At this point, it’s a generally accepted truism that the Republican Party is the epicenter of political Islamophobia — especially this election season. Over the past few months, candidates vying for the GOP presidential nomination have repeatedly used anti-Islam rhetoric as a way to inspire their base: Sen. Marco (R-FL) Rubio openly advocated for shutting down mosques; Ben Carson insisted that a practicing Muslim should not be president; and just this week, frontrunner Donald Trump — the man who famously proposed a ban on all Muslim immigration into the United States late last year — proudly declared that Islam “hates” America.
This unprecedented barrage of anti-Muslim hatred from members of the GOP has (understandably) created a tidy narrative in which Muslim Americans are expected to vote for liberal Democrats, such as when many in heavily-Muslim Dearborn, Michigan showed up in droves to vote for Bernie Sanders in the Michigan primary.
Yet the explosion of anti-Islam rhetoric among GOP candidates belies another oft-forgotten irony: a surprising number of Muslim Americans currently flocking to the Democratic party used to be Republicans.
It would be wrong to cast Muslims as a monolithic voting bloc, of course. As a group of around 2 million voters, American devotees of Islam are surprisingly diverse, constituting a kaleidoscopic array of immigrant families, African American Muslims, and white converts.
But they also, historically speaking, claim a number of card-carrying members of the Republican party — a legacy that persists to this day.
“American Muslims are pro-life, pro-traditional family values, pro-business, pro-trade,” Saba Ahmed, President and Founder of the Republican Muslim Coalition, told ThinkProgress. “A lot of Islamic ideals fit with the Republican Party.”
Indeed, a 2011 Pew Research survey of U.S. Muslims found that while solid majorities self-identified as Democrats and endorsed bigger government (70 and 68 percent, respectively), there is some support for hallmark social conservative positions. For example, although 42 percent of U.S. Muslims told the Public Religion Research Institute in 2015 that same-sex marriage should be accepted (which is technically more supportive than white evangelical Protestants), a solid 45 percent told Pew that homosexuality should be actively discouraged by society.
In fact, the “Muslim vote” was once a coveted prize for the Republican Party. Osama Siblani, Editor in Chief of the Arab American News and a Muslim American, told ThinkProgress in a November 2015 interview that George Bush visited his heavily Muslim American city of Dearborn, Michigan, during his 2000 campaign for president — a move that made him the first presidential candidate to publicly court the support of Arab-Americans and Muslims. Siblani said he and other community leaders pressed Bush to address the issue of airport profiling, a concern for Arab Americans and Muslim Americans even before the September 11 attacks instituted a new era of security checks for airline passengers. The urging worked: Both Bush and opponent Al Gore decried profiling at a presidential debate six days later, and it was the former Texas governor — not his Democratic rival — who demanded that the government “do something” about airport profiling and the use of “secret evidence” by law enforcement. The practice, he said, stigmatized Arab Americans.
“If George W. Bush is elected president, he’ll have many people to thank. One of them is Osama Siblani,” read an October 2000 op-ed in conservative newspaper The Weekly Standard, referring to Bush’s meeting with Arab American leaders.
Muslim Americans turned out to be a pivotal force behind Bush’s eventual victory. A poll conducted by the Center for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) found that a shocking 72 percent of Muslims voted for Bush that year. That number has since been challenged, but a 2001 Zogby poll still reported a solid 42 percent backed Bush, compared to 31 percent who sided with Gore. More importantly, Bush racked up more than 46,000 Muslim votes in the pivotal swing state of Florida, where the man who would come to be known as The Decider won by a mere 537 votes overall.
“George W. Bush was elected president of the United States of America because of the Muslim vote,” conservative thinker Grover Norquist reportedly told the Spectator at the time.
But the golden age of Muslim Republicanism was snuffed out less than a year later on September 11, 2001, when a pair of horrific terrorist attacks enacted by non-U.S. citizens unleashed a rash of Islamophobia against Muslims both foreign and domestic. Bush, to his credit, took pains to insist that the attacks were not representative of Islam, but many of his fellow Republicans refused to follow suit, with more than a few embracing rhetoric that used Muslims as a scapegoat. As David Graham points out over at the Atlantic, Muslim Americans subsequently underwent a dramatic political reversal in just four years: A Georgetown University poll taken just before the 2004 election found that roughly three-quarters of Muslims planned to back Democrat John Kerry in the election, with only 7 percent saying they would vote for Bush.
“After 9/11, many Muslims felt betrayed by the Republican party,” Ahmed said.
Things have only gotten worse since then. Anti-Islam bigotry inspired an entire Islamophobia industry whose political representatives included right-wing Republican candidates such as Rep. Joe Walsh (R-IL), Florida state Rep. Adam Hasner (R), and Florida Congressmen Allen West (R). By 2012, conservative-minded Muslim Americans were begging the Republican Party to rethink its stance.
“It doesn’t have to be this way,” sportswriter and Muslim American Rany Jazayerli wrote in a heartfelt open letter to the RNC in 2012. “The Muslim community still shares many core values with Republicans, the same core issues that attracted most Muslims to the Republican Party in the first place. Muslims haven’t changed their views on limited government, or the superiority of the traditional nuclear family, or the importance of encouraging entrepreneurship. A Republican Party that focused on its core principles rather than on demonizing a minority as a way to score cheap political points would find support among the American Muslim community again.”
Anti-Islam positions initially hurt many candidates who tried to use it in the early 2010s. But Donald Trump’s wildly successful 2016 presidential run proves that Islamophobia — parroted by other GOP candidates such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio — is now an accepted (and powerful) vote-getter within certain blocs of the Republican Party.
“I never thought I’d say it, but now I long for the Republican Party of George W. Bush,” Mehdi Hasan, then host of the Al Jazeera English show UpFront, wrote in a 2015 New York Times Op-ed.
Even as right-wing candidates increasingly single out Muslims for short-term primary gains, Ahmed insists the GOP is missing major chances to win back members of her demographic who are yearning to vote Republican.
“There’s a lot of frustration in the Muslim community about Obama’s drone strike policies — especially in Pakistan,” she said. “We feel that Democrats are not helping. I see a lot of Pakistani doctors, lawyers, moving back towards Republicans.”
Even so, the new, unprecedented wave of Islamophobia sweeping the United States — which hate-group experts partly blame on anti-Islam rhetoric spouted by Republican politicians — is making Ahmed’s job difficult. When asked if Donald Trump’s rise makes it harder for her to recruit more Muslim Republicans, her reply was immediate: “Yes.”
“I would love to tell Trump that Islam loves America,” she said.