When former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell endorsed Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama last month, he cited an election issue that has troubled many American Muslim for months.
“It is permitted to be said such things as, ‘Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.’ Well, the correct answer is, ‘He’s not a Muslim, he’s a Christian,’ ” Powell said on Meet the Press on Oct. 19. “But the really right answer is, ‘What if he is?’ Is there anything wrong with being a Muslim in America?”
The Muslim faith has been a prominent issue throughout the campaign. Polls have shown that more than 10 percent of Americans believe Obama is a Muslim. Even conservative commentators have made reference to the Illinois senator’s middle name, Hussein, to suggest that he is Muslim even though he has long been a member of a Christian church.
Dawud Walid, executive director of the state chapter of the nonpartisan Council on American Islamic Relations, said Muslims have been disappointed with the way the word “Muslim” has been used in a derogatory sense during the election cycle. Despite their disappointment, Walid and Muslim leaders at the University of Michigan believe Muslims will play an active role in today’s election.
Many Muslims were offended when two Muslim women wearing traditional Islamic headscarves were barred from appearing behind Obama at a rally at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. Obama later called the two women to apologize, and publicly expressed regret about the incident.
LSA senior Yamaan Saadeh, president of the Muslim Student Association at the University’s Ann Arbor campus, said he thought Obama’s apology repaired most of the damage done. He said the event was a “turning point,” after which the campaign was more aware of how it was received by Muslims.
There’s no available data on Muslim voter registration in Michigan, but Dearborn City Clerk Kathleen Buda said about 60,600 people are registered to vote in the heavily Islamic city, up about 2,000 from four years ago. At the University’s Dearborn campus, the Muslim Student Association last week invited Walid to speak at an event titled Our Role in Politics.
Anticipating large turnout, Buda’s office purchased 500 portable “privacy booths” to be distributed to the city’s 50 polling places. Buda said her office has also arranged to have five to seven workers at each poll, when in the past some only had three.
Saadeh predicted a large Muslim turnout this year, though he said the organization hasn’t been politically engaged this year. Senior Majed Afana, president of MSA at the Dearborn campus, echoed Saadeh’s prediction, saying many MSA members there had been working with the Obama and McCain campaigns.
Saadeh said he felt the McCain campaign has offended Muslims more than the Obama campaign, but that neither campaign has embraced the group.
“The Muslim community was pretty disappointed with Obama for, I don’t know how to say it, but not intellectually denying it the way that Colin Powell did,” Saadeh said, referring to Obama’s strong denials that he is Muslim.
But Saadeh said he didn’t think Obama’s handling of the issue hurt him in the race because he feels harsh treatment of Muslims is common.
“We’re used to that kind of rhetoric,” he said. “It wasn’t really much of a surprise because the rhetoric in the media over the last seven years has been very anti-Muslim.”
Walid said he felt Obama’s campaign was still treating Muslims better than his opponent’s.
“The McCain campaign has spent virtually zero time in reaching out to Muslims,” he said. “In the 2004 election, the Muslim community overwhelmingly voted for John Kerry over George Bush, and similarly, I believe that people are supporting Obama more so as a vote against McCain.”