So far, it does not seem to bother a majority of Americans that Dr. Ben Carson, the new frontrunner in the race for the White House – who in some polls beats Hillary Clinton by as many as 10 points — is dangerously hostile to one of the fastest-growing religions in the United States. Yet unfortunately, Carson’s ill-informed views on Muslim-Americans have become commonplace in the GOP, which is doing its level best to alienate yet another minority group that it will need to remain a viable majority party in the coming decades.
In September, Dr. Carson breezily told an interviewer on NBC that he could not support a Muslim-American who sought the presidency. The comment, which he modified only slightly in response to a public outcry, is especially ironic since Dr. Carson, an African American, undoubtedly faces the same sort of reflexive bigotry about his own candidacy in some regions of the country. As a Muslim-American Republican – a segment of our population that is declining dramatically by the day – I might be able to look past Dr. Carson’s offensive and ignorant statements were they not replicated in some form by nearly every other Republican in the race.
A few days ago, Carly Fiorina told an interviewer with TownHall that she could support a Muslim “under certain conditions.” Imagine her saying that about a Catholic. And there are a plethora of candidates –Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, and Marco Rubio among them – who in their ignorance have carelessly equated the war against Islamic radicals as a war against Muslims in general.
Governor Jindal, for example, called for restrictions on Muslim immigration to the United States – terming the arrival of those of the Islamic faith “an invasion.” The longshot candidate, Senator Lindsey Graham, meanwhile, seems eager to invade sovereign Muslim nations all over the Middle East on a variety of pretexts – a prospect that, given the decade-long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, does little to cheer Muslims toward the GOP.
Ironically, Muslim voters were a “gettable” group for Republicans, at least before 9/11. In the 2000 election, more than 42 percent of American Muslims voted for George W. Bush in 2000. Just four years later, however, after the war in Iraq, which almost every Republican candidate, including Bush’s own brother, now concedes was a mistake, the damage was done. 76 percent of Muslims voted against Mr. Bush for re-election. By 2008, 89 percent of American Muslims turned to Barack Obama, helping him win a close election.
While the Republicans were busy arguing amongst themselves in Colorado last Wednesday, Democrat Bernie Sanders was in Virginia, fighting against Islamophobia by inviting a Muslim student on stage to speak. Sanders won the hearts and minds of many Muslim Americans just by being kind to the young student even though many may disagree with his policies. Young Muslim voters need to see Republican candidates completely change their hostile views.
This is a shame. The Islamic faith shares many of the Republican party values (respect for life, traditional marriage, and economic growth.) Unfortunately most Republicans seem ignorant of this. Senator Marco Rubio, for example, told reporters that no one who believes in shariah law is “going to be elected to anything, much less the presidency.” What Senator Rubio fails to understand is that shariah law means many different things to different Muslims – and in fact, to millions of Muslims, it includes values shared by Mr. Rubio and his Republican base.
The Holy Quran strongly promotes traditional marriage between a man and a woman and has beautiful verses about love and mercy between male and female spouses. Countless Muslims have become small business owners in America – who are open to the approach of lower taxes and less regulations promoted by Republicans. During recent Republican debates, a number of candidates have promoted flat tax plans. Islamic economics actually requires a 2.5 percent flat tax on individuals and businesses. The Quran encourages lawful business and trade. It calls for the fulfillment of all contracts, oaths, promises, and trusts in business contracts. Sharia law governs how we pray, fast, give charity, trade, inherit, marry, divorce, ensure justice and practice our faith in our everyday lives. These aspects of shariah are hardly discussed in debates over Islam.
Republican contenders have been equally ignorant of the term “jihad” – which to many Muslims simply refers to internal struggles within the faith. The Quran clearly condemns killing of innocent human beings. The selective misuse of various lines of the Quran by Republican candidates is the equivalent of holding every one of them to every single line in the Bible – such as the support of slavery, the subjugation of women, and homophobia.
The Republicans need to move beyond racism, hatred and bigotry. The GOP must recognize our foreign policy mistakes in Afghanistan and Iraq to win back the Muslim American vote. These never-ending wars have cost us dearly in blood and treasure. While National Security should be a top priority for any President, we should not fuel the extremist narrative of the West being hostile to Muslims. Candidates seeking to lead the war against terrorism need to demonstrate a basic understanding of Islam. Only then can we diagnose the root causes behind the exponential growth of terrorism in the last decade. We can never win wars with prolonged military operations. Our best strategy should be to defeat the ideological weaknesses of radicals through peaceful teachings of Islam. If we take away their faith, they will have nothing to fall back on and success in war torn regions will be achieved for good.
Republican candidates clearly believe that by bashing Islam and in effect all Muslims they can bolster their base among white, rural Americans. This is a short-term strategy at best. America is changing demographically – and white, evangelical voters will simply not be enough to keep the Republicans as a relevant national party. The GOP has lost the African-American vote. They are at risk of losing Hispanic-Americans. Do they want to permanently alienate Muslims, too?
Saba Ahmed is the President and Founder of the Republican Muslim Coalition.