‘I felt extremely ostracised’

DETROIT IS most famous for its contribution to the auto industry, the selfdubbed ‘Motor City’ capital of the world. But Detroit also boasts another unique feature: one of the largest Muslim communities in the United States.

By Mohamad Kadry (Staff Reporter)

Published: Wed 25 Jun 2008, 12:37 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 3:20 PM

This is why when Sharif Aref and his sister Hebba attended Senator Barack Obama’s recent rally in ‘MoTown’, they never expected the ugly face of prejudice to surface.

Ardent supporters of the Obama campaign, Sharif and Hebba arrived at the Joe Louis Arena hours early for a chance to catch a glimpse of the Democratic presidential nominee. After Sharif was invited to sit in the exclusive seats directly behind Obama, and subsequently in front of the cameras of the world press, he asked if he could also bring his sister, to which the event volunteers were very accommodating. That is until they learned that Hebba, a practicing Muslim, wore a hijab, or headscarf.

Building a human backdrop to campaign rallies has long been a strategy used by all politicians to convey their message, noting the power that media cameras can have on political agendas. But for Hebba, a successful 25year-old lawyer, being excluded from this agenda made clear the prevalent misconceptions about Islam that remain in America.

Shocked and offended, the group confronted the volunteer, who cited a ‘sensitive political climate’ for her actions. What began as a rally for hope and change diminished into one of blatant bigotry and racism, snowballing into an immense political nightmare for the campaign. Sharif, on behalf of his sister Hebba, speaks exclusively to City Times, as he tries to grapple with what occurred that day and the ensuing events.

What was your role in this incident?

I, along with two co-workers and my sister Hebba attended the Obama rally held at the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, Michigan. After waiting several hours to enter, Obama staffers were selecting individuals to be seated directly behind Senator Obama during his speech... these selected people would appear on television. Later, Hebba’s friend, Shimma, told Hebba that she was denied seating behind Obama due to her hijab. About 45 minutes later, an Obama staffer approached me and my friend and asked if we would be willing to sit behind Obama, we agreed but I told the staffer I would have to go get my sister, the staffer said that would be ‘ok.’ Then my friend told the volunteer that my sister wears a hijab, and as soon as he told her this, the staffer immediately shook her head and would not allow my sister to sit behind Obama due to the ‘sensitive political climate.’

Why do you support Obama, and has this support waned after the incident?

I prefer Senator Obama over John McCain because I feel he has a better economic plan that will create more jobs, bolstering our struggling economy. My support remains because I don’t think Obama was aware of the discrimination taking place at the rally.

Did you ever expect a Muslim woman wearing a hijab to be denied a seat in front of the camera, especially in a region that boasts a dominant Muslim and Arab population?

No, especially at an Obama event where his message is predicated upon ‘hope’ and ‘change’ while ‘unifying the nation’.

This event was unfortunate, but what change would you like it to bring about?

I hope this event can serve as an example of Islamophobia in America that can be used as an avenue to educate the public of the misconceptions and stereotypes surrounding Islam and ArabAmericans. I just hope this event can inform the public that Muslim and ArabAmericans are here too and should not be ignored.

Are you shocked by the amount of media coverage surrounding the incident?

Yes. I am still shocked. I never thought it would be this widely reported. I remember doing two interviews on Wednesday morning, and I thought that would be all. An hour later, my sister and I received 20-30 media calls from all over the world: CNN, FOX News, MSNBC, Chicago Tribune, NY Times, NY Post, AlArabiya, BBC, and much more.

Describe your reasoning for turning down the seats after your sister was snubbed?

I turned down the seats because I felt extremely ostracised, and I did not want to leave my sister who had been blatantly discriminated against due to her religious belief.

Is there anything else you and your sister would like to clarify?

I just want to make it clear that we don’t have and never did have a negative political agenda towards the Obama campaign. We were simply asking for an apology from Senator Obama, which my sister received. The apology sounded very sincere, Obama labelled the event as ‘inexcusable.’

Does the incident mirror the growing divide along religious lines in America?

Not necessarily... I believe this incident exemplifies the various misconceptions Americans have towards Islam.

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