WHEAT RIDGE, COLORADO // In the latest twist to the long-brewing conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was born outside the United States, a car dealership owner has erected a controversial billboard portraying the US president in a turban. "President or Jihad?" the billboard reads. "Wake up America! Remember Ft Hood!" The sign towers over a busy stretch of Colorado highway, where it has attracted national media attention, sparked protests and a boycott, as well as a rash of threats against Phil Wolf, who designed the sign and put it up.
"We have already had a thousand phone calls minimum," Mr Wolf said in an interview at Wolf Automotive. "We've had death threats. We had people say they were going to firebomb the place. It's been beyond what I expected." But for some Americans, the sign went beyond what was acceptable, touching a bundle of nerves in this multi-ethnic nation, and playing off the recent shooting spree at Fort Hood that left 13 service members dead. The army psychiatrist charged in the Texas rampage is Nidal Malik Hasan, an American-born Muslim.
"After I saw the sign on the local news, I couldn't sleep at all," said Maggie Couch, who travelled from nearby Aurora, Colorado, to protest the billboard. "I am saddened and horrified by this message." Liberal organisations, including Moveon.org and Progress Now Colorado, responded by calling for a boycott of Mr Wolf's four car dealerships in Colorado, Wyoming and Montana. "It's hateful. It's racist. It's outrageous," Progress Now spokesman Bobby Clark told the Denver Post.
On the other side of the political divide, right-wing talk show hosts swung to Mr Wolf's defence, saying this was just another sign that many Americans continue to question whether Mr Obama is a natural born citizen, a requirement under the US Constitution to hold the nation's highest office. The notion that Mr Obama was secretly born in his father's homeland Kenya, and later smuggled into the United States by his American-born mother, began during the presidential campaign. That rumour - and others like it - was spread by right-wing activists and leading conservative talk show hosts.
At the heart of the supposed conspiracy is Mr Obama's failure to produce an original paper version of his birth certificate. The state of Hawaii, where Mr Obama was born, digitalised its original records several years back and now provides just a printout of the electronic record. Months ago, Hawaii's health director and state governor verified that Mr Obama was born in a Honolulu hospital in 1961, saying they had personally reviewed the original vital documents. As well, two Honolulu newspapers ran his birth announcement the day after he was born.
However, that apparently has not been enough for people such as Mr Wolf and the prominent right-wing radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, who has told listeners that Mr Obama "has yet to prove he's a citizen". Critics describe the "birther" movement as thinly veiled bigotry, and a not-so-subtle effort to play up the fact that Mr Obama's late father was a Muslim African. "To slander and libel and malign our good president is wrong," said Ms Couch. "My heart hurts to say it, but this is racism."
"It's very divisive," added Mary Schaeffer, who stood outside Wolf Automotive with her mother Ann holding a banner that read "Hate Doesn't Help". Mr Wolf, meanwhile, insisted he was not a racist, saying he was married to a Latino woman and that he supported African-American politicians who were conservatives. "In terms of the direction of the country, this is simply a question of right and wrong," Mr Wolf said. "We have got to retake our country, and the election. This guy is illegal."
At one point, the flood of threatening phone calls to his dealership became so great that Wheat Ridge police had to dispatch a squad car to guard the billboard overnight. Still, Mr Wolf insists he has had more calls of support than nasty threats. And while he expects to lose some business because of the stand he is taking, he has also had people call in from around the country saying they will drive to Wheat Ridge especially to buy a car from him.
Mr Wolf criticised Mr Obama for "running around the globe apologising for America", but said he decided to plunk down the US$2,500 (Dh9,200) it cost to make the billboard only after seeing Mr Obama's response to the November 5 Fort Hood killings. "The cavalier attitude taken by Mr Obama towards the enemy within us was absolutely horrible," Mr Wolf declared, adding, in an apparent reference to Mr Hasan, that: "If I had a snake in the house, I would kill it."
Major Hasan, who has been charged with 13 counts of premeditated murder, does face a possible death penalty if convicted by a US court. firstname.lastname@example.org * With additional reporting by John Moore