Originally published on June 29, 2008

Obama must confront Muslim issue



It is not difficult to understand why Barack Obama has a fear of scarves.

In the 17 months he's been pursuing the presidency, the senator has faced a crude and shameless campaign from conservative pundits, GOP functionaries and assorted ignoramuses in the peanut gallery to prove him a secret Muslim -- a "Manchurian candidate, " as one put it -- trained from birth to subvert America from within and, I don't know, make us all eat falafels or something.

On about a half-second of intelligent reflection, the flaw in that theory is apparent: If unfriendly forces had indeed inserted a secret Muslim among us, said Muslim would have blond hair, blue eyes, flag pins out the wazoo and a name like Joe Smith. Too bad intelligent reflection is a stranger to the people in question. With a grim fanaticism, they seize upon every perceived crumb of Obama's "Muslim-ness" to press their case, using everything from his middle name to his disdain for the cheap patriotism of the American flag lapel pin to a photo of him wearing native dress on a trip to Somalia.

So it's easy to see why workers for his campaign barred two women wearing hijabs, Muslim head scarves, from sitting behind him, within range of TV cameras, at a June 16 rally in Detroit. When someone is throwing at you, you don't hand him rocks.

But that doesn't make what the workers did right.

Yes, Obama apologized profusely. Good for him. It would be easier to take the apology seriously, though, if: a) somewhere in the last year of manifold denials that he is a Muslim, Obama had found the time, space or guts to point out that there's nothing wrong with being a Muslim, particularly in a nation that enshrined religious freedom in its founding documents; b) he hadn't spent so much time treating the American Muslim community as one does the carrier of a contagious disease.

Indeed, as The New York Times reported last week, members of that community are feeling well and truly snubbed by Obama, who has visited a number of churches and synagogues, but has yet to find his way to a single mosque.

Again, the politics of this are no mystery. Obama has spent the last year and a half being pilloried as the Other, representative of something so alien and strange to American values that even greeting his wife with a simple fist bump is fodder for a week of commentary.

He is required to walk an unprecedented political tightrope, to be one part John F. Kennedy, one part Jackie Robinson. More, he is required to prove his American-ness like no other candidate before him. Pictures of him speaking in a mosque would not, putting it mildly, be helpful.

But see, the thing that has made Obama a phenomenon is this sense that he Gets It, that he won't play the same old games by the same old rules. He comes across as a man brave enough to reason and to expect that voters will do the same, a man brave enough to treat intelligent adults like intelligent adults.

His campaign, more than most, is an implicit promise to never put that which is politic above that which is right.

This standoffishness toward American Muslims is a denial of all those things.

Until Sept. 11, 2001, that community was poised for assimilation, poised to submerge itself in the American mainstream like the Jews, Irish and Italians before them. The actions of a handful of their co-religionists on that fateful day wrecked that trajectory beyond recognition and unleashed something base and ugly in the American character.

Muslims were snatched from the threshold of acceptance, painted once again as the alien and vaguely threatening Other. Can you imagine how that must feel? It is galling and painful to see yourself reduced to a caricature based on someone else's fears.

And Barack Obama should know that better than most.

Read more Leonard Pitts on Obama stories from the Miami Herald

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Miami Herald

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