Hillary Clinton denied leaking the photo of Barack Obama wearing a turban, but her campaign manager says that even if she had, it would be no big deal. "Hillary Clinton has worn the traditional clothing of countries she has visited and had those photos published widely."
Sure she did. And George W. Bush put on a fetching Chamato poncho in Santiago, while Paul Wolfowitz burned up YouTube with his antimalarial African dance routines when he was World Bank prez. The obvious difference is this: when white politicians go ethnic, they just look funny. When a black presidential contender does it, he looks foreign. And when the ethnic apparel in question is vaguely reminiscent of the clothing worn by Iraqi and Afghan fighters (at least to many Fox viewers, who think any headdress other than a baseball cap is a declaration of war on America), the image is downright frightening.
The turban "scandal" is all part of what is being referred to as "the Muslim smear." It includes everything from exaggerated enunciations of Obama’s middle name to the online whisper campaign that Obama attended a fundamentalist madrassa in Indonesia (a lie), was sworn in on a Koran (another lie) and if elected would attach RadioShack speakers to the White House to broadcast the Muslim call to prayer (I made that one up).
So far, Obama’s campaign has responded with aggressive corrections that tout his Christian faith, attack the attackers and channel a cooperative witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee. "Barack has never been a Muslim or practiced any other faith besides Christianity," states one fact sheet. "I’m not and never have been of the Muslim faith," Obama told a Christian News reporter.
Of course Obama must correct the record, but he doesn’t have to stop there. What is disturbing about the campaign’s response is that it leaves unchallenged the disgraceful and racist premise behind the entire "Muslim smear": that being Muslim is de facto a source of shame. Obama’s supporters often say they are being "Swiftboated," casually accepting the idea that being accused of Muslimhood is tantamount to being accused of treason.
Substitute another faith or ethnicity, and you’d expect a very different response. Consider a report from the archives of this magazine. Thirteen years ago, Daniel Singer, The Nation’s late, much-missed Europe correspondent, went to Poland to cover a hotly contested presidential election. He reported that the race had descended into an ugly debate over whether one of the candidates, Aleksander Kwasniewski, was a closet Jew. The press claimed his mother had been buried in a Jewish cemetery (she was still alive), and a popular TV show aired a skit featuring the Christian candidate dressed as a Hasidic Jew. "What perturbed me," Singer wryly observed, "was that Kwasniewski’s lawyers threatened to sue for slander rather than press for an indictment under the law condemning racist propaganda."
We should expect no less of the Obama campaign. When asked during the Ohio debate about Louis Farrakhan’s support for his candidacy, Obama did not hesitate to call Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic comments "unacceptable and reprehensible." When the turban photo flap came up in the same debate, he used the occasion to say nothing at all.