Paper: Muslim Women Sidelined at Obama Rally

Two Muslim women who attended Barack Obama's event Monday in Detroit were told they couldn't stand behind the candidate, Politico reported. One was told her head covering was an issue, and another was told by an Obama volunteer that for political reasons they didn't want Muslims appearing with him on TV. Melissa Block talks with Ben Smith, senior political reporter at the Politico.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

The Barack Obama campaign is apologizing to two Muslim women for the way they were treated at a rally on Monday. Campaign volunteers told the women, who were wearing head scarves, that they couldn't sit behind the podium. It was apparently an effort to prevent them from appearing behind Obama in photos and on television. A friend of one of the women contacted Ben Smith, a reporter at Politico, and he writes about the story today. Ben, you have talked with one of the women. You've emailed with another. What's their version of what happened at this rally on Monday?

BEN SMITH: Well, in both cases they were they were with groups of friends, some of them Muslim, some not. And the volunteers approached their friends and said would you come and sit in the special sitting behind the candidate. And the friend said, you know, yeah, we'd love to but can our friend come along, and you know, she's wearing a head scarf. And that's where the volunteers both said no, she can't.

In one case, the friends of Habara(ph), the young lawyer in Detroit, were told that the political climate didn't permit Obama being seen with somebody wearing a head scarf, somebody evidently visibly Muslim. In the other case, the woman's friends were told - she was then later told that they weren't allowing head gear on stage, no baseball caps and no head scarves, which isn't usually how head scarves are treated. They're usually treat it like yarmulkes, like turbans, you know, sort of a religious exemption to that kind of rule.

BLOCK: And as we mentioned, Barack Obama's campaign has apologized. It seems to be taking pains to say these were campaign volunteers; this is not the policy of the campaign itself.

SMITH: Yeah, and you know, and there's no evidence that it is the policy of the campaign generally. The next morning he happened to be photographed standing beside a student at another Michigan University wearing a head scarf. But there is certainly a sensitivity to the issue of his being perceived as a Muslim and that at some level I think trickled down to these volunteers, or a sensitivity to Islam being very controversial in America.

BLOCK: It's a tricky issue, Ben, because obviously Barack Obama has been trying to shoot down rumors that he is Muslim, when in fact he's Christian. At the same time he doesn't want to alienate Muslims or imply that Islam is a bad thing.

SMITH: Yeah, it's a really complicated thing, because yes, in some - Muslims occasionally take offense at his saying, you know, repeatedly, you know, I'm not a Muslim. You know, what's wrong with that? And sometimes he'll say there's nothing wrong with that, but he doesn't always say it. And certainly the implication is that there's some political downside to being a Muslim in America right now.

BLOCK: Did that apology from the campaign satisfy the two women involved here?

SMITH: I've only spoken to one of them about that. I have - she said that she wasn't quite satisfied because she thinks it's a big deal, basically, and that it really kind of cut against the core of Obama's message and his appeal to her, and she wanted a personal apology, and then she thought about it a little more and said that maybe just being asked to sit behind him at the next event would suffice.

BLOCK: You know, it always is a question, I think, for those of us watching: who gets to pick who sits behind the candidate? And then this all must be very carefully stage-managed to get a perfect photo op.

SMITH: It's one of these unspoken, unwritten-about sayings that the candidate - I don't think circulate memos about it - but the candidates' advance staff very carefully select, you know, the right demographic look in front of the staging of this theatrical event. Often it's about getting the right racial composition when Obama - there was a question about his appeal to white women; suddenly you'd seen him at his events, you know, with lots of middle-aged white women waving little American flags behind him. Hispanic guy in New Hampshire was telling me about a couple of weeks ago being asked to contribute to the diversity behind John McCain at an event.

So just like in advertising, it's something they think very hard about, although it's not something they like to talk about, and it's particularly for Obama, who's sort of message is about transcending the old-fashioned identity politics, it's something particularly kind of - well, isn't quite confident with his campaign.

BLOCK: Ben Smith, thanks so much.

SMITH: Thank you.

Ben Smith, senior political reporter with Politico.

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