Friday, October 10, 2008

Obama concedes mistake over Muslim outreach meeting

The Obama campaign’s Muslim outreach director participated in a meeting in mid September that was attended by several controversial Muslim activists, NBC News has learned. The Obama campaign now concedes that was a misjudgment, and that its top Muslim staffer would not have attended the meeting if she had known the full participant list beforehand.

“Would a campaign staffer have attended if they were aware of the complete list of attendees? No,” said Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt in an email statement to NBC.

The Muslim outreach meeting
On September 15, newly named Muslim outreach director Minha Husaini spoke to a small group of Muslim leaders and potential Obama supporters at a hotel in Springfield, Virginia, several meeting participants and the campaign said. Two other Obama-affiliated Democratic Party workers joined Husaini and also spoke to the crowd. Some Virginia and Washington, D.C.-based Muslim activists and interested citizens attended, and flyers were passed out from “Arab Americans for Obama” stating Sen. Obama’s goals for achieving peace in the Middle East, protecting the civil liberties of Arab Americans and ending the war in Iraq.

Several participants told NBC News that Husaini and other speakers delivered a standard Obama campaign pitch. “They said, ‘We’re here to get the concerns of Muslim voters and let everyone know that the Obama campaign does want the support of the Muslim community,’ ” recalled one participant, who requested anonymity. The meeting was not advertised and some attendees got text phone messages notifying them that day of the meeting’s location, the participant said.

Nearly a month later, the meeting is drawing controversy--and not because of anything said at the meeting itself.

The attendees
One meeting attendee was Mahdi Bray of the Muslim American Society, several of the participants said. The MAS website describes Bray as an imam and “long time civil and human rights activist.” Bray’s critics say he has a history of defending terrorists. They point to a video of Bray at a rally in 2000, for example, in which he can be seen pumping his fist in the air in support of the terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah. In a 2004 interview, he called the Israeli assassination of a Hamas spiritual leader an “unlawful, cowardly and dangerous act of state-sponsored terrorism.” Bray did not return a call requesting comment.

Also attending the meeting was Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. CAIR is a Muslim-American civil rights group that has, as its website states, “consistently and persistently condemned terrorism and the killing of innocent civilians.” Nonetheless, the group has many critics, especially in law-enforcement circles, and is an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land Foundation terrorism financing case.

In an interview on Thursday, CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper said that the group has filed a legal brief seeking to have its name removed from the list of unindicted co-conspirators in the federal terror case. “Obviously we see it as politically motivated and a cheap way to stigmatize” CAIR and other Muslim groups, Hooper said.

Hooper said that CAIR has consistently condemned “every act of terrorism” by groups including Hamas and Hezbollah. But he would not answer whether CAIR condemns those designated terrorist groups themselves. “I’ve already answered your questions,” he said, and abruptly ended the interview. Nihad Awad, the executive director, did not return a call seeking comment.

"Political liability"
A second meeting participant speaking on condition on anonymity said he was stunned to learn that Awad and Bray had been invited to an event where Obama representatives would be present. The participant said Awad and Bray are considered politically “radioactive.” He said that some in the Obama group knew ahead of time that top CAIR officials would be in attendance--an allegation the Obama campaign disputes.

“Yes, when I knew they were coming it made me uncomfortable,” the attendee said. “There was some hope it wouldn’t get out” into the media, the attendee added. “There was some concern within the Obama camp that some of these people coming may be a political liability.”

Chicago-based lawyer Mazen Asbahi also attended the meeting. He is the Obama campaign’s former Muslim outreach coordinator, who abruptly resigned in August after the Wall Street Journal and websites that track fundamentalist Islam began questioning Asbahi’s involvement in an Islamic investment fund and various Islamic groups. When reached by NBC News, Asbahi would not comment about the September gathering or his brief stint eight years ago on an investment fund board which also included a fundamentalist imam.

When informed that Asbahi had attended the recent meeting, an Obama spokesman said: “Mazen Asbahi resigned from his role as the campaign’s Muslim American outreach coordinator and was replaced--he is not an employee of the campaign and does not speak on behalf of the campaign.”

The Obama campaign has been delicately trying to court Muslim American voters in key battleground states while simultaneously knocking down Internet rumors that attempt to link the presidential candidate to radical Islam. Sen. Obama is a Christian.

Obama campaign reaction
The Obama campaign would not allow NBC News to interview its Muslim outreach director, Minha Husaini. It issued a statement explaining that she was not a meeting organizer. “Our campaign has an interfaith outreach organization that is equipping people of faith with the tools they need to educate their friends and family members about Senator Obama’s plans to bring the change we need,” the statement said. “This meeting was not organized by the campaign--our outreach staff attends many meetings in the course of each day, and they accepted an invitation from community leaders to attend.”

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