New Haven Register: Some Muslims fret over Obama distancing himself from them

Barack Obama’s campaign recently launched a new Web site called “Fight the Smears,” dedicated to dispelling damaging and inaccurate rumors about the Democratic presidential candidate.

One so-called “smear:” that he is a Muslim.

While his father was a non-practicing Muslim, Obama is a Christian. But the way in which Obama is fighting the rumor has left some Muslims with “a bitter taste,” said Mongi Dhaouadi, executive director of the Connecticut branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

“He did not say, ‘Well, what is wrong with being a Muslim?’ as if he’s saying that being a Muslim does not qualify you to run for president,” Dhaouadi said.

Local Muslim leaders and political science experts differ in their beliefs over whether Obama’s camp had done anything truly offensive in fighting the rumor. But they agreed that Obama’s behavior, which included other incidents some perceived as attempts to distance himself from the Muslim community, would have little or no negative impact on Muslim voters.

“I think (Obama’s) overcompensating in keeping a distance from the Muslim-American community,” said Ahmed Rehab, a spokesperson for CAIR at the national level, calling it a “strategic mistake” because “it’s not compatible with his message.”

He noted that Obama has visited many churches

and synagogues, but “has yet to show up at a mosque and address Muslim concerns.”

But Shafiq Abdussabur, a New Haven police officer, liaison with a youth outreach program and a Muslim in the process of opening a school focused on Islamic theology and culture, wasn’t at all offended by Obama’s behavior.

“Barack Obama is running for president of the United States for everybody that lives in this country. He’s not running for president of the Muslims. He’s not running for president of the black people,” Abdussabur said. “I don’t think that a president needs to segregate himself and get all the way down to a specific culture campaigning because that’s what they’re asking the man to do.”

Abdussabur stressed that as the first serious African-American presidential contender, Obama is up against enough challenges and “aligning himself now with the Muslim community is not in his best interest” because it could conjure additional stereotypes.

Arthur Paulson, professor of political science at Southern Connecticut State University, said, “I think in the long run, it’s better for (Obama) to take the approach he’s taken, frankly. Anything he can do to make himself look more mainstream, the better for his campaign.”

Paulson said Obama could use the situation to his advantage, as it demonstrates that while he has an inclusive record, he will not pander to specific groups.

Paulson did feel Obama’s camp erred, however, in directing Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim in Congress, to cancel his plans to campaign for Obama.

He recommended Obama make a point of appearing in the future with Ellison, who has a “good developing political career of his own and probably would represent (Obama) well.”

Nancy DiNardo, the Connecticut Democratic Party chair, said the decision made with Ellison and other incidents were probably the choice of “staff who certainly are reacting to the fact that people are trying to say that (Obama’s) a Muslim, and they’re probably overreacting. But it’s a delicate balance there.” Had the staff made different decisions, Obama’s campaign may have gotten a different kind of negative attention, she said.

Some said in the Muslim community said they would like to see Obama and Republican candidate John McCain speak publicly on the problem of “Islamophobia” in the U.S.

Rehab believes the Muslim -American community was expecting something above and beyond the usual marginalization (from Obama) because of the message of hope, change and unity that they’d been hearing.”

Dhaouadi recalled a mock election carried out by CAIR New Jersey a few months ago between Hillary Clinton, Obama and McCain. Obama won in a landslide, he said.

Dhaouadi believes Muslims identify with Obama as an ethnic minority and see his position as a serious contender for the presidency as “a triumph for all minorities, including themselves.”

Abdussabur said he thinks Obama appeals to Muslims because he is of African descent, and and because of his father’s Muslim identity, as well as his position on the issues.

The bottom line is that “Muslims don’t care who sits behind Barack Obama,” Abdussabur said, referring to a recent incident at a rally in Michigan, where two women dressed in traditional Muslim garb were asked not to sit behind the candidate.

“All we care is just make sure that our Muslims in this country are not being abused and that our civil rights are not being violated.”Abdussabur said.

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