An expert's point of view on a current event.

America’s First Muslim President

Muslim Americans helped elect George W. Bush, but now they're leaving the Republican Party in droves. It didn't have to be this way.


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.”

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.

Suhail A. Khan is a former official in President George W. Bush's administration.

More from Foreign Policy

Children are hooked up to IV drips on the stairs at a children's hospital in Beijing.
Children are hooked up to IV drips on the stairs at a children's hospital in Beijing.

Chinese Hospitals Are Housing Another Deadly Outbreak

Authorities are covering up the spread of antibiotic-resistant pneumonia.

Henry Kissinger during an interview in Washington in August 1980.
Henry Kissinger during an interview in Washington in August 1980.

Henry Kissinger, Colossus on the World Stage

The late statesman was a master of realpolitik—whom some regarded as a war criminal.

A Ukrainian soldier in helmet and fatigues holds a cell phone and looks up at the night sky as an explosion lights up the horizon behind him.
A Ukrainian soldier in helmet and fatigues holds a cell phone and looks up at the night sky as an explosion lights up the horizon behind him.

The West’s False Choice in Ukraine

The crossroads is not between war and compromise, but between victory and defeat.

Illustrated portraits of Reps. MIke Gallagher, right, and Raja Krishnamoorthi
Illustrated portraits of Reps. MIke Gallagher, right, and Raja Krishnamoorthi

The Masterminds

Washington wants to get tough on China, and the leaders of the House China Committee are in the driver’s seat.