The Secret Origins of Birtherism
“Barack Obama is a secret Muslim” may have been the original Obama conspiracy theory, but it can’t claim to be the defining one. That ignominious distinction belongs to “Obama was secretly born in Kenya,” a notion that ultimately provided the all-inclusive name for Obama conspiracy theorists: Birthers.
Virtually all of Birtherism owes its existence to the rumor that Barack Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham, did not give birth to him in Hawaii. As the rumor goes, she instead traveled to Kenya for unspecified reasons, and gave birth to her son there, before returning to Honolulu and falsely claiming that she gave birth in Hawaii. This is the rumor that eventually caused the Birther conspiracy theory to tip as an epidemic, that drove the resultant demands for the release of Obama’s birth certificate, that inspired the immediate skepticism of the birth certificate following its release, and ultimately led to the neverending supply of alternative legal theories as to why Obama ought to be deemed Constitutionally ineligible for the Presidency. Perhaps one or more of these events would have transpired anyway in the absence of the Kenyan birth rumor, but as it happened, the rumor was the root cause of them all.
2007 and Before – Fictional Events, Factual Mistakes, and False Leads
To listen to the most dedicated Birthers themselves, this idea long predated the 2008 election. It’s a highly self-serving claim, since they appear less like opportunistic crackpots if rumors about his birthplace had actually dogged Obama throughout his career, rather than suddenly appearing when he was within reach of the Presidency.
What little evidence they can muster for this argument is shoddy at best, and imaginary at worst. It’s common lore among Birthers that Obama’s birthplace, or at least his Presidential eligibility, was purportedly raised as an issue during a 2004 debate with Alan Keyes. But despite a surprising number of conspiracy-minded conservatives who claim to have personally watched and remembered the live broadcast of an Illinois Senate candidate debate on C-SPAN, neither the transcript nor the archived footage of the event shows any such exchange. Keyes’ own campaign manager denies such a discussion ever occurred.
Birthers might as well claim to have witnessed Obama pledge to change the National Anthem to a Coca-Cola jingle (and, in fact, some of them have said exactly that). Instead, they claim that the video’s been edited and the transcript’s been altered. Because if the evidence doesn’t match their memories, clearly the evidence has been tampered with.
There are a handful of instances prior to 2008 of someone saying in print that Obama was born in Kenya. A 2007 posting at Yahoo Answers asked “If Obama bin HUSSEIN al Barack was born in Kenya, how can he run for president in the US?” In a July 2009 editorial, the National Review suggested that the allegations of a Kenyan birth for Obama began with a commenter at a Democratic blog, The Blue State, who wrote on July 23, 2007, “Obama isn’t technically a northerner either since he was born in Kenya… I like a more international view of the world so I like the fact he was born somewhere else.” A Kenyan newspaper from 2004 casually referenced the “Kenyan-born Obama,” while a 2006 profile of fellow Hawaiian politician Tammy Duckworth in the Honolulu Advertiser mentioned Obama in passing to say he, like Duckworth, was born outside the U.S., but the Advertiser put his birth in Indonesia, not Kenya.
The common thread between all of these pre-2008 anecdotes is that they don’t allege any sort of cover-up. They don’t argue that Obama’s Hawaiian birth is a lie; they just assume he was born in Kenya, as though that were the accepted truth. In other words, these aren’t the claims of conspiracy theorists; they’re the mistakes of people who don’t know how to check Wikipedia. It’s the equivalent of someone assuming George W. Bush was born in Texas (he was born in Connecticut), or John Kerry in some elite East Coast hospital (he was born on a Colorado army base).
Perhaps most infamously, the author bio that was used by his literary agent said Obama was “born in Kenya.” But that error was first discovered and publicized by Breitbart.com in 2012, and thus played no role in the development of the rumor, four years earlier. Birthers frequently cite it as justification for their beliefs today, but literally no one referenced it in 2008 or before as a reason for their doubts.
Meanwhile, there is no record of his birthplace being an issue when he ran for office in 1996. Or in 1998. Or 2002. Or 2004. Newspaper profiles described him as being born in Hawaii. His Illinois State Senate webpage declared he was born in Hawaii. His memoir, Dreams From My Father, said nothing to suggest he was born anywhere other than Hawaii. Even federal records from his father’s immigration file, starting as early as the month he was born in 1961, reference him being born in Hawaii.
There is, in fact, so much documentary evidence that Obama was born in Hawaii that a parallel theory developed among some conspiracy theorists that the person responsible for the rumors of a Kenyan birth was Obama himself, as part of some effort to make himself seem more exotic or international. But then that notion is undermined by the same lack of evidence of Obama ever actually claiming to be born outside the U.S.
The more common misconception is that rumors about Obama’s birth were first circulated during the 2008 Presidential primary by Hillary Clinton and her campaign. For instance, as Donald Trump tweeted in September 2015, three months into his Presidential campaign, “Just remember, the birther movement was started by Hillary Clinton in 2008. She was all in!”
Here, the date is right, but the source is wrong. As virtually every factchecking outlet has reported, there’s no evidence that Hillary Clinton, or even her official campaign, were at all involved in the development of Birther rumors. Moreover, there’s no point in the timeline of Birtherism’s creation or spread for Hillary to even be involved, unless she and her campaign were remarkably incompetent at it. Even so, pundits, politicians and the press continue to argue over how, precisely, Birtherism got its start.
The origins of the ‘Born in Kenya’ rumor itself can be a bit obscure, but what quickly becomes clear in that search is when the rumor tipped into the wider public consciousness. When it stopped being purely the provenance of a handful of chain e-mails and personal blogs, and suddenly became a topic of discussion on message boards and political pundit websites. And that day was June 9, 2008.
June 9, 2008 – National Review
It was that afternoon that National Review columnist Jim Geraghty ran a piece online titled “Obama Could Debunk Some Rumors By Releasing His Birth Certificate.” In it, Geraghty said there were “several (unlikely) rumors circulating regarding Obama’s birth
certificate,” which could be debunked by releasing the document. He identified three such rumors: (1) That Obama was born in Kenya, (2) That his middle name was ‘Muhammad’ and not ‘Hussein’, and (3) That his legal first name at birth was ‘Barry.’
To be clear, Geraghty’s motive in this was sincere, even if his status as a conservative National Review columnist might suggest otherwise. Just days prior, Geraghty had been instrumental in shooting down a particularly ugly rumor about Michelle Obama, which claimed the existence of a video wherein she was “railing against whitey,” and which had been one of the first rumors addressed by Obama’s FightTheSmears website. Geraghty noted on June 6 that the claim sounded exactly like the plot of a 2006 political thriller, The Power Broker, about a Democratic Senator on his way to becoming the first African-American President, whose opponents locate a tape of him ‘railing against whitey,’ and choose to hold onto it as an October Surprise.
Whether due to Geraghty’s contribution or not, the ‘Whitey Tape’ rumor quickly lost traction, and failed to make any measurable impact on the election. Its main proponent, Democratic blogger and Hillary supporter Larry Johnson, would, just weeks later, become one of the earliest vocal proponents of the ‘Born in Kenya’ rumor.
With that accomplished, Geraghty began his June 9 piece by saying “Having done some Obama-rumor debunking that got praise from Daily Kos (a sign of the apocalypse, no doubt), perhaps the Obama campaign could return the favor and help debunk a bunch of others.” He wanted these rumors quashed precisely so that such improbable nonsense wouldn’t be a distraction throughout the next five months of the campaign.
Instead, he inadvertently took an obscure rumor and turned it into a well-known one. And when the Obama campaign released a birth certificate a mere three days later, on June 12, it was already too late to undo what had been done.
Because despite Geraghty’s explicit skepticism about the rumors, and about the Kenyan birth one in particular, they still managed to resonate with a certain audience. Moreover, by appearing on the website of National Review Online (along with an able assist by conservative pundit Michelle Malkin, who reposted the rumor on her website the morning of June 10), the Kenyan birth rumor managed to reach a much wider audience it they had before. A rumor that had been repeated fewer than twenty times in the previous three months, with most of the repeating coming from an even smaller handful of individuals, suddenly was published on dozens and even hundreds of different websites within a matter of days. Malkin’s post alone drew 168 comments in under two days, and received 46 trackbacks from other websites.
The right-wing message forum FreeRepublic would come to be a hotbed of Birther discussion and speculation, and its first thread devoted to the rumor appeared on June 10. Previous casual mentions of Birther rumors in stray posts had simply been ignored or dismissed as unlikely. Conservative news outlet WorldNetDaily, which would go on to become Birtherism’s central news hub, published its first article about Obama’s eligibility on the same day. Websites like Pamela Geller’s Atlas Shrugs, TexasDarlin, and Larry Johnson’s NoQuarter, which served as leaders of the early Birther movement (long before they were even dubbed “Birthers”), all ran their first Birther-related stories after June 9. Conspiracy websites like Prison Planet and white supremacist sites like StormFront similarly didn’t discover Birtherism until June 2008.
One blog even offered something of a litmus test for this shift. On March 5, 2008, conservative blogger “velvethammer,” posting on his site Ironic Surrealism, made a “(mostly) tongue-in-cheek” post entitled “Wanted: Barack Hussein Obama’s Birth Certificate.” He didn’t suggest a secret foreign birth, or even advance any conspiracy theories, but instead was concerned with dual citizenship or split loyalties. Several commenters questioned Obama’s religion or his legal name (again, “Barry”), but none suggested he was born in Kenya, or anywhere other than Hawaii.
Until June 9. Because after receiving only 14 outside comments in three months, velvethammer’s birth certificate post suddenly received 19 comments on June 10 alone, and another 36 over the next two days. And this previously unnoticed blog post earned seven trackbacks in a single day.
Literally overnight, rumors about Obama’s birth and eligibility went from being impossibly obscure to practically commonplace online, and a document that only a handful of people had ever suggested be released was suddenly the subject of urgent demands of transparency all over the web.
As it happens, this development occurred just days after Obama had clinched the Democratic nomination on June 3, 2008, following a primary campaign season that had already lasted over fifteen months. If Birtherism was a Clinton plot to cast doubt on Obama’s eligibility, Hillary waited a foolishly long time to deploy it.
April 21, 2008 – Snopes
Still, if the ‘Born in Kenya’ rumor didn’t tip into wider recognition until June 9, then how did Jim Geraghty hear about it before that? Conveniently, he linked to his source: an April 21, 2008 post on the Snopes.com message board.
Today, we have a new matter before us. There is an article out today on the internet that says that Barack Obama’s mother was living in Kenya with his Arab-African father late in her pregnancy.
She was not allowed to travel by plane then, so she Barack Obama was born there and his mother then took him to Hawaii to register his birth.
Obama is not eligible to be the President of the United States of America. This may not be proven in the next few days, but I am sure it will be proven before the General Election.
The DNC and the elite of the Democratic party should respect Hillary and not force her off the ballot. If they do, we may not even have a viable candidate.
I’m sure all this can be proven, by hospital documents and witnesses. It will take time, but Obama is not a legitimate U. S. citizen. He has citizenship established in Kenya, where he is recorded as Arab-African.
Snopes is one of the internet’s premier resources on urban legends and internet myths. Popular rumors are verified or debunked in full articles with details and citations to sources; less serious submissions that don’t merit a full debunking often receive just a reposting of the submission onto the Snopes message board, for reader amusement, and this was an example of the latter.
In other words, as of April 2008, while Politifact was still having to address incessant rumors that Obama was Muslim or that his middle name was “Muhammad”, Snopes didn’t even take the ‘Born in Kenya’ rumor seriously enough to bother with a debunking.
Most of the early conspiracy allegations are present in the Snopes post. Obama’s mother was specifically in Kenya late in her pregnancy. Her flight home was prohibited. She gave birth in Kenya, but then took her son home to Hawaii and registered his birth there. And it specifically asserts that he is not eligible to be President as a result.
Curiously, the comment appears to have been written from a Democrat’s perspective, expressing concern over the viability of the likely Democratic Presidential candidate, and advocating for Hillary’s candidacy. So it was likely not a right-winger who forwarded this rumor to Snopes, but a disgruntled Hillary supporter.
So what was this “article out today on the internet” that the reader saw and believed? There was no news article that presented this allegation, nor did any high-profile blog or website report it. In April 2008, speculation that Obama was born anywhere but Hawaii was still spectacularly rare, so a likely candidate for this “article” readily presents itself.
The article itself was most probably a piece entitled “Obama Laundry List of Lies.” Originating at the blog The Audacity of Hypocrisy, the list was an assemblage of poorly-sourced “lies” that Mr. Obama had allegedly made during the campaign. Audacity of Hypocrisy regularly updated its list with new items, and these different lists circulated the web, eventually attracting the interest of Snopes.
One variation of the Laundry List that was reposted around the internet was notably different than the others. This variation of the list proper ended with #68, and then continued with a seemingly unrelated two-item list:
“Obama claims special birth”
Much more so than we might believe.
1. Reports emanating from Africa allege his mother was in Kenya with his ARAB Kenyan (NOT Black Kenyan) father – this is clearly shown in Kenyan Govt. Registry documents which list the father as an Arab Kenyan – at a very late term of her pregnancy and was not allowed on a flight to return to HAWAII.
She gave birth to him in Kenya, immediately got on a plane and then registered him as being born in Hawaii.
2. He is NOT an African American at all but an Arab American and cannot claim African minority status, which by US Federal regulations require a person to have 1/8 (one eighth) of the minority blood (12%).
From his mother he has 50% white blood, from his father he has 43.25% Arab BLOOD and from his MATERNAL GRANDMOTHER he manages to hold onto 6.75% African or Black heritage blood.
He has had to duck and weave all his life and use whatever lies he could use to even “pass for Black” and the benefits that this minority status provided. So even this, while understandable – IS A documented LIE.
This closely maps the April 21 Snopes post. Obama’s mother in Kenya with his father. Her pregnancy preventing her from flying. A Kenyan birth, followed by a prompt trip back to Hawaii to register the birth. The Snopes account also provides no new notable details that the Laundry List lacks; notably, Ann Dunham’s name is missing from both accounts.
If there can be any doubt that this is the article the Snopes submitter saw, that is settled by the “Laundry List”s claim that Obama and his father are both “Arab,” rather than black. This singularly unusual claim is reflected in the Snopes post, where both Obama and his father are described as being “Arab-African.” Both even make reference to supposed Kenyan government records regarding this ethnic classification.
Given this close symmetry of information, the Snopes submitter was almost certainly referring to a posting of this version of the “Obama Laundry List of Lies.” And indeed, the Laundry List was responsible for the biggest spread of the Kenyan Birth rumor prior to its appearance at National Review Online.
April 3, 2008 – Alan Peters’ News Views
The author of this formulation of the Laundry List was a blogger who operated under the pseudonym Alan Peters. He posted it on his blog News Views on April 3, 2008, and the same day linked to the article from another of his blogs, Anti-Mullah. Peters also offered the ability to “Subscribe to Anti-Mullah by Email,” so these posts were undoubtedly being distributed to subscribers’ inboxes as well.
Peters obviously cribbed the core of the Laundry List from The Audacity of Hypocrisy, but starting with “Obama claims special birth,” everything that followed, including the Kenyan birth rumor, is Peters’ addition. So was it original to Peters, or did he cut and paste it as well?
As the seemingly irrelevant comment “Obama claims special birth” might suggest, it was in fact a cut-and-paste job. Peters copied it directly from an April 4, 2008 post by a poster named FARS at FreeRepublic.com, where it was posted in a thread that began with the 68-item version of Audacity of Hypocrisy’s Laundry List. (It appears that Peters either initially posted the Laundry List verbatim on April 3, and then subsequently edited it to add the FreeRepublic content, or mangled his Blogger date settings). The non-sequitur introduction “Obama claims special birth” is a remnant of the post that FARS was responding to, a satirical anecdote about Obama’s father being shot at in the Honolulu airport.
Aside from a couple of short comments, Peters’ list attracted no recorded attention at first. Then, a little over a week after it was posted online, it started to spread.
On April 11, 2008, “No2liberals” posted a link to Peters’ Laundry List post in the comments section of a post at NukeGingrich. Included alongside it was a link to someone claiming that Obama was “only 1/16 black.” He would link to it again the next day in a comments thread at the blog A Future In Freedom, and a third time in a comment left at the blog Gates of Vienna on April 16. Another commenter in the Gates of Vienna thread, VinceP1974, promptly turned around and posted it in the comments of other blogs in the wee hours of April 17, including “neo-neocon” and “The Strata-Sphere.” But not before he left such comments like “B Hussein Obama is not black. He’s Arab and white.”
Meanwhile, Peters’ work had taken other routes of republication. It was posted to the Facebook group “Stop Barack Obama (One Million Strong & Growing)” on the evening of April 16. Then on April 17, Peters’ piece appeared simultaneously on the blogs “Not Under the Bus” and Just a Typical White Person, which shared a common author.
On April 20, 2008, Alan Peters’ “Obama Laundry List of Lies” was republished at Miss Beth’s Victory Dance and Wake Up America, as well as several other blogs maintained by “Miss Beth,” a/k/a Kateri Jordan of Tucson, Arizona. In all, Jordan posted the Laundry List to at least a half dozen websites, including Digg. The posts began by stating “This came to me in my email and I was given permission to post and spread this anywhere and everywhere I can.” This was followed with an enjoinder to “Read, memorize, swipe and publish!”
Two particular details set these versions of the List apart from earlier versions. One is the addition of a wholly unrelated item at the bottom of the List, entitled “BREAKING NEWS – ISLAMIC SUPPORT FOR Obama HUSSEIN COMING INTO THE OPEN IN CA,” and spotlighting a photograph of a Muslim woman holding a pro-Obama sign outside an Anaheim mosque. The source of this non-sequitur item? Alan Peters. From a April 2, 2008 post that Peters made to his blog Anti-Mullah. The other added detail was an acknowledgment, specifically crediting Alan Peters as the author of the piece.
Most of these posts were met with little response. None drew particular attention to the rumor that he was born in Kenya. But one, at the blog Wake Up America, received several dozen comments, including substantial discussion of the alleged Kenyan birth and the consequential eligibility matters. Most of this discussion was between Jordan and Katie Norcross of Palatine, Illinois.
Norcross quickly began fiercely stressing Obama’s ineligibility, claiming that she had already “searched birth records and no hospital or county office has any records” (how she was doing this in Illinois is unclear ), announcing that she was starting to check Kenyan records (again, how she was doing this in Illinois is unclear), and declaring that she was running a Freedom of Information Act search for a State Department birth certificate from Kenya, all within a day or so of first hearing the rumor.
Given Norcross’s enthusiastic conspiracism, the active comment thread, the April 20th posting date, and the fact that a handful of other websites linked back to the Wake Up America post, it seems probable that the “article out today on the internet” referenced in the April 21 Snopes message board post was the April 20 post Jordan made to Wake Up America. Although the same rumor was repeated on other sites, including other ones that Jordan posted it to, it was just item #69 in a list; what sets the post at Wake Up America apart is the spotlighting and discussion of the ‘Born in Kenya’ rumor in the comments. Efforts to locate other sites that had such extensive discussion or debate about that singular rumor came up empty.
Regardless of the specific URL that the Snopes emailer had visited and which inspired the query, the probability is still overwhelming that the submitter was referencing someone’s republication of Alan Peters’ Laundry List post. So where had the rumor appeared before he appended it to the Laundry List on April 3?
March 4, 2008 – Alan Peters’ Ruthless Roundup
In fact, April 3 was not the first time Peters had published this rumor. On March 4, 2008, Peters mentioned it on another of his blogs, Ruthless Roundup. The post began with a link to FreedomsEnemies.com (whose author, Parker Shannon, was calling Obama “the Muslim stealth candidate” as early as 2006), and he followed that link with this addendum:
Add to the family history shown in this article that Obama’s mother was allegedly visiting Kenya with Obama’s father in the final months of her pregnancy and was not allowed to board a flight in her late term to return home.She allegedly had Obama in Kenya and quickly boarded a flight to Hawaii. Airlines do not accept late term pregancies but do not refuse passage to a newborn, usually issuing a 10% or free fare ticket for the trip.Once in Hawaii, his mother registered him as being born in Hawaii.
Apart from his bloodline making him an Arab American NOT an African American, (his African blood only reaches less than 7% and insufficient to qualify for Federal standards of a minimum 12.5% as a given minority) he may not even be born in the USA, and unlike McCain without being on an American military base and with BOTH parents being Americans.
The bizarre claim that Obama is Arab and not African-American was invented by blogger and radio host Kenneth Lamb in a February 14, 2008 post entitled “Is Obama Really African-American?” Lamb subsequently declined to produce any evidence whatsoever to support his claim. That is the origin of Peters’ latter claim, but Peters provided no source for the birthplace rumor, choosing only to frame the rumor with “allegedly.”
“Alan Peters,” as previously noted, was a pseudonym, used by a Santa Ana resident named Ali Pahlavan. The then-67-year-old Pahlavan was a prolific anti-Muslim blogger who maintained several websites, most notably Anti-Mullah. He described himself as having been “For many years involved with intelligence and security matters in Iran with significant access at top levels during the rule of the Shah, until early 1979. Currently an Iran SME (subject matter expert), analyst/commentator, and multi-linguist.” A writer in Forbes Magazine cited Iranian sources who said Peters had become “a sensationalist and even fantasist in his later years.” A sample Peters quote on Obama: “Oba-Hussein, the American Khomeini, though still short of the Ayatollah Khomeini blood baths, is implementing the worst of both Islam and Communism inside the USA.” Pahlavan died in 2014.
March 1, 2008 – FreeRepublic.com
Despite his considerable blogging output, ‘Alan Peters’ didn’t appear to attract much of a following, with one notable exception. A FreeRepublic poster named ‘FARS’ claimed to be a close friend of ‘Alan Peters’ and regularly promoted his work. FARS’ FreeRepublic profile page featured links to Anti-Mullah, and his contact email was firstname.lastname@example.org. FARS also made his last post to FreeRepublic in March 2013, the same month that ‘Peters’ stopped posting to his blogs, and never returned to comment on his absence or Pahlavan’s death.
This is most likely because FARS was always a sockpuppet for Pahlavan, a message board pseudonym doing third-person promotion for a blogging pseudonym. That they were one and the same person was suggested as early as 2006, the same year FARS first appeared at FreeRepublic, and when Alan Peters began blogging in earnest. Even if, somehow, they were not literally the same person, for exchange-of-information purposes, they might as well be.
That relationship is important, because of a post FARS made in the early hours of Saturday, March 1, 2008, at FreeRepublic.com. In a thread titled “FR CONTEST: Pin the Middle Name on the Obama,” where posters were offering various ‘funny’ middle names for Barack Obama in lieu of “Hussein,” FARS posted this non-sequitur as the 391st post:
I was told today that Obama swore in on a Koran for his Senate seat. I do not believe he did. Can someone clarify this for me? I am under the impression only a Congressman has so far sworn in on a Koran.
Also that Obama’s mother gave birth to him overseas and then immediately flew into Hawaii and registered his birth as having taken place in Hawaii.
Again, any clarifications on this? Defintely disqualifies him for Prez. There must be some trace of an airticket. While small babies are not charged air fare they do have a ticket issued for them.
Long time ago but there may be some residual information somewhere. Good ammo (if available and true) BEST USED AFTER he becomes PREZ (if that occurs) and it’s too late for Dems – except accept the VP.
It was a non-sequitur not only because it had nothing to do with the thread topic, but it wasn’t even related to the post it was responding to, which simply said “Oblammo! Hamas” in what, one supposes, was an attempt at wit.
A considerable amount of online searching turned up no instances of this sort of conspiracy-tinged rumor about Obama’s birth prior to this March 1 posting. Which leaves this as the earliest documented instance of someone claiming Obama was secretly born outside the U.S. And most of the essential elements of the central Birther rumor are here, from the immediate flight to Hawaii for registration to the Presidential eligibility concerns. FARS acknowledges that Obama’s public biography states that he was born in Honolulu, and he alleges that the public biography is false. He actively endorses the idea of Obama’s family covering up a foreign birth, and as such, is proposing a conspiracy theory. All that is lacking is a specific reference to Kenya as the location of that foreign birth.
Importantly, despite being the first person, anywhere, to report this rumor, he cites no source for it. No news report, or broadcast program, or website. Only “I was told today.” The fact that it appears alongside the oft-repeated and equally oft-debunked false rumor that Obama took his oath of office on a Koran illustrates the level of FARS’ willingness to factcheck rumors before repeating them.
FARS’ rumor drew as much negative response as it did support; the very next poster wrote in reaction “Has the Conservative Philosophy and Message become so diluted and fuzzy that we must resort to trash like this[?]” No one appeared to pick up the rumor and spread it themselves.
Rather, it took a blogger outside FreeRepublic to repeat it as a legitimate rumor: Alan Peters. Which he did three days later, and when that didn’t spread, a month after that. Peters’ March 4 post also pinpoints Kenya as the supposed location of birth, and offers rationales for why Ann Dunham would have been in Kenya and why she would not have returned to the U.S. prior to giving birth.
And the ‘Arab’ claim from Kenneth Lamb that was incorporated into Peters’ March 4 and April 3 posts? Also posted in the same FreeRepublic thread by FARS, on the afternoon of March 2.
The Forbes description of Pahlavan as “a sensationalist and even fantasist” was, if anything, an understatement. Peters’ disdain for the Muslim religion was exceeded only by his outright hatred of Barack Obama. During the two years after the Kenyan birth rumor debuted on Peters’ blog, he was one of the most steadfast purveyors of anti-Obama rhetoric and Birther conspiracy theories, ably assisted by FARS’s posts at FreeRepublic. Peters was also personally responsible for starting one of the most widespread secondary rumors about the supposed Kenyan birth, the completely false claim that Obama’s half-siblings had said he was born in Kenya, which he invented in June 2008.
If Birtherism has a founding father, it is Ali Pahlavan, a/k/a Alan Peters.
February 29, 2008 – The Volokh Conspiracy
So how can it be certain that the Kenyan birth rumor began with Pahlavan/Peters/FARS? His source could have been a liar or a practical joker or a nut. Perhaps it all started with a random e-mail, or perhaps there never was a source, and it was created out of whole cloth.
As it turns out, he had a source. Of sorts. And it was not on an extremist or racist or conspiracist website, but rather on a highly respected law blog, one that this author had already frequented for years.
On February 28, 2008, UCLA Law Professor Eugene Volokh posted to The Volokh Conspiracy a short item where he stated that he was certain that John McCain was a natural-born citizen. At the time, there was some minor debate over whether McCain’s well-established birth in Panama affected his Presidential eligibility. In the comments thread to this post, one commenter, Dave N, posited this legal scenario:
Let’s change the hypothetical (just for grins and giggles).
Barack Obama’s father was a citizen of Kenya. What would Senator Obama’s citizenship status (and Presidential eligibility) be if:
1) He had been born in Kenya, but taken by his mother to the United States immediately after birth and then spent the rest of his life as he has subsequently lived it?
2) He was born in a third country, and like my first hypothetical, immediately taken to the United States? Does that change the analysis?
3) Would these results change if Senator Obama had been raised in a foreign country for any length of time before his mother returned with him to the United States?
That was posted at The Volokh Conspiracy at 2:02 a.m. on February 29, 2008. Just over 24 hours later, FARS was sharing at FreeRepublic what he had “been told today” about Obama having been born overseas, but taken by his mother to the United States immediately after birth. All the details subsequently expressed in FARS’ version of the rumor are there in Dave’s legal hypothetical. And as a rumor, it shows no signs of having existed prior to February 29.
Thus, before it was a rumor that gave birth to a fringe movement, dozens of attempted lawsuits, and Donald Trump’s political career, Birtherism was borne out of nothing more than a legal hypothetical. No family confessions, no stories out of Africa, no investigative reporting, no Hillary Clinton campaign sabotage. Just a mere thought exercise about citizenship law, turned into a malicious rumor by an anti-Muslim blogger.
That is how Birtherism was conceived.
– Loren Collins, September 2016
Feb. 29, 2008:
– Dave N posts a legal hypothetical about Obama’s birth on the law blog The Volokh Conspiracy, asking what would be the legal implications if Obama had been born in Kenya and then immediately brought by his mother to the U.S.
March 1, 2008:
– ‘FARS’ posts at FreeRepublic that he heard a rumor that Obama was born overseas, and was brought immediately by his mother to the U.S. and registered as a Hawaiian birth.
March 4, 2008:
– ‘Alan Peters’ posts on his blog Ruthless Roundup that Obama was allegedly born in Kenya but registered as a Hawaiian birth.
April 3-4, 2008:
– ‘Alan Peters’ reposts the viral “Obama Laundry List of Lies” created by the website The Audacity of Hypocrisy, and edits it to add the Kenyan birth rumor.
April 20, 2008:
– After being reposted on various other websites starting at least as early as April 11, Alan Peters’ version of the Laundry List is posted on the blog Wake Up America, where the Kenyan birth rumor is actively discussed in the comments.
April 21, 2008:
– An e-mail inquiring about a rumor that Obama was secretly born in Kenya is posted to the Snopes.com message board.
June 3, 2008:
– Obama clinches the Democratic nomination for President.
June 9, 2008:
– National Review’s Jim Geraghty cites the Snopes post when suggesting that Obama could debunk rumors of a Kenyan birth by releasing his birth certificate.
June 10, 2008:
– Skepticism over Obama’s birthplace and demands for his birth certificate receive their first stories at websites like Atlas Shrugs and WorldNetDaily, which would go on to become some of the biggest cheerleaders for Birtherism.
June 12, 2008:
– The Obama campaign releases a scan of Obama’s Hawaiian birth certificate on its FightTheSmears.com website.
– Loren Collins is an Atlanta attorney and the author of Bullspotting: Finding Facts in the Age of Misinformation.