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.
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Obama's Absence Upsets Some Muslims, Arabs

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Obama's Absence Upsets Some Muslims, Arabs

Obama's Absence Upsets Some Muslims, Arabs

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Now, a visit to southeastern Michigan, home to a large Muslim population. Barack Obama has generally avoided Muslim and Arab-American neighborhoods in the campaign. And as Sarah Hulett of Michigan Radio reports, that has some voters feeling slighted.

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

Mr. HASSAN BAZZI (Obama Campaign Volunteer): Oh, no English? Assalamu-alaikum.

HULETT: Bazzi is 19 years old. He figures he volunteers for the Obama campaign about 25 hours a week in between his college classes.

Mr. BAZZI: I'd wake up early in the morning, do a little bit of canvassing, go to school, come home, do a little bit of homework and then come right back here.

HULETT: Bazzi is a Lebanese-American and a Muslim. He says he knows Obama has been dogged by rumors that he's a Muslim - and that the tag carries negative connotations for some Americans. But Bazzi says, it's not Obama's job to educate people about the Muslim faith.

Mr. BAZZI: If anything, it's our position to do that. He might happen to 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.

HULETT: That sentiment can be heard from many Muslim voters here in Dearborn who say Obama's message transcends race, ethnicity and religion, and they're hoping that an Obama presidency would make things better for their community, which has been under scrutiny and suspicion since 9/11. But not everyone here is gung-ho for Obama. Osama Siblani publishes the Arab American News. He says both the McCain and Obama campaigns have done a rotten job of engaging with Arab and Muslim voters.

Mr. OSAMA SIBLANI (Publisher, Arab American News; Head, Arab American Political Action Committee): On a scale of 10? Below minus 10.

HULETT: Siblani says both Obama and McCain have allowed the words Arab and Muslim to be hurled as pejoratives. And Siblani says worst of all is that 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. He says neither candidate has asked for one.

Mr. SIBLANI: When you are running for office, you're supposed to talk to all Americans. How could you exclude three and a half million Arabs and six million Muslims out of your campaign?

HULETT: Siblani says people 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.

Mr. SIBLANI: Coming and opening an office in Dearborn and hiring a few people to run your campaign, this means that give me your vote, but I don't want anything to do with you.

HULETT: 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. At a Lebanese diner, Zeinab Chami is chatting about the election with several other people over huge shared platters of hummus and grape leaves. She says Muslim voters are realistic and sophisticated, and they don't need to be coddled.

Ms. ZEINAB CHAMI: I think we understand the climate better than anybody in this country in terms of the anti-Muslim sentiment and everything. And I personally don't need anyone to reassure me that it's OK to be a Muslim in America, because I understand that. ..TEXT: HULETT: 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 Senator 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. And 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.

Ms. NADIA BAZZY: So while this is a campaign built upon 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.

HULETT: The half-dozen people sitting at this table at Amani's Restaurant express the hope that the next eight years will see a president who considers them mainstream Americans. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Hulett.

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