Times questions Obama inclusiveness

obama 04In the past, I have criticized stories for lacking sufficient context and detail about religion. Today I will praise a New York Times story for exhibiting those qualities, as well as making a relevant point. Reporter Andrea Elliott wrote about the Obama campaign's efforts to distance itself from American Muslims. She began the story this way:

As Senator Barack Obama courted voters in Iowa last December, Representative Keith Ellison, the country's first Muslim congressman, stepped forward eagerly to help.

Mr. Ellison believed that Mr. Obama's message of unity resonated deeply with American Muslims. He volunteered to speak on Mr. Obama's behalf at a mosque in Cedar Rapids, one of the nation's oldest Muslim enclaves. But before the rally could take place, aides to Mr. Obama asked Mr. Ellison to cancel the trip because it might stir controversy. Another aide appeared at Mr. Ellison's Washington office to explain.

"I will never forget the quote," Mr. Ellison said, leaning forward in his chair as he recalled the aide's words. "He said, 'We have a very tightly wrapped message.'"

Elliott's lede shows that this story gets religion. By talking with Ellison, Elliott highlighted the degree to which the Obama campaign, or at least some members of it, is keeping American Muslims at arm's length: Even a Democratic Congressman, and one who volunteered to help the campaign, said he was snubbed because of his religious affiliation.

Later on in the story, Elliott provided context to understand Muslims' frustrations with the Obama campaign, as well as those of Hillary Clinton and John McCain. The following passage deserves to be quoted at length:

Despite the complications of wooing Muslim voters, Mr. Obama and his Republican rival, Senator John McCain, may find it risky to ignore this constituency. There are sizable Muslim populations in closely fought states like Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Virginia.

In those states and others, American Muslims have experienced a political awakening in the years since Sept. 11, 2001. Before the attacks, Muslim political leadership in the United States was dominated by well-heeled South Asian and Arab immigrants, whose communities account for a majority of the nation's Muslims ... The number of American Muslims remains in dispute as the Census Bureau does not collect data on religious orientation; most estimates range from 2.35 million to 6 million.

A coalition of immigrant Muslim groups endorsed George W. Bush in his 2000 campaign, only to find themselves ignored by Bush administration officials as their communities were rocked by the carrying out of the USA Patriot Act, the detention and deportation of Muslim immigrants and other security measures after Sept. 11.

As a result, Muslim organizations began mobilizing supporters across the country to register to vote and run for local offices, and political action committees started tracking registered Muslim voters. The character of Muslim political organizations also began to change.

"We moved away from political leadership primarily by doctors, lawyers and elite professionals to real savvy grass-roots operatives," said Mahdi Bray, executive director of the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation, a political group in Washington. "We went back to the base."

In 2006, the Virginia Muslim Political Action Committee arranged for 53 Muslim cabdrivers to skip their shifts at Dulles International Airport in Northern Virginia to transport voters to the polls for the midterm election. Of an estimated 60,000 registered Muslim voters in the state, 86 percent turned out and voted overwhelmingly for Jim Webb, a Democrat running for the Senate who subsequently won the election, according to data collected by the committee.

Talk about a revealing sketch of American Muslims in political life. Elliott described Muslims by their recent history and the changing demographics of their leadership. Not to overpraise her, but the above passage was reminiscent of the great Samuel Lubell's characterization of American religious groups in the early- and mid-twentieth centuries.

Good detail and context about religion are one thing. But those two qualities need to be tied to an important point. In this case, Elliott suggested one: Obama is hypocritical. He talks the talk about inclusion and unity. But he likely does not walk the walk. As Elliott implied,

While the senator has visited churches and synagogues, he has yet to appear at a single mosque. Muslim and Arab-American organizations have tried repeatedly to arrange meetings with Mr. Obama, but officials with those groups say their invitations -- unlike those of their Jewish and Christian counterparts -- have been ignored. Last week, two Muslim women wearing head scarves were barred by campaign volunteers from appearing behind Mr. Obama at a rally in Detroit.

In interviews, Muslim political and civic leaders said they understood that their support for Mr. Obama could be a problem for him at a time when some Americans are deeply suspicious of Muslims. Yet those leaders nonetheless expressed disappointment and even anger at the distance that Mr. Obama has kept from them.

"This is the 'hope campaign,' this is the 'change campaign,'" said Mr. Ellison, Democrat of Minnesota. Muslims are frustrated, he added, that "they have not been fully engaged in it."

Aides to Mr. Obama denied that he had kept his Muslim supporters at arm's length. They cited statements in which he had spoken inclusively about American Islam and a radio advertisement he recorded for the recent campaign of Representative Andre Carson, Democrat of Indiana, who this spring became the second Muslim elected to Congress.

In May, Mr. Obama also had a brief, private meeting with the leader of a mosque in Dearborn, Mich., home to the country's largest concentration of Arab-Americans. And this month, a senior campaign aide met with Arab-American leaders in Dearborn, most of whom are Muslim ...

"Our campaign has made every attempt to bring together Americans of all races, religions and backgrounds to take on our common challenges," Ben LaBolt, a campaign spokesman, said in an e-mail message.

Mr. LaBolt added that with religious groups, the campaign had largely taken "an interfaith approach, one that may not have reached every group that wishes to participate but has reached many Muslim Americans."

The passage above was revealing. Obama's own Muslim supporters believe the candidate is trying to have it both ways.

However, Elliott's story is not comprehensive. It does not address this point made by regular GR commentator Chip:

Politico ... did talk about how at previous campaign events in Seattle and in Minnesota Obama appeared with Muslims wearing traditional garb.

Elliott should have included the above exculpatory information in her story. It would have perhaps forced her to raise more subtle points. For example, Elliott would have done well addressing the questions below from Daniel:

Are there any policies -- spoken/written or unsaid -- that have staffers or volunteers intentionally screen the people positioned behind Obama when he speaks in front of large audiences and cameras? Is there an internal campaign policy regarding Obama and his campaign's association with Islam?

Despite this weakness, Elliott wrote the type of story that reporters should imitate. (Photo of Barack Obama in Council Bluffs, IA by user Barack Obama used under a Creative Commons license.)

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