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."