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The controversy caused by a photograph of Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama dressed in turban-topped African garb points to deeper anti-Muslim sentiment in US society, some observers believe.
Ever since the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington Arabs generally and Muslims in particular have become the number one villain in movies and television, according to Jack Shaheen, author of Guilty - Hollywood's Verdict on Arabs After 9/11.
"There's no balance. It makes as much sense as projecting Asian or African-Americans as terrorists," he said.
One of the most disturbing trends, he said, is that what started in Hollywood movies spread to television, and has gone from Arabs to Muslims in general.
"It's the fact that he's black, let's be blunt about it," and that the Somali tribal garb in the picture taken when Obama was on a visit to Kenya, his father's homeland, reminds people of Muslim dress, Shaheen said.
The Obama campaign accused the campaign of rival Democrat Hillary Clinton of "the most shameful, offensive fear-mongering" when the photograph of the Illinois senator, turned up on a Website this week.
The Clinton campaign denied releasing the photo.
Obama, a Christian, has fought a whispering campaign from fringe elements that say he is a Muslim. The Democratic front-runner's middle family name - Hussein - has been used by some to draw a link between him and late Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
"But it's interesting," Shaheen said, "no one has said so what? What if he were a Muslim?"
Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Chicago Chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, said the photograph incident sent a poor message to any Muslim growing up in the United States with hopes of running for president.
"It goes against all that I advocate that the mere rumour of a person being a Muslim - let alone actually being one - could be a tool to destroy political aspirations," he said in a commentary in the Chicago Tribune.
"When it comes to Muslims, the divisive rhetoric coming out of this year's election ranges from the exclusionary to the just plain bigoted," he said, adding that neither Obama nor any other candidate had adequately addressed the anti-Muslim climate.
Rehab said the photograph of Obama will be discounted by a large chunk of the electorate. "What I'm seeing now is a sense of cynicism … you've had seven years of this crap," he said.
"It is a sign of America's progress that Obama is not eliminated from the public's consideration because of his race," remarked Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page in a recent commentary in that newspaper.
"Yet he is vulnerable to other prejudices," he added, and impressions can tip the balance among those who are undecided.
Further attacks focusing on religion and identity seem likely as Obama becomes the favourite to win the Democratic nomination and compete in the November general election.
The Tennessee Republican Party this week put out a news release featuring the Obama photo, headlined "Anti-Semites for Obama" and referring to the Democrat as "Senator Barack Hussein Obama." (Reuters)
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