By Omar Sacirbey
It’s hard to watch the 2012 elections and not think that political and religious lines are cutting ever deeper into America. A pair of former allies, Republicans and Muslim Americans, whose relations have become beset with stereotypes and a lack of trust and communication, are a prime example. The Republican Party is typecast as hopelessly Islamophobic, and Muslims as a Fifth Column. Thus, we’re left to believe, the relationship suffers from irreconcilable differences.
The reality is not so clear-cut. Republicans and Muslim Americans have a long history of cooperation that, despite appearances, lingers today – even in America’s two-party system that often seems to reinforce division.
It wasn’t that long ago, before 9/11, when a majority of Muslim Americans voted Republican. Back then, it was mainly over cultural issues like sex and violence on television, and foreign policy – Muslims viewed Republicans as the party most likely to support fellow Muslims abroad, including Palestinians, Bosnians and Afghans. Many of these issues still resonate with Muslim Americans.
Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, a well-known Muslim American leader, urged Muslims in 2010 to make “strategic alliances” with conservatives and “recognise that we share a lot of common ground . . .” Yusuf added that “premarital and extramarital sexuality, the breakdown of the family, and the proliferation of pornography and drugs” were common worries.
Many Muslim Americans have also been drawn to the libertarian ideas of Texas Congressman and Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul. While conservatives favour legislating social issues, broad police powers and hard-line military policy, the 76-year-old Baptist has strongly opposed the post-9/11 Patriot Act – which increases government powers to monitor citizens – and promised to keep America out of international conflicts, which often involve Muslim nations.
There is also an important historical precedent for this libertarian commonality. Islam was founded by a prophet who was a successful merchant, and not only preached about ethical business practices, but had a soft spot for free markets.
For example, after a natural disaster sent commodity prices soaring, Prophet Muhammad rejected price controls, according to Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, founder of the Minaret of Freedom Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, which focuses on exposing Muslims to free-market thought.
Muslims, who have often complained about being viewed as a monolith, are also beginning to realise that the Republic party is home to many diverse political philosophies, Libertarianism just one among them. There are also fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, neoconservatives, paleoconservatives, liberal Republicans and Tea Partiers. Muslims may identify with any one or several of these philosophies.
Although some conservatives have repelled Muslims with unabashedly Islamophobic rhetoric, there have been a few notable exceptions. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a potential White House candidate in 2016, not only appointed a Muslim lawyer, Sohail Mohammed, to be a state superior court judge last year, but shot down as “crazy” critics who alleged that the new judge would impose sharia. Erstwhile presidential candidate and evangelical Christian, Governor Rick Perry of Texas has also established good relations with his state’s Muslims. General Colin Powell chastised Republicans in 2008 for attacking Barack Obama as a closet Muslim, saying, and “What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer is no.”
While the best known Muslims in American politics today are Democrats, Congressmen Keith Ellison of Minnesota and Andre Carson of Indiana, several Muslims figure prominently in conservative politics. For example, Suhail A. Khan was policy director and press officer for California Republican congressman Tom Campbell and later served in the Bush administration.
And Reihan Salam has emerged as one of the leading voices in conservative discourse, writing for conservative magazines and co-authoring in 2010 Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the working Class and Save the American Dream.
While these and other examples show that “Muslim Republican” isn’t necessarily an oxymoron, the numbers suggest that Republicans and Muslims don’t talk like they once used to. A Pew Research Center poll in August found that 70 per cent of Muslim Americans identify or lean Democratic, compared to 11 per cent who identify or lean Republican.
Given their commonalities, Republicans don’t need to make drastic changes to win back at least some Muslims, but rather address the roots of the Islamophobic rhetoric coming from within their party. Tackling stereotypes within the party would go a long way.
Omar Sacirbey is a Boston-based correspondent for the Religion News Service, specialising in religion and international affairs.