Muslims remain only a tiny fraction of America’s overall population but many are clustered in critical presidential battleground states, including Ohio, Florida and Virginia.
Muslim Republicans fear Donald Trump’s escalating anti-Muslim rhetoric — capped this week by his call to block all Muslims’ entry into the country — could turn Muslims away from the GOP for a generation, severing all ties with a constituency just as its population is bulging in three crucial presidential battleground states.Many American Muslims had already departed the GOP after their experiences under a Republican administration in the wake of 9/11, voting overwhelmingly for Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012.
Now, Muslim Republicans view Trump’s overheated oratory as poisoning the GOP brand — whether or not he becomes the Republican nominee — erasing any prospect of a return to a party that can ill-afford to alienate another growing, if small, constituency after hemorrhaging support from Latinos and Asian-Americans in recent decades. Prior to 9/11, Republicans were very much in the hunt for American Muslim votes: In 2000, George W. Bush won the backing of many key Muslim organizations, had a Muslim deliver a blessing at the GOP national convention and was the first president to say “mosque” in his inaugural address.
“Trump wants to shut down our mosques; he wants to ban our travel; he wants to take away our liberties; he wants to register us in a database,” said Saba Ahmed, who founded the Republican Muslim Coalition last year to help the GOP better appeal to the Muslim community. “It’s damaging the Republican Party, if it’s gonna be defined by Trump. It’s hurting all Republicans.”
Muslims remain only a tiny fraction — 1 to 2 percent — of America’s overall population, but many happen to be clustered in some of the most sought-after presidential battlegrounds, including Ohio, Florida and Virginia. Those pivotal swing states accounted for three of the four closest contests in the 2012 presidential campaign and each is home to more than 50,000 Muslim-American voters, according to estimates.
Top Republicans have already recognized the potential of Muslim voters to sway tight elections, particularly in Virginia.
Last year, Ed Gillespie, the former Republican National Committee chairman and a strategist widely viewed as one of his party’s savviest, quietly hired Sarah Cochran, a Muslim American, to serve as deputy director for outreach to that community in northern Virginia for his 2014 Senate race.
Cochran, whose role has been previously unreported, brought Gillespie to two northern Virginia mosques, introduced him to numerous community leaders and took him to more than a half-dozen events to meet Muslim voters. “We had a lot of Ed’s campaign materials translated into Urdu, Farsi, Arabic and Hindi,” Cochran said.
Asked why they didn’t publicize either the outreach or her hiring, Cochran said, “There is an element of the base of the Republican Party in Virginia — and I don’t want to use the word xenophobic — but they’re not ready for the diversity in some of the more urban areas.” Gillespie lost the race by fewer than 20,000 votes. He is now planning to run for governor in 2017.
Gillespie did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Trump’s proposal this week for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” has sparked enormous controversy and ensured more time in the spotlight for the Manhattan mogul. At a rally on a retired U.S. Navy aircraft carrier in South Carolina, Trump acknowledged his plan was “probably not politically correct — but I don’t care.”
“Just like the immigration debate turned Latinos away from the Republicans and toward the Democrats, what Trump is doing now is a similar trend with the Muslim American population,” said Amaney Jamal, a professor of politics at Princeton who has studied the political attitudes of Muslim Americans.
Because the U.S. Census does not collect information about people’s religious affiliations, estimates of the size of the Muslim population vary widely, from 2.75 million, according to Pew Research in 2011, to from 6 million to 7 million, according to the Council on Islamic-American Relations today. The densest concentration is in urban and Democratic states like New York, California, New Jersey and Illinois, but the estimated population is significant in swing states like Virginia, as well as those that have trended Democratic, like Michigan.
“If the election is very close, as it has been in the past, these swing states matter and the Muslim community can be decisive,” said Farid Senzai, the former research director for the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, which studies Muslims in America and abroad. “Clearly you’re seeing a Republican Party that is increasingly pushing the Muslim community further and further away, and even those Muslims who are naturally more socially conservative.”
For many American Muslims, daily life has already become palpably more stressful in the wake of the terror attacks in Paris, which was orchestrated by the Islamic State, and San Bernardino, which authorities have said was inspired by the radical jihadist group. Trump’s questioning of Muslims and his proposed religious test for entry to America has further exacerbated matters, community members say.
In the quiet northern Virginia suburb of Falls Church, a man broke into a mosque’s property last month, left a fake explosive device and reportedly threw smoke bombs and a Molotov cocktail toward the building. Not long after, and not far away, in Manassas, a different mosque received a phone mail threatening to kill Muslims.
“I’ve had some women in our community who’ve said they don’t feel comfortable going out in public, shopping or driving with a hijab,” said Rafi Ahmed, who does public affairs work for the Muslim Association of Virginia. “They feel that others are staring at them.”
Ahmed said he has lived in the United States for four decades and never seen anything like it. “Since Donald Trump started running his mouth, these things are happening now,” Ahmed said.
Asked about Trump’s political impact, Ahmed continued, “He’s sounding more and more like Hitler. If he wins, maybe he’ll want to put us in a concentration camp. I’m not sure. I think Donald Trump is helping the Democrats tremendously.”
Jamal, the Princeton professor, said, “The truth is the Islamophobic rhetoric today is far worse than it was after 9/11.”
Many Republicans have rushed to condemn Trump this week calling him and his proposed Muslim ban “unhinged” (Jeb Bush), “un-American” (Dick Cheney), “un-Republican” (the chair of the New Hampshire Republican Party) and “unconstitutional” (South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley).
But most have simultaneously walked a wobbly tightrope to say they would nonetheless support Trump, if he became the party’s nominee. “I won’t be enthusiastic about it, I won’t be excited about it, but what I have said is, I will support the nominee,” Rand Paul told Yahoo.
That is not enough for many Muslims in America, especially after Ben Carson has said a Muslim shouldn’t be president, Ted Cruz has suggested a religious test for accepting Syrian refugees and Marco Rubio has doubted whether “discrimination against Muslims” is widespread in America.
“Our candidates aren’t being very welcoming and they’re making absurd comments, one after another,” said Saba Ahmed, who wore an American flag hijab during a recent Fox News appearance to make the point that Muslims are patriotic Americans.
Ehsan Islam, president of the Dal Al-Noor Islamic Community Center in Manassas, is a Republican. But “if Trump, Carson, and Ted Cruz, people like these, define the Republican Party, then you will see a rejection of the Republican Party,” Islam said of the Muslim community. “If it’s between Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton, I’m thinking I would be really looking closely and I’ll be voting for the candidate who stands for the causes. Now if it’s, God forbid, it’s Trump or Carson or Ted Cruz, it would be that much easier.”
Democrats, of course, are already using Trump’s plan and words far beyond the limited Muslim community to paint the broader GOP as bigoted and intolerant, whoever the nominee is. “He’s just articulating the logical conclusion of what the rest of them have been saying,” Hillary Clinton wrote of Trump in an open letter to Muslim Americans this week.
Surveys have consistently shown that, as group, Muslims tend to favor both bigger government (more Democratic) and a more socially conservative agenda (more Republican).
“Before 9/11, a majority of Muslim Americans were registered as Republicans, but obviously that flipped,” said Cochran, the former Gillespie adviser, who is now the executive director of the Virginia chapter of Emerge USA, a group dedicated to bring Muslim and Arab communities into the political process.
Trump’s rise in 2016 has the community “very alarmed because this kind language is very racist and very derogatory and we didn’t think someone running for the highest office in this country would resort to that kind of language. It’s shocking,” Cochran said. “Most people see it as a reflection of the larger Republican Party of today and it’s sad.”
But she’s still optimistic — if her fellow Republicans act quickly and decisively. “I feel like what’s he’s doing is so starkly crazy that he’s going to separate the crazies from the reasonable,” she said. “This is a time for Republicans to step up now and say something.”
In this Sept. 28, 2015, photo, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump pauses while speaking about his tax plan during a news conference in New York. Republicans came into this presidential campaign with painful memories of how, in the last one, Democrats blasted Mitt Romney’s tax plan as a giveaway to the rich. Yet the release of Trump’s tax plan adds to the number of major GOP presidential candidates who propose to cut all taxes, but especially the wealthy’s, as deeply, or deeper, than Romney proposed. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)