Jewish Journal

The Obama camp’s delicate dance *

by Brad A. Greenberg

June 23, 2008 | 9:30 pm

Obama poses after the hijab incident

I’ve been uncomfortable with the word “smear” since Barack Obama began refuting the rumors that he was a Muslim (and yet the term has appeared in at least two headlines on this blog). Calling the Muslim designation a smear suggests that we Americans have, at best, an automatic aversion to followers of Islam. Indeed, Muslims have clearly been stigmatized in the West during the past few decades, and particularly past seven years, but this shouldn’t be the case.

Obama’s campaign obviously has walked a tight rope in dispelling the Muslim myths: They want to assure Christians and Jews that Obama is their guy while not alienating Muslims inclined to vote for him. Amy Chozick had a good article about this pickle in today’s Wall Street Journal:

Muslim-Americans have made up one of Sen. Obama’s most loyal bases of support since he announced his candidacy last year. But lately some Muslims, concentrated in several battleground states, say they are having second thoughts over his campaign’s ardent defense of his religious background.

“If he were a Muslim, so what? That insinuates that if he were a Muslim, he’s automatically a jihadist. That’s incredibly insulting to people of the Muslim faith and Arabs who are Christian,” says Tony Kutayli, a spokesman for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and a Christian.

The issue flared up at a rally in Detroit last Monday, when two Muslim women in hijab, or traditional clothing, were asked to move when they sat behind the podium, where their headscarves would have appeared in photographs and on television with the candidate.

The campaign apologized to the women and noted that they were asked to move by volunteers, not campaign staffers. “This is of course not the policy of the campaign. It is offensive and counter to Obama’s commitment to bring Americans together,” said spokesman Bill Burton.

As for the “Fight the Smears” Web site, Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor says it was designed to “dispel any and all misinformation,” and the Muslim rumor is misinformation. The “smear,” he wrote in an email, is that “most of these attacks allege that he is a radical Muslim who attended a madrassa.”

The handling of Islam in American politics, particularly since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, has become a delicate issue. Politicians from President Bush on down have wrestled with how to attack radical Islam without seeming anti-Islam.

Sen. Obama, who says he has always been a Christian, has been grappling with the accusations for more than a year, when Internet rumors began to emerge that he was educated in a radical madrassa in Indonesia and that he took the oath of office with his hand on the Quran instead of the Bible.

“The Muslims have said they plan on destroying the U.S. from the inside out, what better way than to start at the highest level, through the president of the United States—one of their own!!!” reads one email chain, evoking the communist plot to take over the presidency in the 1962 movie, “The Manchurian Candidate.”

A Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life poll conducted in March shows the rumors have only stuck with a small portion of mostly conservative, noncollege-educated voters: 79% of respondents said they had heard the rumor that Sen. Obama is a Muslim, but only one in 10 said they believe it. A separate poll from the Pew Forum last September showed the liability of the perception. In the survey, 45% of respondents said they would have reservations about voting for a presidential candidate who is Muslim, compared with 25% for a Mormon candidate and 11% for a Jewish candidate.

I can’t believe 10 percent still believe it. Read the rest here.

* Updated: The impeccable Andrea Elliott covers this in tomorrow’s New York Times. U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim Congressman, told her, ““A lot of us are waiting for him to say that there’s nothing wrong with being a Muslim, by the way.”

While the senator has visited churches and synagogues, he has yet to appear at a single mosque. Muslim and Arab-American organizations have tried repeatedly to arrange meetings with Mr. Obama, but officials with those groups say their invitations — unlike those of their Jewish and Christian counterparts — have been ignored.

In fact, Obama is not the only presidential candidate guilty of the snub. I reported in December that Muslim Americans have felt left out since the start.

(Photo: Ali Eteraz)

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