American Muslims and the Republican Party were once two peas in a pod. As odd as that statement may seem, given contemporary politics, it’s a fact that when George W. Bush first ran for president, he won, by one estimate, almost four out of five Muslim votes. Among Arab-Americans, the margin was narrower, but Bush still defeated Gore by 7.5 percentage points.
Bush aggressively campaigned for Muslim votes, and some in the conservative coalition even credited Muslims with his razor-thin victory. Writing in The American Spectator, tax-lowering activist Grover Norquist bragged, “George W. Bush was elected President of the United States of America because of the Muslim vote.”
But by 2008, the winds had changed, with nearly 90 percent of American Muslims casting votes for then-candidate Barack Obama. The shift from voting mostly Republican to voting mostly Democratic marked one of the sharpest and fastest political re-orientations in our country’s recent history. Although this transition has not been thoroughly studied, the Iraq War is widely considered to be the greatest cause.
As Muslims have exited the Republican Party, the GOP’s willingness to court them has seemingly evaporated as well. In 2017, President Trump ended two decades of tradition by declining to host a White House iftar, a meal Muslims traditionally have after a day’s fast during the month of Ramadan. (This year, he reversed himself and hosted one.)
Battling Imagined Ties to Extremism
While it was once common for Muslims to run for office as Republicans, now doing so almost always comes with accusations of extremism. For instance, when Omar Qudrat, a former Pentagon prosecutor ran for Congress as a Republican in California’s 52nd Congressional District, he was instantly hit with accusations from some on the far-right that he was tied to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Qudrat did an interview with Breitbart to dispel this myth, but a quick perusal of the comments shows that many of the readers simply remained unconvinced. (The top-voted comment asserts that Muslims are “trained from birth to lie to Infidels.”)
This souring of conservative attitudes toward Islam is seen in polling, too. In 2002, 51 percent of self-described Republicans told Pew that Islam is more likely to encourage violence than other religions, while 48 percent disagreed––just a year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. By 2017, 65 percent of Republicans agreed with this statement while a mere 27 percent disagreed. Meanwhile, Democrats polarized the other way. In 2002, 40 percent believed Islam was more likely to encourage violence than other religions; by 2017, this had dropped to 25 percent.
American Muslims––who tend to be religious, family-oriented, and more socially conservative than many non-Muslims––were once natural allies with the Republican Party. The question is whether they can ever be again. A battle raging in Texas’s Tarrant County Republican Party may provide an answer.
A Devout Muslim and a Devout Republican
Tarrant County, which encapsulates much of Fort Worth, is one of the most populated GOP-leaning counties in the country, with around 2 million residents. It’s the third-most populous county in all of Texas, with close proximity to the entire Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area. The county includes sprawling suburbs and is dealing with rapid development––land is cheap and jobs are plenty. With growing diversification, it also faces changing politics.
Only once in the past half-century has the county gone to a Democratic president––Texas’s own Lyndon Johnson in 1964. But its changing political and social demographics have moved the county into swing territory. In the most recent U.S. Senate election, Democratic newcomer and recent golden boy Beto O’Rourke won the county.
Some Republicans have responded to the changes in Tarrant by asserting that the party should be more diverse and reflect the changes occurring throughout the country. This past August, Tarrant GOP chair Darl Easton appointed Shahid Shafi to a vice chair position.
Shafi is a devout Muslim, and a devout Republican. He became a U.S. citizen in 2009 and a Republican Party activist shortly thereafter. He’s a strong supporter of the Second Amendment, and backs most of the party’s emblematic stances on other issues.
But a faction of the Tarrant GOP wants to unseat Shafi, fearful that he favors imposing Islamic law. Precinct chairs Dale Attebery and Dorrie O’Brien are leading a campaign to unseat Shafi and other GOP committee members they view as his allies. A vote on committee positions is tentatively scheduled for January 10. They are also organizing a December 29 party featuring ex-FBI agent John Guandolo, who consults with law enforcement about Muslim extremism. Critics charge he has blurred the lines between ordinary Muslims and terrorists.
In an email sent to party members, Attebery justified the training, offering several reasons why “we need to know the truth” before the leadership election. One of those reasons is that because “we are losing Tarrant County; just like Dearborn, MI, was lost,” referring to the Michigan town with a large Muslim population. Another reason offered is “Because Europe is presently falling to Islam…right now!”
In an additional internal party email I obtained, Attebery is not shy about sharing his feelings on American Muslim political involvement. “Several people have asked why all this effort as we only have 2/people who follow Islam,” he wrote in a December 2 e-mail sent to the Tarrant GOP listserv. “The answer to that question is below. After you read this, you tell me; is the U.S. going the way of Europe?”
He then linked to a blog post titled “Just How Many Muslims Won Political Office in 2018? The Numbers May Surprise You!” which lists every Muslim American who won a major electoral office in the midterm elections. The author, blogger Tim Brown, writes that it is “concerning…the high percentage of Muslims voting and their openness to promote the fact that they want to ‘change’ our culture and society.”
His email also expressed anger that previous emails of his were leaked to the media. “As a direct result of these betrayals, there is a need to protect those people who wish to attend by editing this TCGOP EC email list. What a shame it is, when you cannot trust your fellow EC member. Disappointing…!” He then went on to write, “It would appear, in my opinion, one of our own, is attempting to set up… a physical confrontation.” Attebery did not respond to a request for comment.
One of the other GOP committee members targeted by the anti-Shafi faction is Lisa AbdulKareem, a vice chairwoman responsible for recruitment for the party. AbdulKareem is not Muslim, but she is married to a Marine veteran who also happens to be Muslim. In an interview, AbdulKareem defended her vision of a pluralistic GOP.
“I believe there is a place for people of all faiths and backgrounds in the Republican Party,” she said. “The party must continue to spread its arms open and welcome diversity if it is to survive long term. Our country is changing and the party must adjust.”
No Desire to Leave the GOP
Like Shafi, AbdulKareem has no desire to leave the GOP. She is a believer in conservatism and does not think there is any conflict between her husband’s faith and her political party. She said she believes it’s necessary for Muslims and their loved ones to have conversations with skeptical Republicans.
“Understanding begins with an open mind and conversation,” she advised. “In the end people may realize that they may have more in common than they first believed.”
She described her own process of discovery with her husband. “I knew nothing of Islam and I would ask questions and we would discuss things. In the end I stayed with my faith and he with his but we respect each other’s personal choices in religion,” she said.
Guandolo, the ex-FBI agent invited to speak at the party’s upcoming meeting, does not view AdbulKareem that way. In a Facebook post, his law enforcement-training firm Understanding the Threat called her a “jihadi-defending muslim working inside” the Tarrant GOP.
AbdulKareem said that after Guandolo’s firm made the post, Shafi reached out to her and “let me know I wasn’t alone in this. I will never forget his kindness.” She told me that she wishes those against Shafi would “take the time to get to know him.”
Calling People Names Doesn’t Change Their Hearts
AbdulKareem’s confident and humble demeanor reminded me that while the Republican Party and movement conservatives have often failed to promote inclusive values, American Muslims have often failed to follow her lead and tell our own stories and assert our Americanness in the face of rising Islamic extremism elsewhere in the world.
In many ways, our social attitudes are much closer to American conservatives than they are to left-wing activists. American Muslims tend to come from family-oriented cultures, and have a lower divorce rate than the general public. They tend to be fairly religious, and patriotic to boot. Ninety-two percent say they are proud to be Americans, and despite left-leaning media coverage that portrays the United States as inhospitable to Muslims, 80 percent told pollsters in 2017 that they are satisfied with how things are going in their lives. Only a minority of both U.S.-born and immigrant Muslims identify as liberal; most are moderate or conservative.
Unfortunately, rather than explain our commonalities, many on the political left have taken to simply labeling conservatives who have reservations about Islam or skepticism about American Muslims bigots, racists, or Islamophobes. This tactic runs afoul of all of the social science literature on the topic. Calling people names and personalizing political disagreements only makes our opponents more defensive. Empathizing with them, and taking their concerns seriously, on the other hand, can change hearts and minds.
I would much rather have a conversation with American conservatives about how most ordinary Muslims hate terrorism just as much as they do. Innocent Muslims are the number one target of Muslim terrorists, who believe them to be disloyal to their perverse ideology.
And while sociopathic Islamist terrorist organizations are quick to call their members martyrs, many ordinary Muslims believe that young men like Aitzaz Hasan––a teenager in Pakistan who died preventing a suicide bomber from entering his school––to be the true martyrs of our faith. These are conversations we can have only if we stop demonizing each other and are willing to listen.
A Republican Party for Everyone
Despite the divide between American Muslims and conservatives, there are bright spots. In the first week of December, the Texas GOP’s executive committee voted 63 to 0 on a resolution to affirm Shafi’s role in the party. While the Tarrant County GOP will still face an internal election on January 10, the state party made it clear that it does not approve of removing Shafi due to his faith.
“Let’s get this done. Let’s stand as one. Let’s be as one. Let’s show everybody, this is the Republican Party of Texas. We are not the party of bigots,” J.T. Edwards, one executive committee member, said.
“I’m not sure if I’ll be able to speak fully without breaking down,” an emotional Shafi said at the meeting. “Today you have reaffirmed my faith in our party and in our country.”
Additionally, other politically influential Texans have spoken up on behalf of Shafi, including the head of the Texas Medical Association and Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, who tweeted, “I urge the Tarrant County GOP to stop this attempt to remove a hardworking county party official based on religious beliefs. We must move towards a more inclusive Republican Party and stop tearing down our own if we are to keep Texas red. “
AbdulKareem is hopeful. “True Republicans hold the Constitution above everything else,” she told me. “To do that we have to allow all races and religions to be a part of the party.”