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Obama Walks a Fine Line With Muslims: Campaign's Efforts to Dispel Rumors Risk Offending a Base of Support

posted on: Jun 23, 2008

It is inaccurate to call Barack Obama a Muslim. Is it a slur?

The Obama campaign suggests it is. A new campaign Web site designed to air and rebut potentially damaging Internet rumors reads in one part: “Smear: Barack Obama is a Muslim… Truth: Sen. Obama has never been a Muslim, was not raised as a Muslim and is a committed Christian.”

The characterization highlights a tricky balance the campaign is trying to strike: to tamp down false rumors — intended by some to link the Democratic presidential candidate to radical Islam — without offending Muslims and harming his image of inclusiveness.

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.

John McCain has had his own struggles addressing Islam. In April, the Republican presidential candidate’s campaign replaced Ali Jawad, a prominent Arab-American businessman, from his Michigan finance committee because of unsubstantiated claims that Mr. Jawad is an “agent” of Hezbollah. The move cost the Republican support in Dearborn, an area both candidates will fight hard to capture in November.

According to the latest Census data, there are 2.3 million Muslims in the U.S. Two-thirds are foreign-born; about 20% of U.S.-born Muslims are African-American. According to the Arab-American Institute, there are about 3.5 million Arab-Americans living in the U.S. About three-quarters are Christian and a quarter Muslim. Voter turnout among Arab-Americans is up to 30% higher than that of the general population, and they are concentrated in Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia, states seen as among the most competitive this fall.

So far, Sen. Obama has enjoyed the support of both Christian and Muslim Arab-Americans who are partly drawn to what they perceive as a more diplomatic approach to the Middle East and his diverse background. Sen. Obama’s father was a nonpracticing Muslim from Kenya, and for a brief period of his childhood the senator lived in Indonesia, a Muslim country.

But recently some Muslim voters interviewed in swing states say they have noticed the disparity between his outreach to them and to other religions. The Obama campaign has embarked on a national effort to win support from devout Christian voters and make known the candidate’s Christian faith. He visited a Boca Raton, Fla., synagogue, and he made a pro-Israel group his first stop after claiming enough delegates to secure the nomination earlier this month.

An Obama aide says that the campaign currently doesn’t have any effort targeting Muslims and that campaign officials are relying on the Arab-American outreach efforts at the Democratic National Committee.

“The majority of our faith outreach, by and large, with some exceptions, is not faith specific. It is holistic,” Mr. Vietor says.

Ginan Rauf, 46 years old, a secular Muslim and teacher in Franklin Lakes, N.J., is rethinking her support for the Democratic candidate. She volunteered to make calls on his behalf ahead of the March 4 Texas primary. Now she says she isn’t sure she will vote for him.

“We’re so hardened to Islamic-phobia, but a lot of us were surprised and hurt” by how Sen. Obama has responded to the Muslim rumors, Ms. Rauf says.

Minnesota Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison, one of two Muslim members of Congress and an Obama backer, says he would like to see the campaign more directly address the Muslim community. “I know his campaign is a little worried about how that could be twisted,” Mr. Ellison says. “But I think you have to be careful not to start letting your detractors dictate who you talk to. Then you’re not the captain of your own ship anymore.”

Amy Chozick
Wall Street Journal
June 23, 2008