WASHINGTON (AFP) - US Muslims are facing tough times fearful about growing suspicions of Islam amid false rumours that Democratic nominee Barack Obama is a Muslim and could have links to terrorists. The Illinois senator, who on November 4 could become the first black American elected to the White House, is Christian. But as a son of a Kenyan father and American mother, he spent his childhood in Indonesia, a predominantly Muslim nation. "Not since the election of John Kennedy (a Catholic) in 1960 has the religious faith of a US presidential candidate generated so much distortion as the false claims generated by extremist critics that Senator Barack Obama, the candidate of the Democratic Party, is a stealth Muslim," said a joint petition by some 100 Islamic scholars. "This is part of an Islamophobic hate campaign that fuels prejudice against Americans who practice their Islamic faith and Muslims worldwide," the group who themselves "concerned scholars" stressed. In September, a controversial DVD on Islam was circulated in Florida, adding fuel to the fire of the US election campaign. The video, titled "Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West" and released more than a year ago by a group called Clarion Fund, showed images of young children reciting appeals for jihad mixed with archival footage of Hitler Youths. Already stigmatised in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks, the Muslim community of the United States feels it has been ostracised during the current election campaign. "The problem is there has been so many smears against Islam and Muslims that the candidates are very reluctant now to engage with Muslims for fear of coming under attack by their opponents," said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington-based civil rights advocacy group. "That's a very disturbing situation." In June, Obama presented his apologies to two women wearing Islamic scarves who wanted to have their picture taken with the Democratic candidate but were hustled away by party activists. And just a couple of weeks ago Republican nominee John McCain was forced to step in at a rally when a member of the audience suggested Obama were an Arab. McCain scoffed at the suggestion and referred to his opponent as the father of a "decent family." "Fortunately, we have courageous individuals like Colin Powell who came up against that kind of thinking," said Hooper. But "we are hoping that public officials and public leaders in our society would take up this call to reject Islamophobia," he said. "We are still waiting for it to happen." Powell, a Republican who was a member of the administration of President George W Bush, came out recently in support of Obama's candidacy and also rejected Islamophobic attacks. "Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?" Powell asked rhetorically. "The answer's no. Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, 'He's a Muslim and he might be associated (with) terrorists.' This is not the way we should be doing it in America." But the prejudices remain strong. A president of a Republican club in New Mexico, Macia Stirman, was forced to resign recently after declaring that she could not understand why people wanted to put a Muslim to the White House. Such charges appear to have an effect at least on a small portion of the electorate. A survey by the Pew Research Centre for the People and the Press released on October 19 showed that when asked about Obama's religious beliefs, a small but consistent minority of voters, 12 percent, continue to say that the Democratic nominee is a Muslim. This percentage has changed little since September, when 13 percent said that about Obama, the survey showed.