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Under wraps

Campaign 2008 | The politics of inclusivity isn't easy

Issue: "Home again," July 12, 2008

Barack Obama, on his way to the Democratic nomination because of principles and personality, won't escape political realities. He disappointed some by changing his position on campaign financing, and now he has to decide whether his campaign for inclusivity should exclude some.

Last month Hebba Aref and Shimaa Abdelfadeel, American-born daughters of Egyptian immigrants, arrived at an Obama event in Detroit to receive an invitation to sit behind the podium where the presidential candidate would be speaking. But before the televised event began, campaign workers told them they could not be on stage because they were wearing the hijab, the traditional Muslim head covering for women.

Aref and Abdelfadeel took news of their rejection to the press. Aref, a 25-year-old attorney in Detroit, told reporters it was difficult to listen to Obama's speech and its message of unity: "As he's saying it, I'm thinking, 'Well, wait a minute, I was obviously . . . profiled and discriminated against an hour ago.'"

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This turned out not to be the first time Obama's campaign shunted Muslims offstage. In December Obama workers asked Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, the only Muslim member of Congress, to cancel an Iowa trip to campaign on Obama's behalf. An aide to the candidate stopped by Ellison's Capitol Hill office to explain: "I will never forget the quote," Ellison told The New York Times. "He said, 'We have a very tightly wrapped message.'"

For Obama that message may include sitting down with radical Islamic leaders, namely Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but not standing up with Muslims who are U.S. citizens. But give the man some sympathy. He is running from frenzied rumors that he is a closet Muslim, and he knows that a video of him with headscarved women would probably make its way into attack ads claiming they are jihadists. So he's tried to play it both ways, issuing a brief apology to the women but not another invitation to the stage. Sooner or later he will have to choose: Will the candidate who complains about "the smallness of our politics" be big enough to have his picture taken with headscarved women? Skullcapped Jewish men? Soldiers in desert fatigues?

But it's not only Obama who has to choose. The Islamic idea behind having women robed in the hijab, which in Arabic literally means the "veil" or "curtain," is that they not be on public display: Women, notes Moroccan scholar Fatema Mernissa, were to be "invisible in the political sphere." When caliphs reigned, their women were secluded in the palace harem, "the forbidden space," while in public they took cover behind the hijab.

What should Muslim women wear now? Like the harem, the hijab fell out of fashion early in the 20th century, only to be reinstated with vigor in 1980 under the Iranian revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini. Now it is as much a political statement as a religious requirement: Today women in Tehran must wear the floor-length, head-to-toe black chador, and are grateful the ruling ayatollahs allow the tips of their fingers to show. Iranian police arrest women who flout the dress code by wearing brightly colored headscarves.

"It is really a choice to refuse the scarf," Hakima Hourri, a businesswoman and a Muslim in Casablanca (where head covering isn't required by law), once told me. "It speaks to deep questions of identity, but sometimes those who do not wear the veil are more religious than the person wearing one. And it is more popular [to wear it] in the U.S. and France, because it is a statement, than it is here." But a statement of what? Can Muslim women be both behind a curtain and on stage?

In 1790 President George Washington wrote in a letter to the Jews of Newport, R.I., that "it is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens." Special-interest politics has confused these ideals. Obama must consider how far he is willing to take his pledge of inclusivity. And Muslims, how far they will take identity politics if they want to engage meaningfully in the public arena.

(Note: This article has been corrected to reflect that Keith Ellison represents Minnesota in Congress.)

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