Bipartisan Islamophobia Frustrates Muslim Voters

Muslim-Americans are twice as likely as most Americans to be independents according to polls. Most will vote for Barack Obama, but even supporters of the Democratic candidate express frustration at the rampant Islamophobia popping up throughout all sides of the presidential election.

Obama's Absence Upsets Some Muslims, Arabs

Barack Obama's message of unity and diplomacy is an appealing one for many Muslim-Americans. But his conspicuous absence from Muslim and Arab-American neighborhoods and mosques this campaign season has some voters feeling slighted.

In Michigan — home to a big Muslim population as well as the nation's largest concentration of Arab-Americans — reaction to Obama has been mixed. For some, Obama's message transcends race, ethnicity and religion. Others say the Democratic nominee has done little to reach out to Arabs and Muslim voters, and are withholding support.

Dearborn Obama HQ

Drive down Warren Avenue in Dearborn, Mich., and you'll find shops that sell halal meat, and signs in both Arabic and English offering dentistry, phone cards and legal help.

Keep driving east, and you'll see a campaign office for Barack Obama. And inside, hunched over a phone list, you'll find Hassan Bazzi, who's 19. Bazzi, a Lebanese-American and a Muslim, is here every night.

Obama has been dogged by rumors that he's a Muslim — and the tag carries negative connotations for some Americans. But, Bazzi says, it's not Obama's job to educate people about the Muslim faith.

"If anything, it's our position to do that. He's a good Christian man," Bazzi says. "And he might have an unusual middle name, but that doesn't put him in a position where he's supposed to be teaching the rest of the world about some stupid stereotype."

For many Muslim voters here in Dearborn who agree with Bazzi, an Obama presidency would help make things better for their community — which has been under scrutiny and suspicion since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

But not everyone here is gung-ho for Obama.

'Below Minus 10'

Osama Siblani publishes the Arab American News, which is based in Dearborn. He says both the McCain and Obama campaigns have done a rotten job of engaging with Arabs and Muslim voters.

"On a scale of 10? Below minus 10," Siblani says.

Siblani says both Obama and McCain have allowed the words "Arab" and "Muslim" to be hurled as pejoratives.

And Siblani says worst of all, neither candidate has made a significant effort to reach out to his community.

Siblani also heads the Arab American Political Action Committee, which for the first time is not endorsing a presidential candidate.

"When you are running for office, you're supposed to talk to all Americans. You're supposed to feel the pain and the suffering and the good and the bad, and form your agenda based on what people need," he says. "How could you exclude 3 and a half million Arabs and 6 million Muslims out of your campaign?"

Siblani says Muslims are angry with McCain. But he says many are disgusted with Obama, who he says wants the benefit of his community's vote without the liability of being seen with Arabs and Muslims.

"Coming and opening an office in Dearborn and hiring a few people to run your campaign, this means 'Give me your vote, but I don't want anything to do with you,' " Siblani says.

But it's easy to find Muslim voters — especially young ones — who disagree with Siblani, and who say they're not dwelling on the slings and arrows they've suffered this campaign season.

Anti-Islamic Subtext

At a Lebanese diner called Amani's Restaurant, Zeinab Chami chats about the election with several other people over huge shared platters of hummus and grape leaves. Chami says Muslim voters are realistic and sophisticated, and they don't need to be coddled.

"I think we understand the climate better than anybody in this country in terms of the anti-Muslim sentiment and everything," Chami says. "And I personally don't need anyone to assure me that it's OK to be a Muslim, because I understand that."

Chami wears the traditional Muslim head scarf. It's not something that sets her apart here in Dearborn, but it's a religious symbol that some see as threatening.

Many of the attacks on Sen. Obama this campaign season have centered around suggestions, not just that he is secretly a Muslim, but that being a Muslim is the equivalent of being a terrorist.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell condemned the anti-Islamic subtext of those attacks when he endorsed Obama over the weekend. He took members of his party to task for failing to challenge the bigoted assumptions that underlie the whisper campaign.

Nadia Bazzy is a third-generation Lebanese-American. She says she's waiting for the day when people see her the same way they see people who worship in churches and temples.

"So while this is a campaign built on change, whether it's on the side of Obama or McCain saying he's going to change Washington, are the American people ready to think of Arabs and Muslims as Americans? And that's the major question," Bazzy says.

The half-dozen people sitting at Bazzy's table express the hope that the next eight years will see a president who considers them mainstream Americans.

Sarah Hulett reports for Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor, Mich.

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