Obama campaign frowns on Islam?

obama in front of crowdsWho would have thought that a relatively new Washington, D.C., insider’s news organization would scoop all the news organizations in a major U.S. city that boasts two major daily newspapers? The Politico, which has quickly established its turf in a town full of media organizations, reported Wednesday morning that Muslims were “barred from picture at Obama event.”

Here’s how Ben Smith described the incident:

Two Muslim women at Barack Obama’s rally in Detroit on Monday were barred from sitting behind the podium by campaign volunteers seeking to prevent the women’s headscarves from appearing in photographs or on television with the candidate.

The campaign has apologized to the women, both Obama supporters who said they felt betrayed by their treatment at the rally.

“This is of course not the policy of the campaign. It is offensive and counter to Obama’s commitment to bring Americans together and simply not the kind of campaign we run,” said Obama spokesman Bill Burton. “We sincerely apologize for the behavior of these volunteers.”

Building a human backdrop to a political candidate, a set of faces to appear on television and in photographs, is always a delicate exercise in demographics and political correctness. Advance staffers typically pick supporters out of a crowd to reflect the candidate’s message.

The only other story of substance out there as of Wednesday afternoon was from The Detroit News. The Detroit Free Press has a shorter story with little information not already included in the The Politico‘s report.

Notice how the women are described as appearing in “traditional Muslim dress” and that the Obama campaign was merely concerned with their appearance:

Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign apologized Wednesday for incidents in which Muslim women were asked not to stand or sit behind the candidate at a rally in Metro Detroit this week out of concerns about the appearance of traditional Muslim dress associated with the Democratic candidate in published and broadcast visuals of the events.

Unfortunately article by the The News doesn’t quite back up the allegation that these women were barred merely for their traditional Muslim dress. Fortunately, The Politico did some reporting and based on that the message is pretty clear: Obama’s campaign did not want women with headscarves behind him at the campaign. Here’s more:

“We’re not letting anyone with anything on their heads like baseball [caps] or scarves sit behind the stage,” she paraphrased the volunteer as saying, an account Marino confirmed. “It has nothing to do with your religion!”

In most work and school settings, religious dress — such as Jewish yarmulkes, Sikh turbans, Muslim hijabs — is permitted where secular clothing like baseball caps is not.

“The scarf is not just something she can take off — it’s part of her identity,” said Marino.

Photographs of the event also show men with hats in the section behind Obama and former Vice President Al Gore, though not directly behind the candidate.

The question for the rest of the media is whether this is only a minor kafuffle or whether it represents something larger about the Obama campaign that ought to be further investigated. As it stands now, I am of the later opinion for the following reasons.

While Obama may not have been involved, he still bears the responsibility for overseeing an environment where people associated with his campaign felt it necessary to keep him personally away from people that are visually identifiable as Muslims. Reporters should not allow Obama to pass blame for this unfortunate incident off on some random volunteers. A potential president should be held accountable for the actions of his or her staffers because that is the way the game is played once they get to the White House.

The obvious ghost in all of this is that the Obama campaign has been loathe to see their candidate associated with anything Muslim. Rather than shrugging off baseless accusations that Obama is a secret Muslim, the Obama campaign has reacted to the charge as if Obama were accused of some sort of deviant conduct. Many Muslims hoped that Obama would simply respond by saying “So what, if I was a Muslim.”

I was pleasantly surprised to see The Politico pick up on this relatively unreported angle:

But for Obama, the old-fashioned image-making contrasts with his promise to transcend identity politics and to embrace all elements of America. The incidents in Michigan, which has one of the largest Arab and Muslim populations in the country, also raise an aspect of his campaign that sometimes rubs Muslims the wrong way: The candidate has vigorously denied a false, viral rumor that he himself is Muslim. But the denials seem to some at times to imply that there is something wrong with the faith, though Obama occasionally adds that he means no disrespect to Islam.

“I was coming to support him, and I felt like I was discriminated against by the very person who was supposed to be bringing this change, who I could really relate to,” said Hebba Aref, a 25-year-old lawyer who lives in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills. “The message that I thought was delivered to us was that they do not want him associated with Muslims or Muslim supporters.”

In Detroit on Monday, the two different Obama volunteers — in separate incidents — made it clear that headscarves wouldn’t be in the picture. The volunteers gave different explanations for excluding the hijabs, one bluntly political and the other less clear.

Because this happened in two separate incidents, reporters covering his campaign must suspect something bigger is at hand. Are there any policies — spoken/written or unsaid — that have staffers or volunteers intentionally screen the people positioned behind Obama when he speaks in front of large audiences and cameras? Is there an internal campaign policy regarding Obama and his campaign’s association with Islam?

According to the news reports, this type of screening happens all the time on the campaign trail. If that is true for Obama’s campaign, why? And what does that say about the sincerity of the Obama campaign’s larger message of inclusiveness particularly towards Muslims?

Senator Barack Obama campaigning in New Hampshire used under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike license.

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  • Sarah Webber

    I was not at all surprised by this. Image is everything and his campaign is guarding against images that could be used against him. Duh! Offensive, perhaps; certainly to the women who were asked to move. But surprising, no.

  • Brian Walden

    I just wonder, what goes through the minds of newsrooms when deciding whether to pick up and expand coverage of this incident? On one hand, I think Sarah’s right that every politician manages (maybe even micromanages) his image and I’m sure similar types of things happen in every campaign (heck that’s why politicians kiss babies but not people of other ages). On the other hand a core of Obama’s campaign has been about overcoming both the things that divide us such as race and religion and politics as usual – does that provide the fuel that could turn this into another Pastor Wright incident when it might be written off as business as usual for another politician.

    Personally, even if this story does pick up steam, I think that much like the other incidents along the campaign trail it won’t stick in the end. I can see the spin now: Obama wasn’t discriminating against these women, instead we were discriminating against them. His staff kept them out of the high visibility seats so that our own hateful passions would not be inflamed as we saw them on TV and in our newspapers.

  • Sam M
  • Chip

    I’m not sure I understand the distinction that Daniel is making between “the allegation that these women were barred merely for their traditional Muslim dress” and “Obama’s campaign did not want women with headscarves behind him at the campaign.” I’m an Obama supporter, and I have have no doubt that the campaign volunteers did not want pictures of woman with headscarves behind him to fuel the “Obama is a Muslim Machurean Candidate” rumors.

    Politico (which is hardly an upstart newbie – look at their roster of journalists. It is full of veteran political reporters) did talk about how at previous campaign events in Seattle and in Minnesota Obama appeared with Muslims wearing traditional garb. It sounds to me like this incident was a case of individual decisions by volunteers, and not a strategy of the campaign.

    I do think an interesting, valid story that should be followed is how Obama responds to the Muslim Manchurean Candidate rumors without implying that being a Muslim would disqualify anyone from running for office. The campaign failed to do that in this case.

  • Dave

    Given the number of balls a campaign must juggle, some will get dropped, especially a campaign that’s gone on as long as this one has. I thinks it’s reasonable for reporters to write off these incidients so far as the product of over-anxious volunteers, if that’s what the campaign says caused them.

    I say “so far” because the story has now become public. If something like this happens in the future, reporters have to hold Obama to account for them personally and politically.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2677 dpulliam

    If anyone is curious, here is a follow-up story by The Detroit News. I don’t know if I can post much of the story because it is only three paragraphs long. Nuff said?

    Here’s a snippet:

    The American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee asked U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois, the presumptive Democratic nominee for the presidency to speak out against intolerance and disrespect, especially for Muslims, in the wake of incidents at a rally in Detroit on Monday.

  • Julia

    Perhaps Obama’s advance team is overreacting after much slacker attention to the people in the background during the primary season. I remember one victory speech where you could see not only Larry David behind him in the very first row, but also three rowdy young people in Abercrombie and Fitsch T-shirts. Not one, but three distracting T shirts. I’m guessing somebody really got told off for that gaff and now they are hyper about that front row.

  • Jerry

    The bias of the MSM is evident in how few have run Obama’s campaign’s apology for the incident. One of the few that turned that up on a google news search was http://www.islamonline.net/servlet/Satellite?c=Article_C&cid=1212925474915&pagename=Zone-English-News/NWELayout

  • Gary

    What would the MSM do if John McCain’s campaign kicked minorities out of a rally?

  • Dave

    Gary, as I understand it these women were not kicked out of the rally but removed from the row that the TV camera sees. If Obama had kicked them out of the rally the MSM would have gotten serious with him.

  • Stan

    Obama having Muslim relatives is a major negative for many people. I am surprised at the number of educated Christians that plan to vote for McCain because of the Muslim fear. To many people Muslim equals terrorist. The Muslim fear is hurting Obama more than his race or Rev Wright.

    Just last week Brit Hume, Fox News, reported Obama’s half brother “tells The Jerusalem Post that ‘if elected his brother will be a good president for the Jewish people, despite his Muslim background.”

    There were immediately headlines all over the Internet that Obama’s half brother confirms Obama grew-up Muslim. Bloggers were calling Obama a liar and posters were filled with hateful rants.

    Obama’s half brother did not even say Obama has a Muslim background:

    It is understandable that Obama volunteers wanted to avoid the ongoing attempts to fuel the ongoing fear that Obama is really a terrorist planning to overthrow the US once he is President.