Tim Fernholz
The American Prospect
October 29, 2008 - 8:00pm

"He's an Arab," the woman at a town hall meeting in Minnesota told John McCain, who gently took the microphone from her hand.

"No, Ma'am," he said. "He's a decent family man, [a] citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues. And that's what this campaign is all about."

It would have behooved McCain to mention that being a decent family man and citizen and being an Arab are not mutually exclusive. As it is, the McCain campaign has been able to take advantage of rumors suggesting that Obama, a practicing Christian, is a Muslim, as well as an Arab, and that this makes him unfit for the presidency. But the use of "Muslim" or "Arab" as slurs against Obama is part of a larger tension in this campaign -- how should Obama both defend himself against falsehoods and fight the negative stereotyping of Muslims that make them possible?

One model might be former Secretary of State Colin Powell's statement on Meet the Press during his endorsement of Obama:

'Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.' Well, the correct answer is he is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian. He's always been a Christian. But the really right answer is what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer's no, that's not America. Is there something wrong with some 7-year-old Muslim American kid believing that he or she could be president? Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion 'He's a Muslim and he might be associated with terrorists.' This is not the way we should be doing it in America.

But Powell's directness has been missing from the Obama campaign's response. His campaign has done an admirable job of standing up to guilt by association when it comes to its candidate but has been reluctant to engage in the same spirited rebuttal when Muslim American staffers, or issues, are in question. Attempts by the McCain campaign to associate Obama with terrorism by referencing his service alongside former '60s radical Bill Ayers on the board of a charitable foundation have been promptly fought by the campaign. But in several cases where Muslims working on the campaign have been challenged by the same standards, the Obama campaign hasn't stood up against the charges. Political calculation is one impetus -- it's much easier to write off a low-level staffer than to write off the candidate -- but a larger motivation is that being called a Muslim or an Arab bears a more pejorative association than have most other smears after September 11.

The Obama campaign's fear of association with Muslim Americans came to the fore early in August, when two women wearing traditional headscarves were asked by campaign volunteers not to stand on a riser behind the candidate during a photo op. Obama called and personally apologized to the two women, but damage was done in the Muslim American community.

"One thing Muslims don't want to do is be a liability to the candidate that they support," said Shahed Amanullah, who runs the Muslims for Obama Web site. "It's a difficult thing for Muslims to swallow, the idea that our support for someone could be a liability."

To be sure, Obama has made positive statements defending Muslims and Arabs (the two are rarely the same, most American Arabs are Christian, most American Muslims are African American or southeast Asian), telling Larry King that "this is actually an insult against Muslim Americans, something that we don't spend a lot of time talking about. And sometimes I've been derelict in pointing that out. … There are wonderful Muslim Americans all across the country who are doing wonderful things. And for this to be used as sort of an insult or to raise suspicions about me I think is unfortunate. And it's not what America is all about." He has also made remarks defending civil liberties that specifically reference anti-Muslim racial profiling. But his campaign has been reluctant to engage this message or to condemn even the guilt-by-association criticisms that affect his staff.

The Muslim American community's fear of damaging Obama with their support is especially striking because Muslim groups have been suffering the same guilt-by-association foolishness Obama has been so adept at shrugging off himself. In 2007, the Justice Department, in violation of its own guidelines, released a list of 300 "unindicted co-conspirators" in the trial of a Muslim charity organization accused of sending aid to Hamas. That case ended in a mistrial after seven years. But numerous Muslim civil-society organizations have been tarred as supporting the alleged but unproven supporters of a terrorist organization -- a rather tenuous chain of evidence. Included on the list are the Council for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), two of the largest Muslim civic organizations in the United States. Almost any publicly active Muslim American would have some contact with the two groups, and because the two groups weren't actually indicted, there is no venue for them to legally dispute the characterization.

So it's no surprise that The Wall Street Journal recently headlined an article "Obama's Staff Slips Up With Muslim Outreach" after the campaign’s latest outreach coordinator, Minha Husaini, went to an open meeting that included representatives from CAIR and Muslim American Society's Freedom Foundation, which has been connected to the Muslim Brotherhood in a separate Justice Department filing. Obama spokesperson Ben LaBolt told reporters that Husaini wouldn't have attended the meeting if she had known the two representatives would be there, conceding that it was somehow inappropriate to be seen with the two groups. What the article doesn't note is that Justice and Treasury Department officials regularly appear at meetings with CAIR representatives, and even co-sponsored a conference with ISNA. For further context, note that Brookings terrorism expert Ken Pollack is an unindicted co-conspirator in the case of an Israeli spy who obtained a Pentagon file. Pollack has said he is the official described in an indictment as giving sensitive documents to a spy; he denies that any information he gave was classified. And of course there are pictures of George W. Bush hugging jailed terrorist supporter Sami El-Arian on the campaign trail. But the Obama campaign is required to have higher standards than the government itself.

The job's previous occupant faced a similar situation: In August, the Obama campaign hired a civic-minded lawyer named Mazen Asbahi to head up outreach among Muslim voters and donors. Soon, though, the press learned that Asbahi had spent a few weeks in 2000 serving on the board of an investment fund alongside a fundamentalist imam. (The fund intended to follow Islamic banking practices that forbid, among other things, the charging of interest, and the imam was there to give his imprimatur to their procedures.) Asbahi, who works at a white shoe Chicago law firm, resigned his membership on the board when he learned of the imam's background. But when it looked like this guilt-by-association attack could hurt Obama, Asbahi resigned from the campaign, as well.

The last decade has been a strange political journey for Muslim Americans: They supported George W. Bush strongly in 2000 after he actively campaigned for their vote, and socially conservative practicing Muslims fit comfortably in the GOP coalition. Their votes in Miami-Dade County were arguably decisive in the contested state of Florida. But after the 9-11 attacks and the subsequent increase in discrimination against Muslims, both in the form of bigotry and civil-liberties violations, they found a new home supporting Democratic candidates. But now their candidate of choice -- reports and surveys suggest that Obama has overwhelming support in the community -- can't afford to be seen with them.

As troubling as this pattern is, it has contributed to the political growth of the Muslim American community. A new generation of young Muslim Americans has been founding civic organizations and getting involved with Democratic politics; in part to fight these stereotypes. In 2006, Keith Ellison, the first Muslim representative was elected to the House of Representatives, followed shortly by a second, Andre Carson, in 2008. The goal of many Muslim American activists I spoke with was getting their community more strongly engaged with political participation and focused on being more than single-issue voters. In the past, the diverse Muslim American community has been united around the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but as a new generation appears, observers of the Muslim-American community perceive a focus on new issues, not the least of which is the Iraq war's more central place as a foreign policy concern.

"We've found that Muslims are interested in many of the same issues that other Americans are interested in; they are socially conservative but they tend to vote Democratic on economic issues," Farid Senzai, Director of Research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, said. "They may support some of the same issues as Republicans on social issues like abortion or gay marriage; on other issues, for instance, on education and development and economic issues, they tend to vote with Democrats. Civil rights is very important, especially since 9-11."

With one candidate reluctant to personally reach out to Muslims -- Obama has, for example, appeared in churches and synagogues but not mosques -- for fear of adding fuel to a political fire, and the other making almost no outreach efforts at all, policy positions are all that's left for Muslim American voters, forcing them toward dispassionate evaluation and to redouble their internal organizing efforts.

Many have suggested that Obama's election would be a symbolic victory, both in public diplomacy abroad and here at home, over the forces of discrimination. Muqtedar Kahn, an expert in Muslim Americans at the University of Delaware, wrote in a recent report that Obama seems to be "designed specifically to bridge every divide threatening to tear America apart today." The question remains though, whether Obama has gone far enough in ensuring that his message of hope and inclusiveness includes this community. The Muslim community in the United States is unlike most others outside the Muslim-majority world in that it is not an incubator for extremism. It is unfortunate that a presidential candidate who has shown boldness in addressing the deepest divisions in America -- racism, sexism and partisanship -- can't make a bolder statement in support of a growing community whose engagement in American life isn't just right but critical to beating back militant political Islam worldwide.

"If there is one thing that Muslims really yearn for, it's to feel that they're included in the fabric of America," Amanullah said.


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