Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Obama and Muslim Voters

Although I typically do not consider myself particularly political, I have noticed that a good number of my postings tend to be about politics, particularly politics and religion. I have posted a few times on Evangelical voters, Catholic voters, and the different candidates, partly because they seem to be getting the most press. But NYT has an article today on Muslim voters and Barack Obama, particularly Obama's apparent distancing himself from Islam and Muslim voters.

According to the article, many Muslim voters were originally enthusiastic about Obama as a candidate. And when Keith Ellison, the country's first Muslim congressman, volunteered to help out in Iowa last year, particularly to speak at a Mosque in Cedar Rapids, which has a sizable and older Muslim population, Obama's aides asked him not to do so because it might stir up controversy, quoting, "We have a tightly wrapped message," suggesting that a Muslim politician speaking at a mosque on Obama's behalf somehow does not fit that message. What message might that be? Whatever it is, it sent a message--Barack Hussain Obama wants to distance himself from Islam. but not overtly so.

There's more...unfortunately, much more. I quote from the article:

"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. Last week, two Muslim women wearing head scarves were barred by campaign volunteers from appearing behind Mr. Obama at a rally in Detroit."

On the other hand, Obama's aides have denied this, claiming that Obama's campaign is inclusive and inter-faith:

"Aides to Mr. Obama denied that he had kept his Muslim supporters at arm’s length. They cited statements in which he had spoken inclusively about American Islam and a radio advertisement he recorded for the recent campaign of Representative Andre Carson, Democrat of Indiana, who this spring became the second Muslim elected to Congress.

"In May, Mr. Obama also had a brief, private meeting with the leader of a mosque in Dearborn, Mich., home to the country’s largest concentration of Arab-Americans. And this month, a senior campaign aide met with Arab-American leaders in Dearborn, most of whom are Muslim. (Mr. Obama did not campaign in Michigan before the primary in January because of a party dispute over the calendar.)

"“Our campaign has made every attempt to bring together Americans of all races, religions and backgrounds to take on our common challenges,” Ben LaBolt, a campaign spokesman, said in an e-mail message.

"Mr. LaBolt added that with religious groups, the campaign had largely taken “an interfaith approach, one that may not have reached every group that wishes to participate but has reached many Muslim Americans.”"

It seems that Obama is walking a fine line. He is trying to maintain broad appeal to voters who remain wary or suspicious of Muslims in general (or worse), and an important constituency that he will probably need to win in November. Thus there seems to be a disconnect between his message of unity and change in his slogans and his campaign strategy.

What makes things worse is his language in response to rumors that he is a Muslim (or closet Muslim). While he has stated (on 60 Minutes) that such rumors are offensive to Muslims because they amount to "fearmongering," playing into the biases of the portions of the electorate that remain suspicious of Muslims in general, his website has recently listed this as a "smear"! In response, Muslim congressman Ellison says, “A lot of us are waiting for him to say that there’s nothing wrong with being a Muslim, by the way."

This constituency should not be ignored, as no constituency should. But, what is more, they CANNOT be ignored in the general election. Sizable Muslim populations exist in Florida, Michigan, Ohio, and Virginia (with smaller pockets elsewhere, such as Iowa, NY, etc.). Florida was the swing vote in 2000; Ohio, in 2004. Michigan tends toward Democratic, but can be swung. Virginia, as the 2006 mid-term elections demonstrated, can go either way as well. In fact, Virginia Muslims overwhelming voted for Jim Webb, who upset his opponent and now sits in the Senate! Obama and McCain cannot ignore this population especially in these states.

What is more, there appears to be a political awakening among these groups, especially in response to the policies put forth by G. W. Bush, such as, uh, the Patriot Act! They are engaged in state-wide and nation-wide campaigns to get Muslims registered to vote, to actually vote on election day. Before 9/11, Muslim political organizations focused on professionals (doctors, lawyers, etc.), but now they are moving grass-roots (taxi-drivers, etc.).

What probably does not help Obama is what he said and where he spoke the day after he clinched the nomination. I actually had jury duty that day and was sitting in a waiting room at a courthouse, watching coverage of Obama speaking with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a huge lobby in Washington, D.C.--and, by the way, Obama was not alone, because Hillary Clinton spoke there the same day. He basically presented a Zionist metanarrative and ended by saying that Jerusalem should be the capital of Israel--later he modified this by saying that it should be negotiated between Israelis and Palestinians.

I will quote the end of the article:

For Ms. Ghori and other Muslims, Mr. Obama’s hands-off approach is not surprising in a political climate they feel is marred by frequent attacks on their faith.

Among the incidents they cite are a statement by Mr. McCain, in a 2007 interview with Beliefnet.com, that he would prefer a Christian president to a Muslim one; a comment by Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton that Mr. Obama was not Muslim “as far as I know”; and a remark by Representative Steve King, Republican of Iowa, to The Associated Press in March that an Obama victory would be celebrated by terrorists, who would see him as a “savior.”

“All you have to say is Barack Hussein Obama,” said Arsalan Iftikhar, a human rights lawyer and contributing editor at Islamica Magazine. “You don’t even have to say ‘Muslim.’ ”

As a consequence, many Muslims have kept their support for Mr. Obama quiet. Any visible show of allegiance could be used by his opponents to incite fear, further the false rumors about his faith and “bin-Laden him,” Mr. Bray said.

“The joke within the national Muslim organizations,” Ms. Ghori said, “is that we should endorse the person we don’t want to win.”

What are the consequences of this tightwalking? I think it might mirror McCain's problems with conservative Christians in the Republican party (not equating Evangelicals and Muslims, but the similarity of the situation and how these two figures walk a tightrope between a particular constituency and broader appeal when those two things seem in tension). If the snubs continue, or, what I like to call, "embracing someone at arm's length," I doubt that Muslim and Arab-American (which includes Muslims, Christians, and Jews from the Middle East) constituencies will turn to McCain. At worst, like some Evangelicals might with McCain, they will either stay home on election day or quietly and with qualms vote for Obama.

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