Barack Obama & the tragedy of the Muslim ‘smear’

June 19, 2008 at 6:11 pm | Posted in Barack Obama, U.S. Politics | 6 Comments
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The art of speechmaking has a deeply symbolic role in American poltics. For each era you’ll find a speech that either speaks to the national mood or offers a portent of things to come: Roosevelt’s ‘fear istelf‘, Johnson’s ‘great society‘, King’s ‘dream’ or Kennedy’s call to public service. In the eloquent visions they offer, the idealism they inspire and the unity & resolve they provoke, the great political speeches are wedded to American history almost as much as events themselves, and serve as a point of reference for those who choose the path of public service.

Because of this, the podium from which these political speeches are made has taken on a symbolism of its own. In this image-obsessed media age, great care is taken to ensure the slogans are bold and visionary, that the stage is showered with symbols of patriotism and that the audience reflects the rich diversity of the country. Though it is a cynical and manufactured process, nothing reflects the breadth and depth of the coalition Barack Obama’s campaign has built than the crowds who attend his speeches: young and old, black, white and hispanic all sat side-by-side to insist on a change in the way the country is governed.

But there is one face, quite depressingly, that’s seldom seen at the rallies, in the campaign literature or on the television commercials to support his candidacy. On Wednesday the Politico reported that two Muslim women dressed in hijabs had been barred from sitting behind the podium at an Obama rally in Detroit, Michigan.

“I was coming to support him, and I felt like I was discriminated against by the very person who was supposed to be bringing this change, who I could really relate to,” said Hebba Aref, a 25-year-old lawyer who lives in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills. “The message that I thought was delivered to us was that they do not want him associated with Muslims or Muslim supporters.”

Now, I should point out that the Obama campaign has apologised personally to the women involved; they insist the actions were taken independently by over-zealous staffers and are anaethema to the type of campaign the Illinois Senator wants to run. I happen to believe them, but that doesn’t make the news any less distressing.

For one, it’s just a missed opportunity. In the city with the largest Arab population in the US, there was an  opportunity for two Muslim women in traditional dress to share a stage with a Democrat who is committed to women’s rights, gay rights, religious freedom and equality of opportunity. The symbolism would’ve been huge – sending a statement to folks at home that Muslim American are Americans too, and showing the rest of the world that for all its faults, there are few places as diverse, inclusive and, yes, tolerant, as the United States of America.

Secondly, this incident puts a human face on an unease with the Obama campaign that’s lingered for some time: namely, the aggressiveness it exerts in refuting the ‘smear’ that the Senator is a Muslim. Now, running for President is difficult enough when you’re a white, middle-aged war hero, let alone a black man whose middle name is Hussein, and it’s only right that his campaign pushes back against rumours being peddled by racists. But, as Naomi Klein argues, “what is disturbing about the campaign’s response is that it leaves unchallenged the disgraceful and racist premise behind the entire “Muslim smear”: that being Muslim is de facto a source of shame.”

As difficult as it may be, Obama needs to find a way to address this tension or else risk alienating a religious and ethnic group that has been demonised for far too long. He needs to state plainly that whilst he is a devout Christian, there is nothing wrong with being a Muslim, and that those spreading these lies do so not simply to demonise him, but every other American who practices Islam. Ezra Klein has a sensible suggestion:

The bigger move would be to invite them to the sit-down, and then make a speech forthrightly addressing not only the rumors, but the ugly undertone of the rumors, which implies that the religion of millions of Americans and over a billion people worldwide somehow renders them dangerously “other.”

Sure, it would be safer politically just to keep batting the rumours away with the same aggressiveness  shown so far, but – as we’ve seen with the Reverend Wright scandal and on many other occasions – Obama is at his best when taking those risks inherent in doing the right thing.

If nothing else, it might stop a few of his anxious staffers from freaking out at the sight of a Muslim woman who merely wants to watch him take to the podium and speak of the next great moment in American history.

Photo #1 taken by Flickr user (ahem!) Barack Obama (Creative Commons)

Photo #2 taken by Flickr user jetheriot (Creative Commons)



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  1. this has been a lose-lose situation for obama; have the women on the stage and he’d be chastised for associating himself with “radicals”, not have them on the stage and he’s chastised for being a hypocrite

  2. this has been a lose-lose situation for obama; have the women on the stage and he’d be chastised for associating himself with “radicals”, not have them on the stage and he’s chastised for being a hypocrite

  3. Islamophobia Watch points us towards an example of the nasty, aggressive climate that led Obama’s staff to usher the two woman off stage – Debbie Schlussel, a prominent right-wing blogger, has more or less called these two women terrorists.

  4. *sighs*

    For that, and all of the god-awful things she’s said and written before (which is probably her life’s work, come to think of it), Schlussel is beneath contempt. On occasion, she even makes Mad Mel look reasonable.

  5. I attended a bake sale in Mr.Obama’s honour yesterday.

    Carry on.

  6. […] there’s anyone left in America who doesn’t know his middle name, right? As I’ve written before, my greatest disappointment with the Obama campaign was his failure to directly challenge the […]

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