The plight of Muslim Republicans in the Trump era

Muslim Republican

Illustration by J. Longo (Licensed)

Muslim Republicans have worked decades for greater inclusion in the GOP. Now some are questioning their party’s future.

Saba Ahmed had spent months working diligently to educate the 2016 Republican presidential candidates about the basics of Islam when the call came.

As the founder of the Republican Muslim Coalition, Ahmed's goal is to serve as the link between the GOP and American Muslims. In November, she was booked on Fox News, as she had been a number of times in the past, to discuss the 2016 election, just after Donald Trump claimed he’d shutter American mosques if he became president. But it wasn't her message that went massively viral: It was her American flag hijab—a bold, definitive statement in prime time that signified her belief that her religion shouldn’t be defined by violent extremists.  

“[The flag] was just an indication of my patriotism and hopefully that message got across that Muslims can be very patriotic,” she says. “I was trying to show that we can all be productive citizens and hopefully defend our faith in the media.”

In many ways, Ahmed's attire on Fox News shouldn't have come as a surprise. Muslims can be as aggressively patriotic as everyone else, and as recently at the 2000 election, Republicans were attracting 70 percent of the Muslim American vote. 

“Islamic values are very much traditional family values: pro-life, pro-marriage, pro-traditional family values, pro-business, pro-trade,” says Ahmed, a Pakistani-American patent attorney, whose failed congressional run in 2011 helped her realize her interpretation of her Islamic faith was incompatible with the platform of the modern Democratic Party. “Things that are important to our community are very much Republican values.”

In a matter of months, however, the inflammatory rhetoric of Trump and other GOP candidates has undone years of work by Muslims like Ahmed to repair the damage the Republican Party's post-9/11 actions have done to its brand among American Muslims. A survey by the Council on American-Islamic Relations shows only 11 percent of American Muslims identify as Republicans. Even among Muslims who label themselves conservative, just over two-thirds say they belong to, or lean toward, the Democratic party.

Anti-Muslims sentiment is nothing new in the Republican party. But with his nativist rhetoric, proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the country, and a willingness to entertain the idea of mandatory ID cards for Muslims, Trump is forging a future of the Republican Party that categorically excludes Muslims.

For many American Muslims whose political identities have become deeply intertwined with the GOP, the threat posed by Trump borders on the existential.

Muslims in the Reagan era

Sherine El-Abd has been a Republican activist for three decades. Her conversion from being a Democrat shows how, in the mid-1980s, the GOP was, in many ways, the more welcoming party to people who shared her faith.

“Islamic values are very much traditional family values: pro-life, pro-marriage, pro-traditional family values, pro-business, pro-trade.”

El-Abd had just moved to the U.S. in 1984, at age 18, from her native Egypt and was excited to volunteer on Walter Mondale's presidential campaign. She was cleaning up after hosting a fundraising house party when she heard the news. The former Democratic vice president announced he was returning donations from a prominent Arab-American organization.

“He did not want to be blemished by taking money from Arab-Americans, as if Arab-Americans are not Americans,” El-Abd recalls, 32 years later, with a twinge of anger in her voice. “So I said, ‘All right, I'm going to work for the other side and I'm going to make sure [Ronald Reagan] wins, because I will not have people from my community ignored and overlooked.’”

Sherine El-Abd at a 2011 event New Jersey Federation of Republican Women Follow

Sherine El-Abd at a 2011 event New Jersey Federation of Republican Women Follow NJFRW/Flickr

The Reagan campaign couldn't have found a more dedicated volunteer. El-Abd raised money, made phone calls, and stuffed envelopes. She did everything she could to get her community to turn out for the Reagan revolution. Decades later, El-Abd is still a loyal Republican; she was appointed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to be the superintendent of elections in Passaic County.

The Reagan era brought a generation of activists like El-Abd into the GOP fold. George Salem was working at a law firm in a labor lawyer in 1984 when he was recruited to run the campaign's “ethnic voters” division. Working under famed campaign manager Lee Atwater, Salem managed over 100,000 volunteers across 36 states—including the first Arab-American committee in presidential campaign in history.

Pres. Ronald Reagan (left) and George Salem (right), circa 1984

Pres. Ronald Reagan (left) and George Salem (right), circa 1984 George Salem

“Before the 1984 campaign, occasionally you'd see a Lebanese committee in a presidential campaign. Occasionally you would have Syrian. But you never had Arab-Americans, and you certainly never had anything like Palestinian-Americans or Egyptian-Americans,” says Salem, who is Palestinian-American. “But we got Arab-Americans, and that encompassed everybody. It's been that way pretty much ever since.”

After the election, Salem became the Department of Labor’s top lawyer and the first Palestinian-American ever confirmed by the Senate. While he never worked full-time again on a presidential campaign, he continued volunteering his services to the party by chairing the Arab-American committees for both of George H. W. Bush's presidential efforts, accompanying Bush on visits to mosques and on meetings with prominent community members around the country.

During George W. Bush's 2000 campaign, the GOP's outreach turned a corner. Bush strategist Karl Rove directed efforts specifically to Muslims, the first time the outreach was based on religion and not just ethnicity.

Both El-Abd and Salem were active on the 2000 Bush campaign. The former frequently acted as a campaign surrogate at events in New Jersey, and the latter advised the then-Texas governor throughout the campaign. “[Bush] respected the religious dimension of the community,” Salem says. “He respected our values, which are very much in keeping with the Republican values of hard work, economic opportunity, religious freedom, and making it on your own without a lot of government interference.”

Bush may have only won the election by the width of a Supreme Court justice's robe, but he took the Muslim vote by a landslide. Yet, by the end of Bush's eight years in office, he had lost the community entirely—despite making a personal plea to not conflate everyday Americans with terrorism, most notably in a speech six days after the 9/11 attacks at the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C.  

“If Trump becomes the nominee, we all have to think twice. Are we going to continue to be Republicans?”

In 2008, just 2.2 percent of Muslims voted for his Republican successor, Arizona Sen. John McCain, and a mere 4.4 percent pulled the lever for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney four years later.

After 9/11, the Bush administration enacted a host of controversial programs—such as NSEERS, a largely forgotten program that forced immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries to register with the government and give periodic updates on their locations—and invaded Iraq to remove nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. As the party rallied around Bush, initially to electoral success, Muslims fled the GOP's big tent in droves.

'Fear sells'

David Ramadan first fell in love with American democracy as a teenager reading the Constitution in Beirut amid the destruction caused by the Lebanese Civil War. Within two weeks of moving to the Unites States in 1989, he was volunteering on the Bush-Quayle campaign. Over the years, his involvement progressed: licking envelopes, answering phones, making $25 donations—and gradually adding zeroes to that number. Decades later, Ramadan was personally advising GOP candidates in his adopted home of Virginia.

In 2012, Ramadan ran for the Virginia House of Delegates as a Republican. Despite his more than two decades of activism in the party, Ramadan's opponent made his ethnicity an issue. Anti-Islam activist Frank Gaffney, who is advising the Trump campaign on foreign policy, came to his district to personally protest a Muslim running as a Republican.

“Because of my last name, I was accused of being a terrorist and Sharia guy who was in the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas and Hezbollah,” Ramadan says. “Anybody with even a passing understanding of the Middle East knows that nobody could be in all three of those groups at the same time.”

With support from prominent Republicans like former Reagan administration Attorney General Edwin Meese and Eric Cantor, then-majority leader of the Virginia House, Ramadan won to become the only first-generation Arab-American ever elected to the body.

Ramadan sees a parallel between Trump's rhetoric on Muslims and the attacks he saw while first running for office: preying upon people's ignorance-based fears for short-term political or financial gain. “Fear sells. Rational things don't,” he says. “Campaigns want to win today, at any cost. They're not worried about the long-term effects. That's what we see when we have people like Trump who, in my mind, are not truly Republicans.”

“Because of my last name, I was accused of being a terrorist and Sharia guy who was in the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas and Hezbollah.”

There’s also been a larger shift in the GOP’s focus. In 2012, after Mitt Romney lost the presidential race, the GOP released an autopsy report that detailed what the party should do to win the next election cycle. “You look at that report, and it talks about the need to reach out to Asians, Latinos, and African-Americans,” explained Robert McCaw, who runs government affairs at the nonprofit Council on American-Islamic Relations. “Nowhere in that report does it mention Arab communities, South Asian communities, or Muslim communities. We're not even part of their new strategy.”

McCaw contrasts this attitude to that of Democratic Party leaders, many of whom have made outreach to Muslims a priority. “We've made gestures as a community to the Republican party to address Islamophobia. We've made the same efforts to the Democratic Party. As a community, letters were sent to [Republican National Committee Chair Reince] Priebus and [Democratic National Committee Chair] Debbie Wasserman Schultz,” McCaw says. “Only Schultz responded. There's a willingness in the Democratic Party to engage Muslims.”

The 2016 election’s Islamophobic tone actually began with former neurosurgeon and GOP presidential hopeful Ben Carson. Shortly after Trump first went negative on Muslims, Carson said in an interview with NBC News that being Muslim should disqualify someone from serving as president. Carson's statement seemed to help his poll numbers, and a few weeks later, Trump upped the ante with a proposal to block all Muslims from entering the country.

Some of Trump's rivals for the GOP nomination—particularly those, as Salem notes, with executive experience, such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich—have, to a degree, pushed back against Islamophobic rhetoric. Trump has instead pushed the boundaries of what type of political speech is acceptable.

“If you go back to the 2008 or 2012 election, any of the statements that Trump has made about Muslims, or that Ben Carson has made, would disqualify a candidate from running,” McCaw says. “When you look at the negative comments made by Newt Gingrich, Michelle Banach, or Herman Cain about Muslims, it got them into hot water. They were dragged through the mud, and it was a message to other candidates.”

It's a cycle that feeds on itself, becoming more extreme and seeping into the general public. McCaw argues this type of political language is responsible for a spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes after last year's deadly terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California. “I hate drawing this parallel, but after the Boston bombing, which was a tragic and horrendous event, we saw unity and solidarity between Muslims and their fellow American citizens,” McCaw says. “We didn't see this type of post-Paris, post-San Bernardino backlash that we saw in 2015. What's the difference between the bombing in 2013 and the attacks of 2015? It's the election. It's candidates tapping into fringe views and making them mainstream.”

A party divided

Trump's views on Muslims resonate with many Republicans. Exit polls in five Super Tuesday states showed over 60 percent of GOP voters agreed with his Muslim ban proposal. But Trump's presence at the top of the ticket could be an electoral disaster. If nominated, not only does veteran political analyst Larry Sabato predict Trump losing in a 179 electoral vote landslide,  Trump would be, by a wide margin, the most unpopular general election candidate put forward by a major party in generations—especially with groups like non-whites, college graduates, and independents.

“If you go back to the 2008 or 2012 election, any of the statements that Trump has made about Muslims would disqualify a candidate from running.”

“[Trump's] actions and words are absolutely dangerous for America,” Ramadan say. “They're going to ruin all of the engagement and inclusion work that we conservatives in the party have done over the years. It's not something that's ruining it for one election period. It's ruining it for decades to come.”

For nearly three decades, Ramadan has fought from within the GOP for greater inclusion of minorities. With the rise of Trump, Ramadan is starting to doubt himself. Maybe the strategy for conservatives like him is to step away from the GOP and insist the party come to them if it wants their votes. “If Trump becomes the nominee, we all have to think twice. Are we going to continue to be Republicans?” he asks, rhetorically. “And, again, [will we] fight for another 10 years to change the direction of the party, or are we going to walk away to be the conservatives that we are under a different umbrella?”

Others see Trump's success selling hate to a fearful public as nothing more than a phase. Salem likens it to a pendulum. In 1984, a Democratic candidate was returning donations from Arab-American groups; in 2016, a Republican candidate was advocating for not letting Muslims into the country. “The goal is that, at some point, the pendulum will stop swinging vastly one way or vastly another. It will just stay in the middle,” Salem says. “Then we can be just like the Italian-Americans and Greek-Americans and all of the other recognized and respected ethic political constituencies and be respected for who we are.”

Illustration by J. Longo

El-Abd likens Trump to the terrorists who the real estate heir turned reality TV star is so concerned with stopping he's willing to paint the world's 1.6 billion Muslims with the same broad brush.

“I equate it to when people talk about the so-called Muslims who are conducting radical terrorist acts,” she explains. “It hasn't distanced me from my faith because I know that's not what my faith is.”

Even a Trump victory on an explicitly Islamophobic platform, as distasteful as it may be, wouldn't be enough to drive El-Abd out of the GOP any more than the brutality of ISIS could make her not want to be a Muslim.  “What’s going on right now with some people who call themselves Republicans will never distance me from the Republican platform,” she says. “It will make me determined to hang in there, good and strong, to get the party back to where it should be.”

Ahmed, for her part, actually sees much in Trump to admire. She likes his economic policies and appreciates his business background. “At the same time, it's sad to see his anti-Muslim rhetoric,” she says with a sigh. “Every week we get to hear something new that he comes up with, and I feel like it actually helps his candidacy. He moved up 11 points when he made the Muslim ban remark. It's sad to see that the climate in America rewards such behavior.”

The Republican Muslim Coalition’s goal is to help the Republican presidential candidates understand Islam. To that end, she’s met with all of the race’s leading candidates, save for Trump. After months of trying, Ahmed finally got on the phone with former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. She used the conversation to invite Trump to visit a mosque and meet with some Muslims Americans in person.

“They didn't say no, but they said that they'll keep it on the table and perhaps meet with the Muslim American community at some point,” Ahmed says, “but just maybe not right now.”

She’s still waiting.

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