The woman approached me at the boarding gate for a flight from New York City to Cleveland, Ohio. I was flying out there before the primary to canvass for Barack Obama and had a few tell-tale stickers festooned to my bag and a "Barack Obama" button or two on my jacket. She was Muslim and she asked me to give Barack Obama a message. I can't remember her exact words but she said something along the lines of, "I am Muslim, I am proud to be Muslim. I like Barack Obama and he needs to know, we are his friends. He doesn't have to be afraid of us." She expressed concern at the way in which he had been dealing with the Muslim "smear" campaign being launched against him by the crazies on the right. "It is not a bad thing to be Muslim," she said, "and while of course I understand that he is not Muslim, he should not have to distance himself from us."
Last week, two Muslim women clad in headscarves were asked to get out of the backdrop at an Obama rally in Detroit, Michigan. Earlier this week, the New York Times ran a front page article describing the way in which Muslims across America are feeling snubbed by Barack Obama. One of the reporter's key sources was one of Barack Obama's key supporters in the Muslim American community, Minnesota Congressman, Keith Ellison who said he would never forget the quote delivered to him by an aide of Barack Obama's, sent to his office to ask him not to appear at an Obama rally at a mosque in Cedar Rapids, Michigan, because the campaign was afraid it would stir controversy, "We have a very tightly wrapped message," the aide said.
Now I understand the logic. It's all about fear and the fear of what some right wing Republicans will do with a picture of Barack Obama and, god-forbid, a Muslim, shaking hands or, heaven-help-us, hugging at a fundraiser, or a rally, or a town hall meeting. One image of Barack Obama entering or leaving a mosque and, oh-sweet-and-merciful-lord-in-heaven, he's part of a terrorist cell or "working for the Iraqis," as one smartly dressed and apparently cultured local told a fellow-canvasser in Eastern Pennsylvania.
"Are you sure he's not part of a sleeper cell?" I was asked by a woman I met, again in Eastern Pennsylvania, a woman who was really and truly worried that we were all being duped by this man with the funny name. She seemed like a smart woman, affluent and informed, but not so well-informed as it turned out.
"Yes," I said. "I'm sure."
The other night, I argued back and forth with some friends. One said, and he has a point, "do you know what the right wing will do with a picture of Obama and two Muslim women sitting in the background?" His wife argued that Obama is smarter than that, more charismatic, and that he would succeed in talking over that kind of chatter.
I agree with her.
There is no doubt that the messengers of disinformation are extremely effective. But that does not mean that the Obama Campaign should wave the white flag and surrender.
Up until now, the Obama campaign has been smarter, more agile and swift in their dealings with controversy. It must not succumb now to this, the most destructive and divisive of strategies. This is a new class of racism, one which, of course, stems from the terrorist attacks of 9/11. It is the exploitation of people's ignorance and people's differences and it cannot be allowed to succeed. It harkens back to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War 2. It is exchanging Muslim for Black, or Hispanic, or Irish or Tutsi in the long sorry history of humanity and its propensity for finding one race or religion superior to all others.
Barack Obama's campaign is about inclusion, not exclusion. He can win this thing without making the cowardly and politically expedient calculations that so disappoint those of us who genuinely believe in a better way forward for this country.
How's that for a tightly wrapped message?
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