Muslim calls out Obama after being snubbed at rally
Apology not good enough, she says
BY CHRIS CHRISTOFF and NIRAJ WARIKOO • FREE PRESS STAFF WRITERS • June 19,2008
They were attracted to his message of diversity and unity, but two Muslim women who went to Barack Obama's rally at Joe Louis Arena on Monday went home feeling left out.
They were barred from prime seats behind the stage because of their traditional Muslim head scarves, after campaign volunteers had invited their non-Muslim friends to the seats.
The campaign apologized to the women Tuesday and in a statement issued Wednesday, blamed the incident on the volunteers.
Still, it illustrates how the pressures of image-making in a presidential campaign combined with sensitivities over unfounded rumors that Obama is secretly a Muslim can create a sudden storm -- awkwardly in metro Detroit, home to the nation's most influential community of Arab Americans.
Campaigns often take special care to create visual images that help candidates, which includes surrounding them with people who reflect their views and core supporters.
But the apology fell short for one of the women wearing a hijab. Hebba Aref, 25, a Bloomfield Hills resident and graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, said she's never before "been treated that way."
"It's so ironic that it was at his rally. He obviously would not promote any discrimination at all," she said.
Although disappointed, Aref said she still supports Obama.
She said she's hoping to get a personal apology from Obama and a close seat at a future campaign event. She said she is drawn to the Illinois senator's message of unity and inclusion.
The other woman, Shimaa Abdelfadeel, a Sudanese American and U-M graduate who works at the university's Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs office, could not be reached.
Campaign spokesman Bill Burton said in a statement: "It is offensive and counter to Obama's commitment to bring Americans together and simply not the kind of campaign we run. We sincerely apologize for the behavior of these volunteers."
At a speech to Wayne County Community College District students in Taylor on Tuesday morning, Obama shook hands with one woman wearing a hijab and posed for a photo with a group of young women, including another student wearing a head scarf.
An increasing number of Muslim women in the United States and other countries wear the hijab.
According to some interpretations of Islamic law, Muslim women must dress modestly in the presence of men who are not family members.
Dawud Walid, head of the Michigan branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, also received a call of apology from Obama's campaign Wednesday."We would like to see the senator decry the Islamophobia that seeks to marginalize Muslims from the political process," he said.Obama met last month privately in Macomb County with a Muslim leader from Dearborn, Imam Hassan Qazwini.
Here's what happened to the two women, based on Free Press interviews with Aref and her brother's friend, Ali Koussan, and a report by Politico.com, which broke the story:
Abdelfadeel and several friends waited for hours outside the arena Monday. As they walked in, a campaign volunteer approached and asked her non-Muslim friends to sit in special seats behind the stage.
They told the volunteer they were with Abdelfadeel, who walked a few paces ahead. The volunteer said Abdelfadeel would have to remove her hijab to sit near the stage.
She said no, and the friends refused to take the seats without her.
Politico.com reported that a shocked Abdelfadeel confronted the volunteer and was told the campaign wouldn't allow hats or head scarves behind the stage -- a position where supporters often get on television or in photos.
Abdelfadeel then called Aref on a cell phone. Aref was sitting away from the stage in the arena while her brother and his two friends walked in the concourse.
One of those friends, Koussan, told the Free Press that an Obama campaign worker -- he described her as being in her mid-20s -- asked them if they'd like to sit behind the stage and be on television.
"I said, 'Yeah, why not?' " said Koussan, 23, a law student at Wayne State University. "She asked if I was with someone who looked like me and dressed like me. I was wearing a suit and tie. She told me to get them and meet her."
When Koussan told Aref and the others, she referred to the call and told him they wouldn't allow her near Obama because of her hijab.
Koussan said he went back to the volunteer, and she said Aref would not be allowed.
"She said, 'It's not personal,' " Koussan said. "She went on to say, 'Given the political climate, we can't be associating all that with the campaign.' "
He added, "At that point, I was pretty upset."