Heated rhetoric unnerves Muslim Republicans

Courtney Weaver in Washington

Facing off against one of America's leading conservative radio hosts recently, Saba Ahmed, the head of the Republican Muslim Coalition, tried to keep her cool.

No, the Koran did not advise Muslims to kidnap people or condone the murder of women and children, Ms Ahmed calmly told Sean Hannity. No, most Muslims did not support Isis. Yes, the recent events in Mali and Paris had been "absolutely horrifying".

After the interview Ms Ahmed hung up the phone and sighed. "They purposely set you up to boil you and to show just another angry Muslim. Any normal person would get angry and react emotionally so I try to stay as calm as I can."

A self-identified Muslim Republican who has helped organise a fundraiser for former House speaker John Boehner and gone on Fox News dressed in an American flag hijab, Ms Ahmed says she is among tens of thousands of Muslim Americans who would vote for a Republican presidential candidate — if only the party would give them a reason to.

Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) delivers his remarks before signing H.R. 1735, "The National Defense Authorization Act".
Gary Cameron | Reuters

After this month's terror attacks in Paris, Muslim Americans have found themselves targeted by some Republican candidates, most notably Donald Trump, who has directed his trademark vitriol at a variety of minority groups — a strategy that has appeared to only further galvanise his base.

In recent days, Mr Trump has claimed to have seen Arab Americans in New Jersey celebrating the September 11, 2001 attacks, demanded greater surveillance of US mosques and called for a database of all Syrian refugees, walking back from earlier remarks that the database should include every Muslim American.

Rather than hurting Mr Trump's standing, the comments have cemented his poll lead. According to a new Washington Post-ABC poll, he has the support of 32 per cent of registered Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon who has said the US cannot have a Muslim president, is in second place with 22 per cent.

The escalating rhetoric is prompting soul searching by minority members of the Republican Party, particularly Muslim Republicans, who worry that Mr Trump's and Mr Carson's comments will permanently damage the party's standing among voters who would typically be drawn to its conservative fiscal policies and platform of traditional family values.

"We need to realise you cannot win elections in the future — even the near future — without the minority vote," said David Ramadan, a Lebanese-born Republican member of the Virginia House of Delegates. "If our candidates continue to go down this path of craziness, then we might as well hand over elections to the other side because the votes are just not there."

While most Muslim Americans voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, up to 70 per cent of Muslim Americans voted in 2000 for George W Bush, who also won endorsements from eight major Muslim American groups. The support was especially notable in swing states such as Pennsylvania, Florida and Ohio, which have sizeable Muslim American populations.

In that year's tight race in Florida, 60,000 Muslim Americans voted for Mr Bush in that state — a significant enough bump that White House staffers used to say that Muslims had put President Bush in the White House, Suhail Khan, a Muslim staffer in the Bush administration, recalled.

"Muslims are very well educated and have one of the highest per capita incomes of any minority group. There are a lot of reasons they should vote Republican," said Mr Khan, now a senior fellow for Muslim-Christian understanding at the Institute for Global Engagement, an evangelical think-tank. "Now Carson and Trump are undoing a lot of that work that the party has tried to do . . . The longer Trump and Carson are around, the more damage is done."

Mr Khan recalled that in the 1990s he asked then Speaker Newt Gingrich for a room big enough for 12 Muslim congressional staffers to pray. Mr Gingrich promised to find him a room big enough for 30 people.

Yet in his 2012 presidential campaign, Mr Gingrich suddenly warned that some Muslims were conducting "stealth jihad" and trying to take over the US government. Mr Khan noted that Mr Trump and Mr Carson seemed to be taking the message even further because they were being advised by people outside the traditional party elite.

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The Centre for Security Policy, a think-tank whose founder Frank Gaffney has accused Barack Obama of being a secret Muslim and Hillary Clinton's top aide of being a secret agent for the Muslim Brotherhood, helped sponsor a rally for Mr Trump and fellow candidate Ted Cruz in Washington this summer.

Sarah Cochran, a Washington-based foreign policy specialist and Muslim Republican, said that while she personally did not take Mr Trump or Mr Carson very seriously, the reverberation of their comments had alarmed her. "I go to speak to church groups and I find people coming up to me and they say that what Trump says has been resonating with them."

Ms Ahmed feels similarly. At her office at the US Patent & Trademark Office, the patent attorney last week thumbed through a notebook littered with bumper stickers for Jeb Bush, Mr Carson and Marco Rubio, as well as handwritten pro-and-con lists about each of the candidates.

Once a registered Democrat who ran for office in Oregon, Ms Ahmed, a Pakistani immigrant, said she had come around to the Republican party because of its conservative stances on same-sex marriages, abortion, light business regulation and low taxes — all things that are advocated for in the Koran, she said.

"The Prophet Muhammad's first wife was a businesswoman," she said on the last two points. "Trade and business are very important."

"Our faith values align with the party platform," she continued. "Alienating their allies is not going to serve them well."