Being a Muslim Republican in these rhetorically charged times requires a mix of optimism and a certain detachment from religious-based attacks.
One could be forgiven for wondering how any Muslim could support a party in which a broad swath of voters support candidates who are explicitly anti-Islam. Republican presidential frontrunners Donald Trump and Ben Carson, who together garner the support of nearly half the Republican primary vote, have both questioned the patriotism of American Muslims on numerous occasions.
Carson has said that Muslims have “different loyalties” that disqualifies them from high office, while Trump—just this month—has said he would create a U.S. Muslim database, has expressed an openness to closing mosques, and has accused “thousands” of Muslim Americans of cheering the attacks on 9/11.
And rather than feeling blowback from anti-Muslim comments, both Trump and Carson appear to be benefiting from the populist animosity that they’re stirring up among the GOP base.
“Maybe I’m naïve,” acknowledged Saba Ahmed, the president of the Republican Muslim Coalition, an organization that was founded this year. “But I am hopeful about the Republican Party… one person at a time, you change hearts and minds.”
And others just try to drown out the noise.
“Perhaps it is a coping mechanism, but I do not let the absurd views bother me,” said Asma Hasan, a lawyer and lifelong Republican. “A lot of these things don’t scare me. If you burn a Quran it doesn’t affect my ability to practice my religion. I don’t like it, but it’s not going to change my faithfulness.”
Ahmed, who appeared recently on Fox News in an American flag hijab, said that Islamic principles and Republican Party principles often align, but that the GOP has created a “hostile environment” for Muslims. But, still, she says, the two groups could be reconciled to one another.
“I do it for the sake of God. Serving God in Islam requires me to reach out to people who differ from me,” she said. “My Islamic values align with the Republican Party platform: the pro-life, pro-traditional family values, pro-trade, pro-business policies that Islam really encourages.”
Ahmed added, regarding Republican politicians, “They go to churches and synagogues all the time—why can’t they visit a mosque? I doubt Donald Trump or Carson have ever attended a Friday prayer session… it would help them get votes and they’ll get educated about Islam in the process… That’s why we will be working hard to change that.”
The Republican Party has shifted dramatically in its rhetoric on Islam since the days of President George W. Bush. After the 2001 terrorist attacks, Bush went out of his way to condemn anti-Muslim bigotry.
“Its teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah. The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself. The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends,” the president said just days after the 9/11 attacks.
Suhail Khan, a former Bush official and a longtime conservative activist, said that Bush had a credibility to speak to conservatives and evangelical Christians that President Barack Obama lacks.
“George W. Bush was very vocal, both in word and deed, in standing up against [anti-Muslim] bigotry,” Khan said. “[Obama] can’t speak to the audiences who are engaging about this [anti-Muslim] conversation today.”
And as for the Republican leaders who are standing up for American Muslims today, “they don’t have a stature or profile of a sitting president” like Bush had.
But since George W. Bush left office, the support from the American Muslim community—which stands at a population of 2.8 million—has dwindled. Subsequent Republican nominees have suffered among this group on the national level: In 2008 just 2 percent of Muslim Americans backed Sen. John McCain. In 2012, a mere 4.4 percent of Muslim Americans voted for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
“When I see this rhetoric on TV, it makes me sad—because it takes away from the brand of America. When we say this stuff out loud, we’re letting these extremists win. They’re celebrating… they want to hear that this is an adversarial contest between two groups,” said Akir Khan, who teaches at a university in North Carolina and was a Bush Muslim community liaison in the 2004 Bush presidential campaign. “Donald Trump and Ben Carson don’t speak for me.”
One of those who split with the GOP in the post-Bush years is Miguel Ali, who ran twice for the party in the state of Colorado: once for state House, and a second time for statewide office.
“I became a Republican because the Party believes in liberty and free markets… What I noticed though is that the GOP increasingly institutionalized security over liberty, which was most seen in its policies towards immigration, as well as the constant support of the Patriot Act,” Ali told The Daily Beast. “The GOP under George W. Bush was not perfect either, but it was headed in the right direction, considering that it was pro-immigration and pro-liberty towards most parties.”
For now, Muslim Republicans have little more than optimism to lean on. As the airwaves are saturated with the latest anti-Muslim ravings from Trump and Carson, those who count themselves amongst the GOP’s Islamic adherents are trying to keep their chins up about the eventual outcome.
“If past is prologue, the GOP will nominate a much more responsible, mainstream nominee” than Carson or Trump, Khan said. “I’m confident that America is better than that, even if some may respond to [anti-Muslim sentiment] in the short term.”