The barring of two Muslim women from sitting behind Barack Obama during his Detroit rally last Monday illustrates that now more than ever, Barack Obama must address the issue of Islamophobia in the United States in an exclusive speech.
Rally volunteers were concerned that the Muslim women wearing their traditional headscarves would appear on camera with Obama, thus giving Obama's opponents the opportunity to suggest that Obama is pro-Islam and, therefore, pro-terrorist. Yet this was not just an "unfortunate" experience for Aref and Shimaa Abdelfadeel, the two women involved in the incident; rather, it is a bold reflection of a deep-rooted fear about the Muslim identity in the United States, which has become a matter of security, a fear which harms many Muslims everyday.
The fear expressed by the volunteers is a general reflection of what the Bush administration, mainstream media, Hollywood, and, recently, a part of blogsphere have done to portray Islam and Muslims as a security threat rather than a historical culture with its own identity.
By asking the Abedelfadeels to remove their scarves before being seated, the volunteers bluntly showed the penetration of this fear into the campaign. Any connection to Islam, is automatically perceived as a negative factor for Obama campaign.
Evidently, seven years after the declaration of the "war on terror", little has changed regarding the general mood of Americans towards Muslims. No wonder, Republicans and their advocates help spread this fear by suggesting that Obama's childhood connection to Islam is a valid reason why Americans should not vote for him.
However, one of Obama's major foreign policy challenges is dealing with the predominantly Muslim countries of the Middle East and as a result Obama's personal understanding of the most dominant religion in the region should be something that is welcomed, not criticized.
Millions of moderate Muslims have been the first victims of the failed policies of the war on terror doctrine. They want to see a man in White House who has a basic understanding of "other" religions, ethnicities, and cultures. Obama's knowledge of Islam could help the United States find ways to address terrorism without senseless and violent military attacks.
Though race has been one of the deepest, oldest struggles in United States, religion, specifically, the way in which the United States perceives and interacts with Muslims, is one of the country's most vital, urgent and crucial international issues. Americans may cast their votes based more so on the candidate's stance in domestic issues, but Obama's campaign should also highlight for voters the importance of international issues and how foreign and domestic policy are interrelated.
Obama should use his understanding of different faiths to help voters realize the commonalities among all religions and challenge the identity the "War on Terror" Era has left Muslims. He should emphasize that terrorists, not Muslims, are the enemy, and terrorists can be found among the supporters of all religions.
Like McDonald's, Disneyland, Starbucks, and other cultural symbols, America's horrible characterization of Islam has spread to other countries. With a speech on this issue, Obama could start to end this trend.
Just a few days ago, I was amazed watching a movie on "modern terrorism." The Russian documentary "World War 3" depicted the effects of stereotyped hate speech centered around Muslims and Islam as a whole. This was screening at the United Nations, not at a radical right-wing organization in Washington. It was graphic, even offensive to some of the attendees, but it left one question unanswered: with this horrible global mischaracterization of the Islam and Muslims, how can America deal with this huge amount of hate and cynicism in the coming years?
Unfortunately, the widespread nature of this mischaracterization makes it hard for even people knowledgeable of current events to distinguish the Muslim reality from the myth.
Millions of Muslims worldwide closely follow the US election process, and they should not be treated with disrespect and prejudice as the Abedelfadeels were for wanting to express their religious beliefs along with their political affiliation.
Obama, As the next president of the United States, will not be able to negotiate with either America's friends and foes as long as American culture continues to propagate such a gross mischaracterization of Muslims.
Just as he addressed the issue of race during the Pennsylvania primary, Obama should address America's islamophobia. In a speech he can say that by reducing the whole Islamic World and all its contributions in world history to a few terrorists groups and characterizing Muslims as security threats, America has done itself more harm than good. Hate mongering and ignorance are the foundations of terrorism. Such a speech clarifying this point would beneficial for both Muslims and the United States.