Lifting the veil on Obama's relations with Arab-Americans

The sharp outcry last week after two Muslim women wearing headscarves were told they couldn’t appear behind Senator Barack Obama at a campaign rally in Detroit, has raised questions about the credibility and motivations of Obama’s post-racial, multi-ethnic message and appeal.

On June 18th two Muslim women separately reported that they were told they could not appear on stage behind Obama because they had headscarves on. Obama later called the women to personally apologize, and his campaign released a statement saying that the actions by the Obama volunteers who barred the women was unacceptable and went against the spirit of his campaign.

The incident was picked up by the national press, some calling the move hypocrisy, while others pointed out that the campaign has had to tread a tightrope between combating rumors and perceptions that Obama is a Muslim and at the same time not appearing to denigrate Muslims or Islam with his disavowals.

The reaction in the Arab press has been louder, harsher and more impassioned. A scathing column by Ray Hanania posted on the Arab Writers Group went so far as to allege a tacit agreement between the press and the Obama campaign to report the incident without a sense of outrage. Hanania called the incident an act of “racism.” He claimed that if the same thing had happened at a McCain event there would have been a loud outcry in the media.

To underscore that sentiment a political cartoon released to Arab newspapers by Hanania and David Kish shows Obama telling a crowd that there are many differences between him and Sen. John McCain. The following panel shows a volunteer telling two women in headscarves that they can’t be seen. The cartoon ends with a thought bubble over Obama’s head that reads: “Then again maybe not so many.”

While reporting on the incident has focused on the motivations and tactics of the campaign, it has neglected to delve into whether Obama’s candidacy may be raising the level of interest and participation in the political process by Muslims and Arab-Americans.

While there’s no concrete evidence to suggest that Obama’s candidacy has galvanized Arab or Muslim voters, there are attempts within the community to increase political participation. The Arab American Institute has launched “Our Voice. Our Vote. Yalla Vote ’08.” to bring issues related to the Arab-American community to the forefront in 2008.

“Like all Americans, we’re concerned about the economy and education, about health care and home prices. But there are a host of other issues that are impacting our community more deeply and more personally than any others: issues like civil liberties, immigration, and our country’s foreign policies,” Dr. James Zogby, of the Arab American Institute said in a statement.

The group is planning to put organizers on the ground in key states, and plans to monitor political races on all levels to help advance an agenda that reflects Arab-American concerns.

It’s easy to see how Muslim voters would be attracted to a candidate with family members who are Muslim, whose father comes from Kenya, and who spent his early years in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation. But is the appeal of Obama’s personal story outweighed by his campaign’s efforts to downplay his Muslim roots? For Arab and Muslim voters incidents like the one in Detroit last week could end up linking Obama to what some in the Muslim community allege is a long-standing bias by American politicians and the mainstream media against Muslims and Arabs in this country.

Michigan will be a battleground in 2008, and has one of the largest Arab and Muslim populations in the country. In a tight election the Arab vote could be a significant factor.

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