Thursday, June 19, 2008

Bigotry is Not Just a Republican Sin

The Republican Party has long been rightly mocked for staging political events to portray a diversity by and large lacking in the party as a whole. The Obama campaign, alas, has just gone the other way.

It was with great sorrow and more than a little bit of disappointment that I read this article by Politico's Ben Smith, about two Muslim women who "were barred from sitting behind the podium by campaign volunteers seeking to prevent the women’s headscarves from appearing in photographs or on television with the candidate."

Sen. Obama neither made nor supported this decision, and his campaign has apologized for it. Anyone who has followed this campaign understands that it happened in a particular context in which he - cast in many corners as the suspect "other" because of his race, must constantly fend off unsupported, far fetched, and often crazy rumors. Rumors such as that he is a "sleeper Muslim," a rumor ridiculously at odds with that other attempt to paint him as religiously suspect.

However, this is simply not acceptable. Being victimized by racism, by our xenophobic fear of the "other," should create empathy for those who - for reasons of race, gender, class, religion, or any other reason - are discriminated against, feared and hated, in American society. That was not the case here.

Despite some transparent attempts by conservatives to claim that this incident sheds some light onto some long dark region of Sen. Obama's character and judgment - a tired trick employed at every "gaff," real or manufactured - I'm not sure we learned anything about Barack Obama here. But we did learn that Republicans do not own a monopoly on bigotry. They never have, and they never will. Bigotry knows no political allegiance. It is an equal opportunity sin.

My hope is that Barack Obama will personally reach out to these women, and - though he was not directly involved in the sin against them - take responsibility for the actions of his volunteers. This would, of course, mean that he's holding himself to a higher standard than any other presidential candidate, past or present. But isn't that what the politics of hope are about? An attempt to change the climate and conduct of politics. In reaching out to these women, in talking to them directly, apologizing to their face, and offering them the chance to appear with him in public, he would be explicitly communicating that the politics of preying on fear - especially the fear of difference - has no place in his campaign, and would have no place in his administration.

But in American politics, such a move may be too audacious to hope for.


Update: 6-19-08, 2:18pm

Brian Francis at POLITICALINACTION.COM has a slightly different take on this story:

Volunteers for Obama's campaign prevented 2 Muslim women wearing headscarves from sitting behind him and Gore the other night. First, Obama has had women in headscarves sitting behind him before. Secondly, take off your damn headscarves. If the candidate you support, and will bring a differently level of respect for your faith than Bush/McCain, swallow your damn pride and take that nonsense off. 13% of the country believe Obama is some secret Muslim terrorist. When he fist bumps, they call it a 'terrorist fist jab'. Obama has an image problem, and all I'm saying is that people shouldn't wearing attire that would further that problem. It's not like black people show up with 'black power' t-shirts on or something. All Obama supporters now need to think of 'old white set in their ways narrow minded male swing voters' if they want change. These were 2 volunteers working in Detroit. I don't think it will happen ever again.

I don't entirely disagree with his take, but I am incensed at his line, "take off your damn headscraves," which is blatantly anti-Islamic. Such a suggestion, coupled with his connecting the decision of these women to wear overtly religious clothing to their "damn pride" smacks of the kind of bigotry that informed the young campaign volunteers who turned these women away in the first place. It fails to respect these women's faith, or how that faith functions in their decision to wear headscarves that overtly identify them as Muslims.

I understand that the Obama campaign is under fire from the right, who - because of his race, his name, his background, and a politics of fear and bigotry - wish to tie Sen. Obama to jihadist expressions of Islam, and, of course, radical Muslim terrorism. But - and maybe I'm naive here - let me suggest that anyone who would fall for that bullshit wouldn't vote for a black man named Barack Obama, anyway.

Headscarves on the Muslim women who choose to wear them are not fashion accessories that can be taken on and off at will. They are expressions of identity, and expressions of devotion to their God. While I do not share their religion, as a religious person in a pluralistic society, I do feel the need to respect their religion, and not to use the fear and bigotry of others as cover for prohibiting the free exercise of religion in a country whose Constitution expressly grants such a freedom as an inalienable right.


Last update: 6-20-08, 9:53 am

Politico's Ben Smith: Obama apologizes to Muslim women; apology accepted.


Once again, no AP news articles were harmed in the making of this blog post.

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