Vanessa Alikhan was at a Democratic ''unity party'' when she overheard another guest indignantly refute the rumor that Barack Obama is Muslim, as if it were a racial slur. She later recounted the conversation to a friend.
''She told me that this is politics and that I should just deal with it,'' said Alikhan, a Fort Lauderdale graphic artist who converted to Islam about five years ago. ''To me this is the same as telling an African American or a Jewish person they should deal with discrimination because people aren't ready to embrace them as a group.''
She and other American Muslims are speaking out, as the Obama campaign pushes back on widely e-mailed and patently false claims that he is tied to Islamic terrorists. The rumor could be particularly damaging in a must-win state like Florida, which has a large Jewish population.
Determined not to be ''swift-boated'' the way 2004 nominee John Kerry was buried by attacks on his military record, the Obama campaign has set up the website www.fightthesmears.com. While Muslim leaders understand the campaign's responsibility to counter misinformation, they say the classification of being Muslim as a ''smear'' goes too far.
Their outrage peaked when the Obama campaign asked two women wearing head scarves to move away from the candidate -- and the television cameras -- at a rally last month in Detroit. Obama personally apologized to the women, but the incident reflected the difficulties of balancing hard-nosed political calculations with the campaign's overall message of change and unity.
''The truth is Obama has both set the record straight about his religious upbringing, background and faith -- and spoken out against efforts to marginalize Muslims,'' said Obama campaign spokesman Josh Earnest.
'I'M NOT A MUSLIM'
He pointed to Obama's interview with CBS' 60 Minutes, in which he said, ''I have never been a Muslim. I'm not a Muslim. These e-mails are obviously not just offensive to me, somebody who is a devout Christian, who's been going to the same church for the last 20 years, but it's also offensive to Muslims, because it plays into, obviously, a certain fear-mongering there.''
But some Muslim leaders said Obama needs to do more to make it clear that he welcomes their support in his campaign. Though he's spoken at many churches and synagogues -- including a conservative congregation in Boca Raton -- he has never visited a mosque, said Altaf Ali, executive director of the South Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. There are between 200,000 and 400,000 Muslims in Florida and about seven million nationwide.
The Muslim community saw little outreach from presidential candidates until 2000, when Republican George Bush successfully enlisted Muslim donors and included mosques in his proposal for government partnering with religious institutions. But since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, many American Muslims say they are treated with suspicion.
''Since 9/11, our community has been portrayed as inherently evil, and what Obama is doing is adding to the negative stereotype,'' Ali said. ''His message is about change, and he has to appeal to every minority group.'' (MORE)