these theories have mutated as they travelled abroad, adapting in unexpected ways to fit regional arguments.
One of the most persistent and widespread of these conspiracy theories gets more specific than its US variant: Obama isn't just a Muslim, this theory goes ... he's a Shiite Muslim.
This week, as the Obama administration announced that it was lifting sanctions on Iran as a result of a US-led nuclear deal with Tehran reached in July, Dhahi Khalfan Tamim, the head of general security for the emirate of Dubai, suggested that Obama's "Shiite roots" had helped him get elected in a bid to bring the United States and Iran closer.
"Mission accomplished," he added.
أوباما الذي يعود لأصول شيعية انتخب لتقريب وجهات النظر بين إيران وأمريكا لإيقاف برنامج إيران النووي العسكري.نجحت الخطة .— ضاحي خلفان تميم (@Dhahi_Khalfan) January 19, 2016
In follow-up tweets, Tamim suggested that Israel was actually behind the election of Obama and that the US president would probably visit a number of Shiite religious sites in Iran soon.
It's worth noting that Tamim isn't an obscure figure. He is a former police chief of Dubai. His Twitter account has more than 1.2 million followers, and his tweets about Obama were retweeted hundreds of times. And neither is this the first time that this rumour has found voice.
Last year, a video featuring former Iraqi member of parliament Taha al-Lahibi appeared online and showed Lahibi reasoning that Obama's "Shiite background" had led him to work with Iran. Around the same time, Syrian writer Muhydin Lazikani told the London-based al-Hiwar television channel that Obama was the "son of a Shiite Kenyan father". The rumour goes back as far as the 2008 election, when state-run Iranian papers published articles that suggested Obama was a Shiite Muslim. There were even celebrations in Iraq's Shiite strongholds when he won the election in November 2008.
"Many people felt, Now we have a brother in the White House," one resident of Sadr City, a Shiite enclave in Baghdad, told Time magazine shortly after.
The evidence in favour of Obama being a Shiite or having much Shiite influence on his upbringing is thin to nonexistent. His middle name is Hussein — also the name of Shiite Islam's most revered martyr and a common name among Shiite Muslims — but plenty of Sunnis and non-Muslims have that name, too. Obama's estranged father, whom he has described as a Muslim who later became an atheist, came from Kenya, a country where Sunnis far outnumber Shiites. Obama did spend a few years in Muslim-majority Indonesia after his mother remarried, and his stepfather was a Muslim, though by most accounts he adhered to the Sunni stream of Islam — as almost all Indonesians do. While in Indonesia, Obama attended a Catholic school and later a Muslim-majority state school that has been described as a "secular institution" by reporters from the Associated Press.
But this distinct lack of evidence doesn't matter to Tamim and other proponents of the "Obama is a Shiite" conspiracy theory. It also doesn't seem to matter that the theory is contradicted by other, just-as-unlikely theories. For example, many in Iraq believe that America, under the orders of Obama, is supporting the Sunni extremist Islamic State group. "It is not in doubt," Mustafa Saadi, a commander in an Iraqi Shiite militia, said recently.
Conspiracy theories about the United States seem to find fertile ground in the Middle East — last year, fake screenshots spread around Arabic-language social media claiming to show an excerpt of Hillary Clinton's autobiography in which she talks about working with the Muslim Brotherhood to help engineer the Islamic State. It goes without saying that this screenshot is a fake and that the passage does not exist. Given the West's history of meddling in the Middle East, perhaps it's understandable that many in the region still suspect that something nefarious lies underneath America's actions in the region.
It's still worrying that someone as well known and as important as Tamim would publicly link the Iran deal to Obama's supposed Shiite heritage. But the response to Tamim's tweet has been reassuring in a way, with many in the Middle East ridiculing the Emirati for promoting an obvious conspiracy theory.