Monday, June 30, 2008

Obama Strategy for Muslims

Obama campaign strategy toward Muslims is shortsighted

June 27, 2008

By Junaid M. Afeef


Many Muslim voters love Sen. Barack Obama. It seems Obama does not have quite as much affection for his Muslim supporters.

Muslim voters support Obama for many reasons, but a shared faith is not one of them. Muslim voters know Obama is Christian. That does not matter.

What does matters to many Muslim voters are his life experiences, his worldview and his position on a myriad of domestic issues.
When Muslim voters look at Obama, they see a leader who will restore civil liberties. In him they see a president who values diplomacy, and as one young Muslim professional commented on a listserv, they see someone who will bring an "informed international perspective."

Muslim voters look at Obama and they hope that, as a person of color who has experienced racism in his life, he will be sensitive to bigotry and bias in all of its manifestations, including racism, anti-semitism and Islamophobia. Regrettably, Obama is failing when it comes to addressing Islamophobia.

The false claim that Obama is a Muslim is a perfect example of Islamophobia. The rumor's intended effect is to sow seeds of mistrust and doubt about allegiance to America and to cast aspersion on his character. The rumor is effective only if one conflates being Muslim with being disloyal and to having bad character.

How has Obama dealt with these rumors? Most Muslims feel he has done a poor job thus far.
Instead of focusing on his Christian faith, Obama has made it a point to say he is not a Muslim. Furthermore, the Obama campaign's new Web site, "Fight the Smears," considers it a "smear" to be called a Muslim.

Earlier this year, the Obama campaign reportedly distanced itself from Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, the country's first Muslim member of the U.S. House. Last week, the campaign in Michigan would not allow two Muslim women to be seated near Obama because they were wearing head scarves.

Obama has visited churches and synagogues during the campaign, but there have been no appearances at any mosques across the country. The explanation from his campaign is they are making an interfaith outreach without focusing on any particular faith community. That explanation is very hard to swallow.

The Obama campaign strategy toward Muslims is shortsighted. It lacks foresight, and it lacks leadership. The anti-Muslim sentiments are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the challenges Obama will face during his campaign and as president, if he should win.

Obama can do better. He embraced his multiracial heritage with aplomb. He needs to embrace his multireligious heritage with the same confidence. Doing so would set the record straight about his Christian faith and allow him to maintain the moral high ground in the face of bigotry.

Obama tackled racism so eloquently this past March in his Philadelphia speech entitled "A More Perfect Union." He struck a cord with Americans of all religions and races when he said, "We may not look the same, and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction - toward a better future for our children and our grandchildren." That sentiment rings true among Muslims.

Obama must marshal his eloquence against the anti-Muslim bigotry that is festering in the campaign. He needs to see the value of taking a moral stand against bigotry.

Only Obama has the power to elevate principle over crass political calculation.
America needs more than just good policy ideas. The next American president must have vision and leadership as well. This is Obama's opportunity to show the nation, by words and deeds, that he has it all.

Junaid M. Afeef is director of public and government affairs for Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago. He can be contacted at Junaid@ciogc.org.