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Obama reaches out to Muslim community

By Michael Conlon

Chicago - Barack Obama should be able to count on heavy support from US Muslims in the November election, if polls are correct, but he risks offending some members of that faith by having to explain he is not one himself.

The number of votes at stake is small since Muslims account for only a fraction of the US population and there are no reliable figures on how many are registered to vote.

But with a recent history of close presidential elections, no vote can be discounted when Democrat Obama, who would be the first black president, faces off against Republican John McCain.

A survey from the Pew Forum on Religion and Politics found that 63 percent of US Muslims either considered themselves to be Democrats or leaned in that direction, compared with 11 percent who said they were Republican or identified with that party.

At the same time, about 12 percent of Americans think Obama is a Muslim, a misconception that has persisted for months and been fed by Internet rumours.

The touchy issue was in the news again when The New Yorker published a satirical cartoon on its cover depicting an Arab-garbed Obama and his gun-toting wife in the White House Oval Office with an American flag burning in the fireplace.

There have also been unconfirmed reports that the Obama campaign plans to appoint a liaison to the Muslim community.

A religion section on an Obama Web site, "Fight the Smears," that was created to deal with such rumours, labels claims that he is a Muslim a "lie" and states he "has never been a Muslim, was not raised as a Muslim and is a committed Christian."

"We know he isn't a Muslim but who cares if he is?" said Sofian Zakkout, director of the American Muslim Association of North America.

Obama's pledge "to bring communities together" is his appeal, Zakkout said, and "We don't expect him to come to us and say, 'I'm with you.' We don't need that."

But Saaqib Rangoonwala, managing editor of Southern California InFocus, a Muslim newspaper, sees a close election in which "American Muslim votes will be needed and it is time for Muslims to take a stand ...

"Muslims are not less deserving of Obama's time than other groups that he has met with ... to his credit, he met with a Muslim leader and personally apologised to the Muslim women who were banned by campaign volunteers from sitting behind the podium at a Detroit rally because the women wore hijabs," he said.

"These actions are well and good," Rangoonwala said, but "Muslims need to let Obama know that he has to earn their votes."

Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Chicago office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said there was a high level of interest in the presidential election among Muslims, with the main issues being civil rights, peace in the Middle East, immigration, the economy and Islamophobia.

But he thinks Obama may be "overcompensating" in trying to correct the misconception he is a Muslim, leaving the impression that being a Muslim is somehow un-American - a "double whammy."

"Many in the Muslim community think he is being sheepish in reaching out to them," he said.

Obama already has faced problems within his own Christian church, having to distance himself from controversial comments by his former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, that were perceived by some as anti-American.

A 2007 Pew report found that US Muslims were mainly middle class and mostly in mainstream society. A later survey of likely voters by the Council on American-Islamic Relations also found them largely Democrats and young, with 75 percent of them US-born or having lived in the country for 20 years or more.

The Pew reports have estimated Muslims at just 0,06 percent of the population, although other reports have placed the number higher.

In Minneapolis, which has a large concentration of Somali Muslim immigrants, Mohamed Burk, 53, said, "I'm listening and thinking," but he is undecided between Obama and McCain.

Abdulaziz Al-Salim, 23, a Minnesota native who now lives in Daman, Saudi Arabia, where he works as a financial analyst for Saudi Aramco, the oil company, said he was sad that "being associated with Muslims is a political liability."

But he said he would vote for Obama "for the same reasons that everyone else is supporting him. He's a unifier, charismatic and represents change."

Published on the Web by IOL on 2008-07-25 08:07:12

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