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.