White House gets tied up in turbans

President Obama can obviously stage photo-ops wherever he wants, but if the White House really did choose to scratch the Golden Temple at Amritsar off the president’s itinerary for India because he would have to cover his head, that’s pretty disappointing:  Temple officials said that American advance teams had gone to Amritsar, the holy city ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
NARINDER NANU/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama can obviously stage photo-ops wherever he wants, but if the White House really did choose to scratch the Golden Temple at Amritsar off the president's itinerary for India because he would have to cover his head, that's pretty disappointing: 

Temple officials said that American advance teams had gone to Amritsar, the holy city that is the site of the temple, to discuss a possible visit. But the plan appears to have foundered on the thorny question of how Mr. Obama would cover his head, as Sikh tradition requires, while visiting the temple.

“To come to golden temple he needs to cover his head,” said Dalmegh Singh, secretary of the committee that runs the temple. “That is our tradition.”

President Obama can obviously stage photo-ops wherever he wants, but if the White House really did choose to scratch the Golden Temple at Amritsar off the president’s itinerary for India because he would have to cover his head, that’s pretty disappointing: 

Temple officials said that American advance teams had gone to Amritsar, the holy city that is the site of the temple, to discuss a possible visit. But the plan appears to have foundered on the thorny question of how Mr. Obama would cover his head, as Sikh tradition requires, while visiting the temple.

“To come to golden temple he needs to cover his head,” said Dalmegh Singh, secretary of the committee that runs the temple. “That is our tradition.”

Mr. Obama, a Christian, has struggled to fend off persistent rumors that he is a Muslim, and Sikhs in the United States have often been mistaken for Muslims.

First of all, as a Sikh lawyer  quoted in the Times piece points out, "the White House is conveying the message that there is no difference between Muslims and Sikhs.”

But moreover, I don’t think the White House is really doing Obama any favors here. I understand why Obama’s communications team wouldn’t be too thrilled about their boss appearing in some vaguely Muslim-looking head-covering at the top of the Drudge Report. But this story is arguably worse — Obama’s supporters will be disappointed that he’s pandering to conspiracy theorists and the conspiracy theorists will smell a cover-up. The advanced team’s reported proposed solution to the problem — having Obama wear a "modified baseball cap" would have just drawn attention to the issue as well. 

It’s certainly worrying that one fifth of Americans believe Obama is a Muslim, but I think the White House is making a mistake by thinking this is something they can combat through careful image control. According to Pew, more Americans now believe Obama is a Muslim than when he took office. This probably has less to do with him acting all Muslimy for the last two years than the fact that there’s broad overlap between the virulently anti-Islam and virulently anti-Obama segments of the population. Obama could put up a cross the size of Big Ben on top of the White House and name Rick Warren vice president and I doubt it would really convince anyone who still believes he’s a stealth jihadist. 

All presidents are dogged by persistent conspiracy theories, whether its George W. Bush plotting 9/11 or Bill Clinton ordering Vince Foster’s murder. Most of those who believe Obama is a Muslim are probably never going to support him anyway so it would be nice if the president didn’t let them keep him from going where he wants and not making people who wear turbans feel like they’re an embarassment. 

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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