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In Brutal Presidential Campaign, Islam Also Suffers Blows

Nov. 3, 2008

Story by Meha Ahmad

Chicagoan Junaid Afeef thinks his religion is being beaten and maligned, all in the name of politics, as he watches the race between Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Afeef, a Muslim and interim executive director at the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago (CIOGC), a prominent local Islamic organization, said he has seen a lack of morality in this year’s election.

“In this election, like none other, the conservative extreme right movement has just completely abandoned all forms of ethics and has essentially demonized Islam,” Afeef said.

Local Muslim voters are feeling increasingly disenfranchised by this election, despite Chicago strongly supporting its hometown senator. Some are growing concerned that Obama isn’t representing the change he promises and his famous slogan, “Change we can believe in,” may not apply to them.

Obama is a Christian and has aggressively denied rumors and right-wing efforts, fueled by media outlets like FOX News, labeling him as a Muslim. Still, the rumors have left a cloud of suspicion over Obama.

Afeef said Obama has done much to clear his own name, but very little to clear the name of Islam when it’s used to smear him.

“Given how often the smear is used, and given how prevalent it is in this election, his campaign’s approach and attitude toward the American-Muslim community has been ambivalent,” said Afeef, who is also the director of government and public affairs for the CIOGC.

Afeef said he also thinks the Obama campaign has been quick to distance the candidate from the Muslim community.

“[T]hey have gone to great lengths to minimize their connection to the American-Muslim community in order to avoid even the appearance of any type of Obama-Muslim connection,” Afeef said. “I think that really speaks more to the level of Islamophobia that exists in the United States.”

The Obama campaign isn’t the only group aiding, however indirectly, in the Muslim-American smear, several Chicago Muslims say.

Recently, at a rally for McCain in Minnesota, one woman told the presidential hopeful she didn’t trust Obama because he was an “Arab.” McCain corrected the woman and told her “No, he’s not. He’s a decent family man.”

Some Muslims and Arabs think that was the wrong thing to say.

“It’s like [McCain] was implying that you can’t be both,” said Omar Nabulsi, 20, secretary of the Muslim Student Association at Columbia College Chicago. He’s of Palestinian descent. “Like a person can’t be both an Arab and decent.”

Another Chicago Muslim voter thinks the blame lies elsewhere.

Frank Isa, a Chicago Fire Department lieutenant and a Palestinian Muslim, said the fault is with the community’s Muslims themselves, adding they could have prevented religious attacks had they been more active.

“As a group of people, we are nowhere near being part of this political process. If we were, this wouldn’t be happening,” Isa said. “Right now, we are having a bully pick on us, on our heritage, our religion because we have nobody that can stand up for us and fight for us because we can’t stand up and fight for ourselves.”

Isa said he thinks the answer is for more Muslims in the community to vote and be more active in the political process.

Very few media outlets and politicians are taking a stand and asking the question, “What’s wrong with being a Muslim?” It wasn’t until Colin Powell criticized the Muslim-smear rumors as a guest on the national news show Meet the Press on Oct. 19 that the issue was raised on a large scale:

“Well, the correct answer is that [Obama] is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America. Is there something wrong with some 7-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president? Yet I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, ‘He’s a Muslim and he might be associated with terrorists.’ This is not the way we should be doing it in America.”

Powell’s words sent a shock through the disenfranchised Muslim-American community.

“I was pretty surprised — and impressed,” Nabulsi said after watching Meet the Press. “I didn’t think there were politicians that cared enough to put a stop to it.”

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