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 

      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.

      When Obama won the North Carolina primary amid questions about his 
ability to connect with white voters, for instance, he stood in front of a 
group of middle-aged white women waving small American flags.

      On the Republican side, a Hispanic New Hampshire Democrat, Roberto 
Fuentes, told Politico that he was recently asked, and declined, to contribute 
to the “diversity” of the crowd behind Sen. John McCain at a Nashua event.

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      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 highlight 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 at times seem to imply to some 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 

      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.

      In Aref’s case, there was no ambiguity.

      That incident began when the volunteer asked Aref’s friend Ali Koussan 
and two others, Aref’s brother Sharif and another young lawyer, Brandon Edward 
Miller, whether they would like to sit behind the stage. The three young men 
said they would but mentioned they were with friends.

      The men said the volunteer, a 20-something African-American woman in a 
green shirt, asked if their friends looked and were dressed like the young men, 
who were all light-skinned and wearing suits.

      Miller said yes but mentioned that one of their friends was wearing a 
headscarf with her suit.

      The volunteer “explained to me that because of the political climate and 
what’s going on in the world and what’s going on with Muslim Americans, it’s 
not good for [Aref] to be seen on TV or associated with Obama,” said Koussan, a 
law student at Wayne State University.

      Both Koussan and Miller said they specifically recalled the volunteer 
citing the “political climate” in telling them they couldn’t sit behind Obama.

      “I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. Are you serious?’” Koussan 

      Shimaa Abdelfadeel’s story was different. She’d waited in line outside 
the Joe Louis Arena for three hours in the sun and was walking through the 
giant hall when a volunteer approached two of her non-Muslim friends, a few 
steps ahead of her, and asked if they’d like to sit in “special seating” behind 
the stage, said one friend, Brittany Marino, who, like Abdelfadeel, is a recent 
University of Michigan graduate who works for the university.

      When they said they were with Abdelfadeel, the volunteer told them their 
friend would have to take off the headscarf or stay out of the special section, 
Marino said. They declined the seats.

      After recovering from the shock of the incident, Abdelfadeel went to look 
for the volunteer and confronted her minutes later, she said in an e-mail 
interview with Politico.

      “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 and Muslim hijabs — is permitted where secular 
clothing, such as 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 

      Abdelfadeel, like Aref, felt “disappointed, angry and let down,” she 
later wrote.

      She said she was “let down that the Obama campaign continuously 
perpetuates this attitude towards Muslims and Arabs — as if being merely 
associated [with] one is a sin.”

      The two women’s friends who witnessed the incidents were disappointed, 
too. Aref’s friend Miller said he was “shocked” by the contrast between Obama’s 
message and their experience.

      “He was the one candidate who you would expect to stand up for something 
like that — and behind the scenes, you have something completely contrary to 
what he was running on,” said Koussan, Aref’s other friend.

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