Why Muslims give Obama a pass on religion

Barack Hussein Obama, a devout Christian politician running for president, is not and never has been a Muslim.

But even Muslim voters seem to understand reasons for the clear distance he's trying to put between himself and them.

"The Muslim community is sophisticated enough to know how politics work in this country, the nuances of politics and what people have to know to get elected," said Ali Khan, the executive director for the American Muslim Council, a Muslim advocacy organization based in Chicago. "I think Barack Obama is getting a pass."

Muslims make up less than 1 percent of the electorate — not so much less than the tally of Jewish voters — but they are seldom courted and carry little clout. By contrast the country's 6.1-million Jews, which make up roughly 2 percent of the population, are a highly sought-after constituency. The country's 2-million to 6-million Muslims — demographers say the exact number is hard to pin down — are largely ignored by politicians who fear a backlash from associating with them.

In a post-9/11 America, thanks to extremists and terrorists, many people view Islam with great distrust and disdain and sometimes make little distinction between mainstream Muslims and terrorists.

For months, Obama's campaign has worked hard to explain that he's a Christian without alienating Muslims themselves. But there have been rough patches. In June, campaign workers asked two Muslim women to switch seats at an Obama rally in Detroit. The women's error? They sat behind the lectern wearing hijabs, or head scarves, in plain view of television cameras. Obama later apologized for the snub.

While the brush-off got little more than scant mention in mainstream media coverage, Muslims around the country took note.

His campaign's outreach coordinator to Muslims was recently criticized for speaking to a group of 30 Muslim leaders, including two whom the government has accused of having ties to controversial groups such as Hamas. The Obama campaign later said they would not have attended had they seen the participant list in advance.

Respect and understanding for Obama's predicament resonated with Muslims who gathered recently at a Tampa mosque for Eid Al-Fitr, the celebration that marks the end of Ramadan.

Those gathered were a melting pot of Muslims, black, white, Asian, Latino, African and Arab. After their prayer service ended, they celebrated with sweet treats and savory foods all consumed amid the unending din of noise from carnival rides and spirited conversations at the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay area in Tampa.

When asked about Obama's uneasiness with courting Muslim voters, most of the attendees quickly settled on one thing. They don't blame Obama for vigorously asserting that he is not Muslim. Because, well, he's not. And if he were, they are certain he would not be the Democratic nominee for president.

"We're the lepers of American society," said Jordan Robinson, 23, who was visiting from New York. "We do feel like we're held at arm's length, but that's not something that's going to keep us out of the process."

Robinson would not say who will get his vote. He doesn't want Muslims to be seen as loyal to one party and looks forward to the day when they will be courted as swing voters.

Dr. Adel Eldin, a cardiologist who lives in Hillsborough County, also dreams of a time when Muslims will be big players in American politics. But Eldin, a registered Republican, is growing increasingly frustrated. He said he reached out to Sen. John McCain's campaign and expressed interest in starting a Muslims for McCain group. No one returned his call.

"Whether it's Obama or McCain, they don't hear Muslim voices," said Eldin, 46.

Although Eldin also declined to reveal his choice for president, 63 percent of Muslims say they are Democrats or align themselves most often with the party, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Only 11 percent of Muslims describe themselves as Republicans.

Ben Jaoudi, an Army veteran from Brooksville, said Obama's campaign strategies don't offend him. A Democrat, he plans to vote for the Illinois senator next month. But he thinks Obama has bigger problems than falsely being thought a Muslim.

"Prejudice still exists here," Jaoudi said. Obama "is educated, and he's smart. They don't care because he's black. They're going to pick McCain. You know it, and I know it. If he (were) Muslim, he'd be wiped off the map completely."

Religion — whether it's Obama's or Gov. Sarah Palin's, the Republican nominee for vice president — has unfairly taken center stage in a campaign that should be about issues, attendees said.

"Religion is supposed to have nothing to do with it," said Taiwo Emiola, a Nigerian nurse who lives in Riverview. "If you have the ability to be president, you should be able to go for it. I think (Obama) is capable of doing it."

Ayesha Sookdeo, a native of Guyana who attended the celebration with her two grown children and her daughter-in-law, agreed.

"It makes no difference whether you're Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Catholic," said Sookdeo, 61, from St. Petersburg. "Whatever it is, whoever can rule the country the way they're supposed to. That's what matters most."

Although everyone in Sookdeo's family said they planned to vote for Obama, they disagreed on the senator's faith background.

Sookdeo's son, Aftab, an auto mechanic from St. Petersburg, said he believes that Obama's name and family background make him a Muslim. In his opinion, the senator is denying his faith and culture.

"I don't think it's right," said Aftab Sookdeo, 40. "We believe everyone has a destiny. If he is a Muslim, he may not win as president. But in the end, he'll be the better person."

Rabia Sookdeo, a St. Petersburg optician, doesn't agree with her brother.

"I'm sure that (Obama) wouldn't mind opening his horizons as far as what his beliefs are, but I believe that's as far as it goes," she said.

Obama would like the public to accept the truth about his faith story. But as the folks at the Tampa mosque proved, batting down persistent rumors even among Muslims is a formidable task. According to Obama's account of his life, he never practiced Islam. His father was born a Muslim but became an atheist and divorced Obama's mother when he was 2. Obama saw his father only once more before he died.

For the last two decades, Obama was a member of the Trinity United Church of Christ. It is where he accepted Jesus Christ, said his wedding vows and watched his two daughters get baptized. It was also the home church of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose controversial comments surfaced earlier this year and, at one point, appeared poised to jettison the senator's bid for the White House. Obama has since broken ties with Wright and the church.

Islamic scholars back up Obama's telling of his faith background. He is not a Muslim, they said, because he was not raised in a Muslim household. He also has never followed the principles of Islam.

"There's no doubt in my mind he is not a Muslim," said Ihsan Bagby, a professor at the University of Kentucky and one of the country's leading scholars on Islamic studies. "But I applaud him in the fact that in denying Islam, he is not slandering Islam or making it a fault."

Khan, the national Muslim advocate, says Muslims who believe Obama shares their religious beliefs are engaging in wishful thinking.

"At the end of seeing so much discrimination in this country, (they) are hoping they can find somebody who can be sympathetic towards Muslims," Khan said. "But they're living in a delusional world."

Khan said he has known Obama since his days as a state senator. Back then, Obama was accessible, attending various events in the Chicago area, Khan said.

He recalls holding fund-raisers for Obama long before handlers guided his footsteps.

Although the advocate understands the current political climate, he said the candidates for president ignore Muslims at their own peril. There are millions of Muslims in the United States, and they vote. If politicians reach out, Muslims will reach back.

In the primaries, Khan said he stumped for Sen. John Edwards, the North Carolina Democrat. He said he did it because the Edwards' camp asked. He hasn't heard from Obama.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Sherri Day can be reached at sday@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3405.

Why Muslims give Obama a pass on religion 10/11/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 14, 2008 4:37pm]

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