America's First Muslim President

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.

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.

There are similar rays of hope for Muslim Republicans. Former Bush administration solicitor general Ted Olson, who lost his wife Barbara on 9/11, declared on Aug. 18 that "people of all religions have a right to build ... places of religious worship or study, where the community allows them to do it under zoning laws ... we don't want to turn an act of hate against us by extremists into an act of intolerance for people of religious faith." New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, an up-and-comer in the national conservative movement, recently warned against "overreacting" to the threat of terrorism and painting "all of Islam" with the brush of terrorism. "We have to bring people together," he said. Let's hope that thoughtful voices such as Governor Christie, and not those who rely on mistrust and fear, win the day.



Failure to Communicate

Could the U.S. mission in Afghanistan fall apart simply because of bad translation?

At one point in Restrepo, a new documentary film about U.S. soldiers at a small combat outpost in eastern Afghanistan's Korengal Valley, Captain Dan Kearney, the officer in command, is sitting in a shura with the Korengal elders he is trying to win over. A frail-looking man sits before the bullish captain and complains about the arrest of a local man. Kearney at first does not know who the elder is talking about. Then Kearney turns to his Afghan interpreter, or "terp," and in answer to the elder says: "You're not understanding that I don't fucking care."

The F-bomb is called that for a reason: It has power to explode a conversation and obliterate important points. But my main question after watching this scene, so similar to many I've witnessed while reporting on America's wars abroad, was: How is an interpreter, even a very good one, supposed to haul that statement into his own language? Translation is such an everyday act that it is routinely omitted from most discussion of strategy and success. But, badly done, it is fatally dangerous. And the messages lost through faulty translation in Afghanistan are sabotaging the mission there as badly as any physical enemy ever could.

U.S. troops rely on translators. There is no alternative. On the battlefield and in the shuras, young officers like Kearney, raised in the get-down-to-business culture of America and its military, often express themselves to their translators directly and with heaps of slang, roughly the way they might talk to a college buddy. The terp is then expected to decide not only how to translate the words but also how to bridge the gulf of propriety and custom. But although this colloquial language is informal, it is still complex. And unfortunately, it assumes even more common background and idiomatic understanding than a more formal diction would: Think of phrases like "man up," "freedom isn't free," or even "shoulder responsibility" and "build your nation." In the best circumstances, the most successful shuras, it would be unrealistic to expect all this meaning to pass intact to a group of old men from another world. Try filtering it through a translator who didn't attend college, was never your buddy, and didn't grow up surrounded by phrases Americans take for granted, and the chances for error or insult multiply rapidly.

This winter, I spent a month in the Pech Valley, next door to the Korengal, where Restrepo was filmed. There, and in other regions of Afghanistan, I met some pretty good terps who were able to develop the kind of rapport with the Americans that's crucial in understanding language and intent. Many, however, were only partially educated and only passable at their jobs. Quite a few were simply very bad. Language is far more than vocabulary and grammar -- it is culture. Often terps weren't familiar enough with either to understand what the Americans were saying or what it meant. And choosing candidates for this crucial job is often relegated to contractors. When I asked officers why they worked with bad terps, they claimed they didn't have much choice; translators are hired by private companies and bad ones are difficult to replace, partly because demand is so high and the vetting process is slow.

The effect of bad translators on the Afghan mission is difficult to estimate -- but I believe that it's vast. Terps have a different stake from the Americans in the outcome of the war, and by definition they're working with people who can't understand half the things they say, meaning that there's no accountability if they're translating an English message into something totally different. I once asked the lieutenant colonel in charge of the Korengal Valley how many messages he thought were lost this way. I wagered that at least 40 percent of his troops' words were not getting through to Afghans. He thought it was more like 50 percent. At the time, January 2010, his soldiers were literally delivering U.S. President Barack Obama's new strategic message to Afghans. I watched them announce that the United States would soon begin withdrawal and that Afghans needed to take responsibility for their own future. If half that message were lost in translation, which half would you want it to be?

In another Restrepo scene, Captain Kearney tries to explain to a group of Korengali elders that he is not like the captain who preceded him; that he, Kearney, will do things differently, kill fewer civilians, and bring wealth and jobs and progress. He says he wants a "clean slate." That Christmas list of opportunities may or may not have been important to the Korengalis; that's a story for another time. But how did "clean slate" translate to men who remember insults for decades, in a land where grudges weave through generations? What did the terp actually say to the elders?

Whatever he told them, Kearney never won his fresh start. Before dialogue could be reset, the killing intensified, covering the slate again with blood, as Restrepo shows. American troops withdrew from the Korengal valley this spring.

Last December, I went on many foot patrols in the valleys along the Korengal as Americans traveled village to village bringing pieces of Obama's message. One day, high on a mountainside, I listened to a young lieutenant explain to a toothless elder that he needed to take a stand against the Taliban.

"You are a citizen of Afghanistan," the lieutenant said. "This nation is your responsibility." He was tense, already expecting a Taliban attack. Another lieutenant chimed in: "You need to form something like, you know, a neighborhood watch."

The terp looked at both officers, then said something to the old man, who merely stared at them. Later I asked the terp if he knew what the word "nation" meant.

"It's, it's ..." Then he shrugged and smiled and gave up. Maybe he just couldn't define it. I'm sure he had no idea what the words "neighborhood watch" meant.

I imagined this scene replicating like a virus through the countryside, through the hundreds of small units operating in the mountains, on the plains. Occasionally I asked the soldiers how they believed their messages would ever take hold. The standard answer was that it was all about "repetition, repetition, repetition." Say it enough times and the Afghans will get it. That might work. But if no one understands the words, the Americans will simply be bludgeoning the Afghans with noise.