Who would have thought that a relatively new Washington, D.C., insider's news organization would scoop all the news organizations in a major U.S. city that boasts two major daily newspapers? The Politico, which has quickly established its turf in a town full of media organizations, reported Wednesday morning that Muslims were "barred from picture at Obama event." Here's how Ben Smith described the incident:
Two Muslim women at Barack Obama's rally in Detroit on Monday 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.
The campaign has apologized to the women, both Obama supporters who said they felt betrayed by their treatment at the rally.
"This is of course not the policy of the campaign. It is offensive and counter to Obama's commitment to bring Americans together and simply not the kind of campaign we run," said Obama spokesman Bill Burton. "We sincerely apologize for the behavior of these volunteers."
Building a human backdrop to a political candidate, a set of faces to appear on television and in photographs, is always a delicate exercise in demographics and political correctness. Advance staffers typically pick supporters out of a crowd to reflect the candidate's message.
The only other story of substance out there as of Wednesday afternoon was from The Detroit News. The Detroit Free Press has a shorter story with little information not already included in the The Politico's report.
Notice how the women are described as appearing in "traditional Muslim dress" and that the Obama campaign was merely concerned with their appearance:
Sen. Barack Obama's campaign apologized Wednesday for incidents in which Muslim women were asked not to stand or sit behind the candidate at a rally in Metro Detroit this week out of concerns about the appearance of traditional Muslim dress associated with the Democratic candidate in published and broadcast visuals of the events.
Unfortunately article by the The News doesn't quite back up the allegation that these women were barred merely for their traditional Muslim dress. Fortunately, The Politico did some reporting and based on that the message is pretty clear: Obama's campaign did not want women with headscarves behind him at the campaign. Here's more:
"We're not letting anyone with anything on their heads like baseball [caps] or scarves sit behind the stage," she paraphrased the volunteer as saying, an account Marino confirmed. "It has nothing to do with your religion!"
In most work and school settings, religious dress -- such as Jewish yarmulkes, Sikh turbans, Muslim hijabs -- is permitted where secular clothing like baseball caps is not.
"The scarf is not just something she can take off -- it's part of her identity," said Marino.
Photographs of the event also show men with hats in the section behind Obama and former Vice President Al Gore, though not directly behind the candidate.
The question for the rest of the media is whether this is only a minor kafuffle or whether it represents something larger about the Obama campaign that ought to be further investigated. As it stands now, I am of the later opinion for the following reasons.
While Obama may not have been involved, he still bears the responsibility for overseeing an environment where people associated with his campaign felt it necessary to keep him personally away from people that are visually identifiable as Muslims. Reporters should not allow Obama to pass blame for this unfortunate incident off on some random volunteers. A potential president should be held accountable for the actions of his or her staffers because that is the way the game is played once they get to the White House.
The obvious ghost in all of this is that the Obama campaign has been loathe to see their candidate associated with anything Muslim. Rather than shrugging off baseless accusations that Obama is a secret Muslim, the Obama campaign has reacted to the charge as if Obama were accused of some sort of deviant conduct. Many Muslims hoped that Obama would simply respond by saying "So what, if I was a Muslim."
I was pleasantly surprised to see The Politico pick up on this relatively unreported angle:
But for Obama, the old-fashioned image-making contrasts with his promise to transcend identity politics and to embrace all elements of America. The incidents in Michigan, which has one of the largest Arab and Muslim populations in the country, also raise an aspect of his campaign that sometimes rubs Muslims the wrong way: The candidate has vigorously denied a false, viral rumor that he himself is Muslim. But the denials seem to some at times to imply that there is something wrong with the faith, though Obama occasionally adds that he means no disrespect to Islam.
"I was coming to support him, and I felt like I was discriminated against by the very person who was supposed to be bringing this change, who I could really relate to," said Hebba Aref, a 25-year-old lawyer who lives in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills. "The message that I thought was delivered to us was that they do not want him associated with Muslims or Muslim supporters."
In Detroit on Monday, the two different Obama volunteers -- in separate incidents -- made it clear that headscarves wouldn't be in the picture. The volunteers gave different explanations for excluding the hijabs, one bluntly political and the other less clear.
Because this happened in two separate incidents, reporters covering his campaign must suspect something bigger is at hand. 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?
According to the news reports, this type of screening happens all the time on the campaign trail. If that is true for Obama's campaign, why? And what does that say about the sincerity of the Obama campaign's larger message of inclusiveness particularly towards Muslims? Senator Barack Obama campaigning in New Hampshire used under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike license.