In Democratic primaries this year the overwhelming majority of Muslim Americans voted for a man who has, throughout the campaign, vigorously knocked down rumors that he is a Muslim.
But support for Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., during the primaries doesn't mean the Democrat has a free pass from the Muslim American community.
Last week's incident at an Obama rally in Michigan put some added strain on Obama's support in the Muslim American community. A campaign volunteer reportedly barred two Muslim American women from appearing in camera-range behind Obama's podium after they refused the campaign representative's request to remove their headscarves. After the incident received media attention, Obama called the women personally to apologize. But the hurt still lingers for some Muslim Americans.
"I was quite disappointed. The Obama campaign to me, represents a change from traditional politics and embodies an America which supersedes discrimination and racism. This incident is in stark contradiction to that notion," said Lydia Habhab, a 23-year-old Arab Muslim-American graduate student and Dearborn, Michigan native.
"For a candidate who is talking about change, and who is a minority … who is talking about giving hope to everyone, it was very offensive to me as a Muslim woman who wears a headscarf," said Tuqa Nusairat, a 24-year-old Arab Muslim-American who is a Virginia native and graduate student.
"Although Obama personally called the girls wearing hijab to apologize, it is still disheartening to think that the level of Islamophobia in his campaign and within America is so high, that having women wearing hijab within a camera shot away from Obama was even an issue, especially within one of the most highly populated Muslim areas in the country," said Habhab.
Reza Marashi, a 26-year-old non-practicing Iranian Muslim American raised in Seattle, agrees. "I think it's a testament to both the climate of misunderstanding in this country surrounding Muslims and Islam, and the inexcusably poor job the Bush Administration has done in trying to educate American people on Muslims and Islam."
"Obama called the two women personally to apologize. That's the classy thing to do. If he becomes president, hopefully he'll continue to address these issues with class," Marashi added.
While Marashi accepts Obama's apology, Dr. Yvonne Haddad, a Christian Arab professor at Georgetown University and expert on Islam in North America and the West, said it's hard to tell whether this incident will have any lasting repercussions among voters.
Muslim Rumors as 'Smears'
The Michigan speech episode adds to some feelings of resentment at the way that Obama has knocked down false rumors that he is, or was at one time, Muslim. Some say they are offended when the Obama campaign refers to those false assertions that he is a Muslim as "smears."
The Obama campaign earlier this month launched a new Web site dedicated to knocking down false rumors, especially those circulated on the Internet, called www.fightthesmears.com. The third 'smear' listed on the site's homepage is the one that claims Obama is a Muslim. The campaign explains on the site that the truth is: "Senator Obama has never been a Muslim, was not raised as a Muslim, and is a committed Christian."
"When the mudslinging began and campaigns were launched 'exposing' Obama as a Muslim, he had every reason to deny it," said Habhab.
But, she said, "I would have preferred Obama to have seized the opportunity to rhetorically ask, 'What is wrong with being a Muslim?' raise awareness of this phobia we are self-imposing, and promote the fact that regardless of religion, we are all Americans, which is what matters."
"Obama has attempted to distance himself, but what he really needs to say is, 'even if I were a Muslim, that'd be okay," Julia Shearson, executive director of the non-profit Islamic civil rights and advocacy group Council on Islam-American Relations (CAIR) in Ohio.
Brookings Institution senior fellow Shibley Telhami says, "Muslim Americans liked the fact his initial reaction to assertions he was Muslim was, 'I'm not a Muslim American but so what if I were Muslim?' They would love to see him repeat this, and they are frustrated that he hasn't repeated it. They are frustrated with the discourse."
Haddad agrees that Obama is stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to disproving claims he is Muslim. "What Muslims are objecting to is that his dissociation from Islam is confirming the American attitude that there is something wrong with Islam and that it has no place in American democracy."
"Muslims are often not viewed as fully American or are seen as the 'other people'," said Dawud Walid, executive director of CAIR Michigan.
Walid says Michigan has had mosques vandalized in recent years, and spray-painted with hate slurs such as "9/11 murderers go home," as well as death threats against Muslims American leaders, including at his office.
"Since 2001, candidates have been very sensitive.The hijab [incident] doesn't necessarily reflect any attitude on his party, but may be an honest recognition on the part of his staff [of prevalent opinions towards Muslims in America]," said John Voll, professor of Islamic history and associate director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University.
Changing Public Opinion
The percentage of Americans with an unfavorable opinion of Muslim Americans has edged upward, from 25 percent in 2005 to 29 percent in 2007, according to a September 2007 Pew Research Center report. The report also said that while the Muslim religion had gained increasing national visibility in recent years, 58 percent of Americans said they know little or nothing about the religion's practices — little changed since 2001.
A separate report from May 2007, also by the Pew Research Center, says 53 percent of Muslim Americans say it has become more difficult to be a Muslim in the United States since the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Marashi said as a Muslim American, he has faced discrimination in the U.S. "I was not surprised or offended by the incident at the rally, because I do think this treatment is typical … Muslim Americans have been a part of this country for quite some time now, and they should be treated as such."
Nusairat says she has been wearing a Muslim headscarf, known as a 'hijab' since she was very young, and that in Northern Virginia, where she grew up, she faced no significant discrimination.
"After 9/11, you are more aware of people's reaction, but there were no serious issues."
Of wearing the hijab in America, Nusairat says "It's a personal choice, my interpretation of what god asked me to, god wants me to do, it's a prescription from my religion. It's not just blindly following."
The practice of wearing a "hijab" is based on Islamic doctrine, although it is not specifically mandated by the Qur'an, nor entirely unique only to Islam.
Controversy over women wearing hijabs abound in Europe, as well as the United States, and even among Muslims. When asked why she doesn't wear a hijab, Habhab said, "This is a very difficult question for me."
"When you wear the hijab, you are on the front lines of Islamic representation. I love Islam and I feel that I am a good Muslim, but I represent Islam in a different way. I represent it by fasting during Ramadan, not drinking, and speaking up when I hear a false statement or misrepresentation about Islam," said Habhab.
Excluded From Political Life
Some Muslim Americans say they have not always felt welcome in political life. "For instance, you have had candidates in prior years refusing to accept contributions from people with Muslim sounding names," said Voll.
But Telhami says the negative attention some Muslims experienced post-9/11 served to energize them politically.
"Actually while they're frustrated with the system and sort of the discrimination that they're anti-American, it's making them more active than before, " Telhami said. "You have an anti-Republican backlash that is similar to, but on a higher scale among Muslims, especially exacerbated by the McCain campaign, which frames the war on terrorism as not the 'war against al-Qaeda ,' but the 'war against Islamofacism,'" said Telhami.
A January 2008 CAIR poll on American Muslim voters found that of 49 percent of Muslim Americans identify themselves as members of the Democratic Party (up from 42 percent in 2006), while only 8 percent as members of the Republican Party (down from 17 percent in 2006).
When asked in that same poll which candidate they were supporting in the primaries, 45 percent were uncommited. Of the 55 percent who did identify a candidate, 25 percent selected then-candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., 20 percent said Obama, and 4 percent said former Sen. John Edwards. Rep. Ron Paul , R-Texas, led for preferred Republicans with 2 percent, with the current expected Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, polling at less than 1 percent.
Telhami said he believes that expression of Muslim American support for Obama was not necessarily an endorsement of Obama per se, but his opposition of the war in Iraq.
"As of late, he added "there has been some frustration with him — not enough to abandon him, but in general, people are worried that he may be overcompensating under pressure," said Telhami, citing Obama's recent speech to a pro-Israel lobbying group supporting Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel.
"And the recent episode, where Muslim women wearing headscarves were apparently not allowed to appear behind him — that's a frustrating episode. But there is far more frustration with McCain, " said Telhami.
Since they now vote overwhelmingly Democratic, some Muslim Americans worry that their support could be taken for granted by the Democratic Party.
"I do feel like our community is taken for granted. Obviously our community has dealt with the Patriot Act, targeting, and civil rights, and also a lot of the Muslim community originates in the Middle East, and domestic and foreign issues that have concerned us. The Democratic Party realizes this, but they don't realize people could just sit it out or vote for Nader," said Nusairat.
"Muslim Americans display a grand spectrum of interests. In terms of foreign policy, we may be more in line with the Democratic Party, but that is where it ends. For those Muslims who are also Arab like me, we have a huge entrepreneurial spirit making the many Muslim/Arab American small business owners fiscally in line with Republicans," said Habhab. "Furthermore, Republicans are socially conservative which is also in line with a lot of Islamic teachings such as in issues of abortion, same sex marriages, etc. I think it would be foolish to take the Muslim American vote for granted."
Telhami says it's difficult to poll Muslim Americans for political affiliation, since the community is diverse and can be hard to identify in data gathered by the U.S. Census.
"They don't all have identical views. In general they are frustrated with American policy and they have been in recent years far more democratic, but in general they are socially conservative," said Telhami.
"I don't call myself a Democrat," Marashi said. "I vote on the issues, not on the parties. When I vote in elections, I support candidates who have views on issues that are similar to mine. It could be a Democrat or Republican," said Marashi.