Muslim Americans helped elect George W. Bush, but now they're leaving the Republican Party in droves. It didn't have to be this way.

BY  Suhail A. Khan who serves on the board of directors of the American Conservative Union and as chairman of the Conservative Inclusion Coalition, an organization dedicated to the political involvement of Americans of all ethnic, racial, and faith backgrounds.

I've been involved in politics for well over two decades, so you can imagine how proud I was when I learned that my newly retired mother had signed up to volunteer during the 2008 presidential primary campaign in our native California. But even though she was a longstanding Republican, it came as little surprise that the candidate for whom she was volunteering was not. After years as a GOP loyalist, my mother had come to believe that the party was hostile to her values and faith. Rather than stumping for John McCain's election effort, she told me, she was working for Barack Obama's.

My mother wasn't alone. In recent weeks, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and other prominent Republicans have loudly voiced their opposition to the proposed Cordoba House project near ground zero in lower Manhattan, fanning the flames of a protest that has since spread into a more generalized criticism of Muslim institutions in the United States. But even before this month's controversy, the exodus of Muslim Americans from the Republican Party was nearly complete. In 2008, this country's more than 7 million Muslims voted in record numbers, and nearly 90 percent of their votes went to Obama.

It wasn't always this way. Muslim Americans are, by and large, both socially and economically conservative. Sixty-one percent of them would ban abortion except to save the life of the mother; 84 percent support school choice. Muslims overwhelmingly support traditional marriage. More than a quarter — over twice the national average — are self-employed small-business owners, and most support reducing taxes and the abolition of the estate tax. By all rights they should be Republicans — and not long ago they were. American Muslims voted two to one for George H.W. Bush in 1992. While they went for Bill Clinton by the same margin in 1996, they were brought back into the Republican fold in 2000 by George W. Bush.

If Clinton was, as the author Toni Morrison once quipped, America's first black president, Bush was, at least momentarily, the country's first Muslim president. As early as 1999, he hosted a series of meetings between Muslim and Republican leaders, and paid a visit himself to an Islamic center in Michigan — the first and only major presidential candidate to do so. The 2000 Republican convention in Philadelphia was the first in either national party's history to include a Muslim prayer. On the campaign trail, Bush celebrated the faith of Americans who regularly attended a “church, synagogue, or mosque.” After Muslim community leaders told him of their civil liberties concerns over a piece of 1996 immigration enforcement legislation signed into law by Clinton, Bush criticized it himself in one of his presidential debates against Vice President Al Gore.

The work paid off. By election day, Bush had been endorsed by eight major Muslim American organizations. He won more than 70 percent of the Muslim vote, including 46,200 ballots in Florida alone, prompting longtime conservative activist Grover Norquist — one of the few prominent movement figures to caution against the current wave of mosque demagoguery — to proclaim in the American Spectator that “Bush was elected President of the United States of America because of the Muslim vote.”

The 9/11 tragedy, of course, changed everything. But in the early days after the terrorist attacks, it was Bush who reminded Americans, “Ours is a war not against a religion, not against the Muslim faith…. [O]urs is a war against individuals who absolutely hate what America stands for.” He met with Muslim American leaders on numerous occasions, becoming the only sitting president to visit an American mosque, and appointed Muslim Americans to several prominent government posts. Nor was Bush the only Republican politician to distinguish the United States' war against Islamist extremism abroad from the religion itself. House Speaker Denny Hastert, former Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson, and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Davis joined Bush in writing letters urging the U.S. Postal Service to issue a postage stamp honoring Eid, the Muslim holiday, in 2001.

But as Bush's first term unfolded, post-9/11 unity gave way to the Iraq war and the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal; the same Muslim groups that protested over civil liberties infringement under the Clinton administration were predictably upset over the Patriot Act and the Bush administration's detainment policies and warrantless wiretapping activities. In the 2004 election, more than half of the Muslim vote went to Democrat John Kerry and third-party candidates.

And despite Bush's best efforts to separate terrorism from the faith of Islam, a growing chorus of conservative commentators was failing to make any such distinction. In October 2001, conservative pundit Ann Coulter was fired by the National Review for writing of Muslims, “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.” But a few years later, such arguments were commonplace. Colorado Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo commented in 2005 that the U.S. response to terrorism should be to bomb Muslim holy cities including Mecca. Virginia Republican Rep. Virgil Goode complained that the 2006 election of Muslim Americans such as Minnesota Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison underscored the need for immigration reform (a curious argument considering that Ellison was born in Detroit to Roman Catholic parents). In 2007, after Bush made a statement pointing to Islam's place alongside Christianity and Judaism in the Abrahamic religious tradition, conservative columnist Cal Thomas asked, “How can the president say that we all worship the same God when Muslims deny the divinity of Jesus?” When the House of Representatives passed a resolution honoring Ramadan in 2007, 42 Republican congressmen declined to vote in favor of it, instead voting “present.”

As a Muslim American and a Republican who served in the Bush administration, I always believed that the anti-Muslim backlash was the work of a small number of cynical bigots, not the view of the vast, fair-minded majority of Americans. But as the 2008 election picked up steam, participating in the political process came at a great moral cost, and entailed considerable heartache. At Republican campaign rallies, harsh statements about “Muslims” and “Arabs” were ubiquitous. Rod Parsley, an influential evangelical pastor in Ohio and an early McCain supporter, urged Christians to wage a “war” against the “false religion” of Islam (McCain eventually rejected Parsley's support). Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, when asked about putting a Muslim American in his cabinet, replied that he “cannot see that a cabinet position would be justified” based on the percentage of Muslims in the country.

If the Republican candidates treated Muslims as the enemy, the Obama campaign treated them like untouchables, keeping the Democratic candidate's Muslim supporters at arm's length throughout the election. When prominent Muslim and Arab Americans such as Ellison and Democratic Party superdelegate James Zogby volunteered to campaign for Obama in key states such as North Carolina and Iowa, they were told to stay away. “A lot of us are waiting for [Obama] to say that there's nothing wrong with being a Muslim,” Ellison lamented.

Instead, the campaign treated “Muslim” as an insult, classifying the much-circulated false claim that Obama practiced the religion as a “smear” to be debunked on the campaign's website. A Muslim American campaign staffer resigned when a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, Glenn Simpson, asked about his religious background. At a rally in Detroit in June 2008, Obama campaign volunteers removed two Muslim American women who were seated behind the podium where the candidate would be speaking (campaign higher-ups later apologized for the incident). Only retired Gen. Colin Powell seemed willing to stand up to the fear mongering. “Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?” he asked in a TV interview days before the election. “The answer is no. That's not America.”

Despite the cold shoulder from Democrats, most Muslim Americans, like my mother, sided with Obama — and voted in record numbers, particularly in electorally crucial swing states such as Florida, Michigan, Ohio, and Virginia. And though many American Muslims have grown impatient with the Democratic administration's lack of progress on issues such as civil liberties, peace between Israel and Palestine, and the unfair treatment of Muslim charities, they remain firmly in the Obama camp. Why wouldn't they? Since the so-called “Ground Zero mosque” controversy erupted last month, New York Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio has blasted the mosque's “terrorist-sympathizing” imam; Gingrich has made statements equating Islam with Nazism.

On every issue and by every measure, Muslim Americans should vote firmly with the GOP. But they won't until the party finds leadership willing to stop playing to the worst instincts of its minority of bigoted supporters. I'm not convinced that's impossible — for one thing, it's happened once already, in the GOP's relationship with Hispanic voters. Republicans lost the broad support of Hispanics — who, like Muslim Americans, tend toward social conservatism — for several elections starting in 1994, when California Gov. Pete Wilson supported the passage of Proposition 187, a ballot initiative that sought to block illegal immigrants from accessing health care, public education, and other social services. But with Bush's vigorous outreach efforts in 2000 and 2004, Hispanic support for the GOP climbed back up to 45 percent — only to crash again in 2008 amid the rhetorically charged debate over immigration reform.

Read rest here on foreignpolicy.com

11 Responses

  1. Fa3el Khair

    I still don’t see why I should vote GOP when most seem so anti-everything-Islamic/Muslim.

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  2. Ahsan Sayed

    As a Muslim I have conservative social views. But I also am a hard core fiscal liberal. And in America the best policy for Muslims is the quintessential liberal slogan “Live and let Live.” While this is not the message of our religion, in America Muslims will lose if we support conservatives. Conservatives don’t look to promote Islamic social conservatism, nor do they have a great track record for supporting the rights of minorities (as this article by a Muslim conservative says).

    The progressive ideology on the other hand is not only not in the best interest of Muslims, Muslims historically have always been used to a big government that collectively solves societies problems. American conservatism comes with a unique brand of individuality and freedom from government intervention, closely tied with free-market thinking, that is not seen any where else. This mentality is very alien to newly immigrated Muslims who have known big government all throughout their history (Caliphate, Kings, Colonial Rule, Dictatorships, etc). Essentially, there are very few Muslim cowboys or homesteaders.

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  3. Osman

    While Muslim values may be in line with some GOP policies, I do not agree all are. However, whether they are or not, I think a key part of Islam a lot of people don’t seem to understand is human rights vs prohibiting what is Haram. God gave us free will and has told us there is no compulsion in religion. Whether we follow Islam or not is a personal choice, and how we follow it is a personal choice. Forcing people to follow beliefs based on Islamic moral code does not work in a secular society. This freedom and tolerance of different views is why I think we should not vote Republican. While many Muslims would like to see “unislamic” freedom of speech limited and moral values enforced by the government, I do not think this is the place of a secular government.

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  4. A white brother

    Sigh. Is it not foolish to have such unrequited love for a system which is antithetical to our very existence?

    GOP wants us passive, subdued, in fear or outright gone. Liberals have basically nothing in common with out social and moral values. This oligarchical system basically eliminates any third party candidate. This maslahah business is nonsense for the most part. Some change that happened after 08 huh?

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  5. Muslim

    Well it looks similar to the Muslims in Naroda Patiya, Gujarat who elected the right wing party in India since they promised to build a graveyard for Muslims. And after winning the elections with the help of Muslim votes these Hindu terrorists conducted a genocide of Muslims in Gujarat, thereby making the whole of Naroda Patiya a Graveyard of Muslims.

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  6. Abu Noor Al-Irlandee

    In a way I feel bad about attacking this article, because Mr. Khan seems to be a nice guy, and although he has put forward here a piece of Republican hackery masquerading as some kind of objective analysis, it seems he is trying to use the Republican hackery for the noble purpose of attacking bigotry. However, he also attempts to resurrect a discourse in our community which did indeed flourish in certain elite circles before 2000, a discourse which is so wrong headed that it cannot be allowed to stand without critique. Above and beyond the wrongess and frankly, the offensiveness of the conclusion Mr. Khan attempts to advance, that American Muslims should somehow naturally be right wing Republicans, Mr. Khan does not actually address the issues that cry out to be addressed in addressing the topic he chose to write about.

    Mr. Khan does not even attempt to address the rightness or wrongness of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the “War on Terror” broadly nor the rightness or wrongness of the general American Muslim reaction to those policies. As a result his whole article make no sense, because he is trying to contend that American Muslim support for Bush in 2000(of which I think he exaggerates the depth) did not have to leave the Republicans…but he never really explains why it left the Republicans…he just says, of course everything changed after 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Bush detainment policies. Well, what happened is that American Muslims overwhelmingly rejected those wars and greatly opposed those policies and Bush’s rhetoric against domestic discriminationalone could not maintain real community support in the wake of those realities. Mr. Khan, who is a Republican hack (but as far as I know, having met him a long time ago when I was in law school, a nice guy) is trying to do I guess a good thing in appealing to Republicans’ self interest in trying to tone down the divisive bitter rhetoric towards even American Muslims that has taken over the party in opposition. My own biases would lead me to believe this is a largely hopeless cause. Of course there will be some individuals who are different, but as a collective the Republican party is a party which is consciously the party of white christians and this results in bigotry towards others in many cases and a lack of concern about the issues of ethnic or religious minorities in general.

    Some have tried to argue that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were actually noble endeavors on behalf of Muslims rather than directed against Muslims, but Khan does not do so knowing that the only thing that would result in him being tuned out faster in most of the American Muslim community than calling people to the Republican party would be trying to launch a defense of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the Bush detainee policies. (I have no idea what Mr. Khan’s position on those issues is, but obviously if he disagreed with Bush on any of them, he didn’t disagree strongly enough to stop supporting the Republicans and perhaps he agreed with them).

    The argument Khan actually does make in addition to saying that Bush’s rhetoric around Muslims was markedly different than the open bigotry that has prevailed in the Park51 affair, is that American Muslims are largely economic and social conservatives whose natural home should be the Republican party. I also disagree strongly with this, although I have had a hard time finding any good data. Yes, like most Americans and especially wealthy Americans, you will find a segment of the American Muslim community that will favor lower taxes. However, I don’t think the label economic conservatives is at all justified. The Blackamerican and other convert communities in the US, as well as the younger generation of American Muslims are all strongly progressive. Their understanding of Islam emphasizes social justice concerns and they have always found progressives to be more friendly to their concerns around civil liberties and more appreciative and respectful towards diversity than conservatives. I think you will find most American Muslims are strongly supportive of a right to health care and in general of government providing a strong safety net for poor individuals. In fact one cannot help but observe that this whole notion that American Muslims are naturally right wing Republicans can only be seriously even entertained if one’s concept of th Muslim community is basically limited to wealthy immigrants who live in the suburbs and whose greatest ambitions and concerns are their own material wealth.

    Yes, many American Muslims may have personal moral views that are considered socially conservative in America, for orthodox Muslims dramatically so. But, especially since we are a small minority community, I think most of us have a deeply ingrained sense that our own moral values are distinct from that of the larger society. For some that leads to a great desire to radically change the society, for most that is simply accepted as a reality but in any case I don’t see much of an appetite for American Muslims trying to push socially conservative legislation or policies through the legal system and certainly since 9/11 whatever small desire existed in that regard has been pushed far below other priorities.

    The title of the piece is a demonstration of its intellectual weakness. I know titles are meant to attract attention and perhaps are not expected to stand up to actual examination, but I will examine the claim nonetheless. First, the only possible argument for Bush being the “first Muslim President” is that he was endorsed by some immigrant led Muslim organizations who somehow ironically thought he would be better on civil liberties issues, an area in which Muslims rightly had complaints against Bill Clinton (largely revolving around secret evidence and the 1996 Counter Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act). It is painfully and sickeningly obvious that the fact that Muslim organizations rallied Muslims to the cause of the man who built Guantanamo, who invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, presiding over Abu Ghraib and Bagram, the man under whom torture of Muslims was approved policy on the basis of “civil liberties” can be seen clearly in hindsight as nothing but a mistake and blunder of epic proportions…one that, frankly should throw the whole idea of Muslim participation in the electoral process into question. Stunningly, Mr. Khan here somehow tries to resurrect that as a time when Muslim orgs were on the right track and that Muslims now, despite knowing everything that happened, should wind the clock back and make the worst mistake they ever made again.

    Allah knows best.

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    • Fatima

      lol! good reply, that is why to make things simple, I dont even vote. I sit and watch.

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  7. someone

    I always felt that as muslims we would have a penchant for more of a socialist system., instead of a less government ideal. I mean in terms of economics, what about savage capitalism, private health care system, and free market. Personally i feel that those banners of liberalism are deal breakers, even though we lean towards social conservatism that sole reason isnt enough of a justification to support republicans.

    Its interesting americans view the democrats as leftist while in Canada we see them as essentially similar to republicans. We would never consider democrats as leftist.

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  8. WideAwake

    I am african american and you did not mention the african american plight. We are also very conservative in nature and voted for Reagan–but we too have been duped they branded us as lazy and welfare queens and kings along with the rhetoric they allowed other cultures to feel the same way about us.

    The Republican party is the party of divisiveness and will only need you for votes then the slaughter begins.

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