Friday, October 22, 2010

Obama may skip temple over headscarf concerns

Obama may skip temple over headscarf concerns

Ravi Velloor
The Straits Times
Publication Date : 21-10-2010

Should United States President Barack Obama, whose middle name is Hussein, wear a headscarf that may convey the impression that he is Muslim, when he is not?

Obama, who is visiting India early next month, looks set to cancel a trip to the Sikh holy city of Amritsar for that reason. Instead, he will stay overnight at the Mumbai hotel that bore the brunt of the November 2008 terrorist attacks before flying directly to New Delhi for a trip that, some officials say, still lacks a "big idea".

His trip to India would be his longest overseas stay in a single country since taking office. Amritsar, in India's Punjab state, is the seat of the Golden Temple, Sikhism's holiest shrine. Obama had marked out the temple visit as one of the high points of the trip.

However, a clash of opinion within his camp about the headgear that is compulsorily worn around the shrine has led to second guessing about the trip, according to Indian and Western officials.

"As of now, the visit to Amritsar seems unlikely," said an American official. "But pressure is also building on the President from the Sikh community and we hear some religious leaders are saying it is OK for him to wear a baseball cap. So, let's see."

His aides are concerned that photos of Obama with his head covered would revive claims in the US that he is a closet Muslim.

Sikhs in America have often been confused for Muslims because of their elaborate turbans. In the months after the 9/11 attacks on the US, some Sikhs were the targets of drive-by shootings by Americans who did not know how to differentiate between the two communities.

Since his elevation to the presidency, Obama has tried to open bridges to the vibrant Sikh community, even celebrating the birthday of Guru Nanak, Sikhism's founder, at the White House.

It now looks like Obama will start his trip in Mumbai, staying overnight at the historic Old Wing of the Taj Mahal Hotel, much of which was damaged in the terror attack on Mumbai. He also may visit Chabad House, a Jewish centre not far from the hotel, which was also attacked.

A meeting with top Indian businessmen has been scheduled in Mumbai and organisers have reportedly needled people there by trying to weed out entrepreneurs with links to the outsourcing industry. Mr Obama's repeated attacks on US companies that farm out work to India have been a point of irritation here, although it is recognised that a lot of this is driven by domestic political concerns.

Likewise, India is also angered by reports that the US is set to funnel as much as US$2 billion in extra money to Pakistan, to aid its fight against the Taliban.

Pre-trip planning for the talks in New Delhi with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have focused on Indian demands for the US to loosen curbs on high technology transfers and unqualified US support for a permanent seat for India at the United Nations Security Council.

The US wants to press India to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

"Both sides are looking for ways to protect the substantial political investment in the relationship," said Kanwal Sibal, a former Indian foreign secretary. "Expectations from the trip though are a bit muted."

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