The population of Muslim US citizens is estimated by many sources to be at 8 million and growing. Of these 8 million, around 7% of registered Muslim Americans are Republicans, a minority that is just large enough to make an impact on politics at many levels. It has become a liberal truism that Muslim Americans would not want to vote for the party of the administration responsible for the violation of their civil liberties, but—surprise —Muslim Republicans exist. Columbia Political Science Professor Robert Shapiro notes that these assumptions are rooted in liberal attitudes, rather than an analysis of voting trends and the motives behind them.
President Bush garnered support from Republican Muslims in the 2000 elections by appealing to their strong family and social values, and through his then-Muslim-friendly immigration and foreign relations policies. In 2000, the Muslim vote helped to swing the vote towards Bush in states like Ohio and Florida. Dr. Hesham Hezbollah, a freelance writer in the Chicago area, claimed that he “even left his wife—in labor—at the hospital to vote for George W. Bush in 2000.” Although not all voters were as fervent as Hezbollah, official Muslim support of the GOP was at its peak in the 2000 election. The American Muslim Political Coordinating Council Political Action Committee (whose membership includes the American Muslim Alliance, American Muslim Council, Council on American-Islamic Relations, and Muslim Public Affairs Council) announced its endorsement of Bush for a position that now seems ironic: he condemned the use of “secret evidence” in immigration and citizenship proceedings. This evidence caused immigration delays and often led to the imprisonment of Muslims trying to gain citizenship. Although official reasoning behind the staunch support of President Bush never references the religious tension between Islam and Judaism within the community, some Muslim voters felt uncomfortable voting for the Gore-Lieberman ticket due to Lieberman’s stance on Israeli-Palestinian issues. Dr. Sayeed Mohammed,* a physician and community leader in Poughkeepsie, New York claimed, “I could not vote for a man who so adamantly supports Israel and would not see the side of the Palestinians, because it could only spell disaster for the construction of future relations.”
By the 2004 election, the tides of Muslim life in America had changed drastically. The September 11 attacks and the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq deeply damaged the name of Islam as Americans equated that very name with terrorism. A Barnard College professor from the Middle East recalls hearing of the attacks and thinking, “God, please don’t let the perpetrator be an Arab.” The PATRIOT Act, rammed through Congress only six weeks after the attacks, severely constrained the civil liberties of all Americans, but the Muslim community felt this strain the most. A study by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) reported that over half of the Muslim population felt that the “War on Terror” had become a war on Islam. Subjected to racial and religious profiling, Muslims were disappointed with President Bush’s failure to support their freedoms as American citizens. In fact, according to a 2006 CAIR poll, Muslims more strongly about the issue of civil liberties than others like social welfare, and even the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Gross infringements on Muslim Americans’ rights after 9/11 and a sense of betrayal by an administration of which the Muslim community had been supportive, led to an important shift in voting tendencies for Muslims.
Partisan politics asked conservative Muslim voters to make a choice between their traditional social views and their desire to act as representatives of a world that many call home and that the government calls a war zone. Many Muslim Americans—43% of whom are active members of mosques and religious groups—sacrificed their social conservatism to stand up against Bush’s violations of the civil liberties of Muslim American citizens around the country. They voted for Democratic leadership that would end an ambiguous “War on Terror,” even at the expense of their beliefs on abortion and immigration reform. Their votes supported a liberal party that might even elect a woman as the next president. But conservative Muslims have yet to see the promised changes; the “War on Terror” goes on, and the PATRIOT Act has yet to be altered. It is not only the GOP that has wronged Muslims.
With the upcoming election in November, Muslim voters are unsure where to throw their official support. According to another CAIR poll conducted in January, 45% of Muslim voters are still unsure of whom to vote for, as opposed to the national average of 15%. Most decided voters are leaning toward Democratic candidates, but this move compromises traditionally conservative values held by the religious communities. The number of Muslim Republicans dropped from 17% of voters in 2006 to just 7%, according to the same poll. Despite the decline, there is still a vocal minority of Muslim voters. Dr. Sayeed Mohammed is still an adamant supporter of the Republican Party, and argues that by voting for Senator John McCain, his vote will go to a candidate with a reasonable immigration stance and policy experience. Publicity surrounding Senator McCain’s adoption of a daughter from Muslim Bangladesh has provoked both praise and consternation. The newest member of the McCain family has been seen as a sign of support for the Muslim community by some, and an attempt to civilize the enemy by others. With McCain’s ambivalent image among conservative Muslims, it seems that they will only encounter more difficulties and compromises when selecting their candidate.
It might seem shocking that Muslim Republicans still exist in this country. But maybe liberal surprise makes the same mistake as conservative stereotyping: they both see the “Muslim” in “Muslim American” while bypassing the “American.” Thinking of Muslim Americans only as victims of civil rights infringements actually mirrors hysterical media coverage that sees them mainly as potential terrorists, instead of providing an alternative. Muslim Americans are politically significant as full participants in American life, not just at moments of subjection. Understanding their voting patterns demands a reminder that they, too, care about education, health care, and “ordinary” American concerns.
*Names have been changed to ensure privacy.