The 'Politics of Inclusion' Takes a Hit

A disgraceful thing happened at Detroit's Joe Louis Arena earlier this week. Americans were discriminated against by other Americans who thought head scarves would send the wrong message about their candidate's religious affiliation.

In other words -- the soft bigotry of Islamophobia is finally ready for its close-up in the Obama campaign.

Hebba Aref was born in the United States 25 years ago to Egyptian immigrants. She is a lawyer and a taxpaying citizen.

Ms. Aref is also an American Muslim, though there is some debate in this country whether her religious affiliation undermines her claim to be a "loyal American."

Ms. Aref and her friend, Shimaa Abdelfadeel, were among the 20,000 Americans who made the pilgrimage to downtown Detroit to cheer for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama in person.

For months, Mr. Obama has been traveling the country, assuring audiences that the success of his campaign is proof America is turning the corner on the politics of racial and religious suspicion.

Mr. Obama promises that he'll be an exemplar of a more inclusive politics. He insists that the old divisions of race, gender and religion that polarize our politics today will not find favor during an Obama administration.

So the question must be asked: Why were two Muslim women wearing hijabs told by Obama campaign workers that they couldn't sit behind the candidate during a televised speech because of the "sensitive political climate"?

On what planet would such cowardice and discrimination be consistent with a politics of inclusion?

The Obama campaign issued an apology as soon as the incident was reported: "It is offensive and counter to [our] commitment to bring Americans together and simply not the kind of campaign we run," the campaign statement read. "We sincerely apologize for this behavior."

Fair enough, but how did lowly campaign workers decide that Muslim head scarves weren't ready for prime time with Barack Obama?

Could it be that the Obama campaign's almost pathological fear of being associated with Islam when so many Americans continue to believe the candidate is a "secret Muslim" has trickled down to the ushers?

Ms. Aref understands Mr. Obama's sensitivity to being called a Muslim when he's a professing Christian, but it is hard not to detect a whiff of Islamophobia in the campaign.

"I don't want to be called something I'm not," Ms. Aref told an interviewer, "but I felt like everyone was treating this accusation of being Muslim as though it were some sort of crime or sin."

Because Ms. Aref lives in a state where Arab Americans have a modicum of political clout, she hasn't had to deal with the contempt for Islam by proudly ignorant politicians that we in Pennsylvania take for granted.

Chances are Ms. Aref has never seen the likes of state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry.

Earlier this week, Mr. Metcalfe voted against a ceremonial resolution recognizing the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community's convention in Harrisburg this weekend.

"The Muslims do not recognize Jesus Christ as God and I will be voting negative," he said, taking a break from fighting the last Crusades.

Mr. Metcalfe's colleagues couldn't do anything except roll their eyes and point out the silliness of imposing a religious test on House resolutions.

Meanwhile, the Muslim group's members will prove their greater patriotism by pumping lots of money into Harrisburg's economy anyway.

After she was snubbed, Ms. Aref asked for a personal apology from Mr. Obama, along with visible seating behind the presidential candidate during a future televised speech in her state.

While he's at it, Mr. Obama should also find a place on the stage for Jews wearing yarmulkes, Sikhs wearing turbans and atheists wearing evolution lapel pins, because they're all part of his grand coalition, too.

The incident with the Muslim women is troubling because it is the opposite of the political courage that Obama the candidate espouses.

If the Obama campaign is tempted to pander to anti-Muslim sentiment now, what is it going to do when it has to fight for votes in states where gay marriage is legal?

Will campaign workers fill the stage behind him with straight couples to mollify voters he'll never win? Is this a preview of the new politics Barack Obama has been talking about?

Tony Norman can be reached at

(c) 2008 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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