American Politics: No Place for Headscarves

This is a little overdue, but I need to write about it anyway. Last Wednesday in Detroit (June 18th), during Barack Obama’s Presidential Campaign, two Muslim women wearing traditional headscarves (commonly known as “hijaab”) were refused to sit directly behind Obama’s podium. The Muslim women, Hebba Aref and Shimaa Abdelfadeel, were accompanied by their friend Ali Koussan, Aref’s brother Sharif, and a young lawyer, Brandon Edward Miller. The three men were asked by a volunteer for the Obama Campaign if they wanted to sit behind Obama; they replied in the affirmative but mentioned they were with friends. Upon seeing the Muslim women, the volunteer explained to the group of Muslim attendees that “because of the political climate and what’s going on in the world and what’s going on with Muslim Americans it’s not good for her to be seen on TV or associated with Obama.”

I wonder if the volunteer really knew what is “going on with Muslim Americans.” Hate crimes and discriminatory actions towards individuals of Muslim, Middle-Eastern, and South Asian descent have escalated on an annual basis. Along with the Human Rights Watch, the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) observed that prior to 9/11, forty-eight hate crimes towards Muslim-Americas were reported in the United States, but in the days following the terrorist attack, that figure skyrocketed dramatically to 481. Reported incidents of discrimination, harassment, and violence against Muslims amounted to 602 in 2002, 1,019 in 2004, 1,522 in 2004, 1,972 in 2005, and 2,467 in 2006 (CAIR). The context of these hate crimes and incidents consist of murders — including non-Muslim individuals with a South Asian or Middle-Eastern background — physical and verbal assaults, and numerous cases of vandalism directed towards Mosques, convenience stores owned by Muslims, and homes. I wonder if this volunteer for the Obama Campaign knew about the Sikh father who was shot to death at a gas station because he was mistaken for being a Muslim. I wonder if this volunteer knew about the countless Muslims who have been killed and brutally beaten just because of their religious affiliation or ethnic background.

Hebba Aref, who is a graduate student of Michigan Law School, expressed her disappointment at the rally. “I don’t want to be called something I’m not, but I felt like… everyone was treating this accusation of being Muslim as though it were some sort of crime or sin,” she told reporters.

As Obama delivered his message on unity among races, Aref described her difficulty in hearing his words. “As he’s saying it, I’m thinking, ‘Well, wait a minute, I was obviously … profiled and discriminated against an hour ago.”

It is frustrating for me, a Muslim American, to hear about these (seemingly) endless incidents of prejudice towards Muslim Americans. If it’s not “good” for a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf to appear on television with Obama, then is it not “good” for the hundreds of Muslims to continue their campaigning for Obama? Aref said: “I was coming to support him, and I felt like I was discriminated against by the very person who was supposed to be bringing this change, who I could really relate to… the message that I thought was delivered to us was that they do not want him associated with Muslims or Muslim supporters.” So where they do the Muslims belong in this campaign? Ah, I know! Let’s put them at the back of the bus!

Seriously, it’s like one of my friends telling me that they don’t want to hang out with me or be associated with me just because I’m wearing a necklace that says “Allah” in Arabic, or because I’m wearing an Islamic T-shirt. It’s even more frustrating how Islamophobia is being used to disrupt Obama’s campaign. As many of you know, Obama has been accused of being a “secret Muslim” just because of his family’s background and his middle name, “Hussain.” It’s really scary and disturbing how there are actually people out there who believe this. “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” showed clips of West Virginia voters calling Obama a “Muslim,” a “non-Christian” and as eloquently put by one woman, “he’s a Hussain, and I’ve had enough of Hussain!” Another woman said, “He is of another race, and I guess I am a little scared of his race, because we have so much conflict with ‘em.”

I understand the complexity of this matter, and I am sure it is very difficult for Obama to balance things out without scaring the right-wing extremists or offending Muslim-Americans. On the bright side of things, Senator Obama contacted Ms. Aref and Ms. Abdelfadeel via telephone and offered his apology. In response, the two Muslim women wrote the following letter to the Obama campaign:

At the rally for Senator Obama in Detroit on Monday, June 16, two volunteers denied us seating behind the stage the Senator would soon take. The volunteers informed us that we were not allowed to sit in that area due to the hijab, the headscarf that each of us was wearing.

This incident was unfortunate and extremely disappointing. Senator Obama has called us each to personally convey his deepest apologies and acknowledge that this was inexcusable. We both immensely appreciate the Senator’s phone call and his commitment to remedy this issue. We commend him for displaying qualities befitting an effective President. We acknowledge that this injustice has been taken seriously and that Senator Obama does not tolerate discrimination against Arabs, Muslims or any community. We are assured that he and his staff are committed to upholding the principles of justice for all peoples and bringing about change we can believe in. The infringement on our rights occurred and has been addressed; now we are ready to move forward. We will continue to support Senator Obama in his campaign and wish him the best as the race continues.

Obama follows up with a statement through his Senate office:

I reached out to Ms. Aref and Ms. Abdelfadeel this afternoon. I spoke with Ms. Abdelfadeel, and expressed my deepest apologies for the incident that occurred with volunteers at the event in Detroit. The actions of these volunteers were unacceptable and in no way reflect any policy of my campaign. I take deepest offense to and will continue to fight against discrimination against people of any religious group or background. Our campaign is about bringing people together, and I’m grateful that Ms. Abdelfadeel accepted our apology and I hope Ms. Aref and any who were offended accept my apology as well.

I personally accept the apology by Senator Obama, but at the same time, I think the two Muslim women should be offered to attend another Obama rally and be permitted to sit directly behind him and appear on television, as they were intended to. What do you all think?

I just think that these incidents are very insulting towards the Muslim community and I think it’s really important for American politics to confront this issue openly. I hope this recent story increases more awareness about the stigma Muslim Americans are facing in the post-9/11 era. I was surfing the web and found this blog entry written in response to the incident by Daisy Khan, a Muslim American Woman:

“One day, we may see American Presidents, male and female, wearing turbans, yarmulkes, and hijabs. Our nation’s foundation rests on a legacy of diversity and respect for difference, and Senator Obama’s person, candidacy, and message reflect this very legacy. Perhaps some of his staffers and volunteers need to step back and reflect on exactly why they work for this historic campaign.”

I couldn’t have said it better.

Salaam/Shalom/Shlama/Peace

~ Broken Mystic~

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2 Comments

  1. Samiinour said,

    July 27, 2008 at 3:05 pm

    The muslims are suffering in all arround the world but the converter are many too.Only the image that show the muslims ( action or reaction ) worth. So MUSLIMS must keep polite, wise and just follow their beloved prophet and his religion. Meeting in Djana “heaven” (God willing).

  2. Neon Queen said,

    January 21, 2009 at 7:12 pm

    I’m speechless. Are we really that scary? Or are people just too overly racist? Whatever it is, I really do think that the two muslim women should be offered to attend another Obama rally and be permitted to sit directly behind him and appear on television. Why doesnt any one want peace anymore? They say they do, but you must work hard in order to achieve something… Oh well, it seems like ‘world peace’ is impossible, and I just cant help hoping… Just hoping, because there’s nothing else I can do really.

    Peace and love,
    Neon Queen.


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