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Jun 13, 2023, 6:06pm EDT
politicsNorth America

The GOP’s new Muslim outreach

Fox News
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The Scene

In late March, after the Montgomery County, Md. school district announced that students could not opt out of reading books with LGBTQ themes, the local chapter of Moms for Liberty started to organize. County organizer Lindsey Smith arrived at a school board meeting with signs, printed by the conservative group, that read “we do NOT CO-PARENT with the GOVERNMENT.”

That was how Smith met the Muslim families, new to conservative politics, who were also demanding a restored opt-out policy and taking their signs. Within weeks, they’d show up to board meetings in the hundreds.

“We have the same family values,” Smith told Semafor. “They created a team out of people they weren’t expecting to team up. The board of education forgot the demographics of their county, if I’m being honest.”

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Twelve years ago, House Republicans questioned whether the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) was a “terrorist organization.” Last week, CAIR was on site at the board meeting, lobbying for a policy that would let Muslim students skip the LGBTQ reading, to fix what Maryland CAIR director Zainab Chaudry called the “growing sense of hurt and betrayal experienced by our communities.”

Their protests grabbed conservative media attention after a Montgomery County legislator asked why Muslim parents “were on the same side of an issue as White supremacists and outright bigots.” She apologized. But not before Fox News host Laura Ingraham told her viewers that “people of faith have been waiting for Muslims to step up,” and brought on Kareem Monib, a Muslim parent in Howard County, Md. to discuss what was happening.

The irony of the moment was not lost on her guest: “Five years ago Laura was saying we shouldn’t have Muslims in this country,” Monib, the founder of the pro opt-out group Coalition of Virtue, told Semafor. “Now she’s saying: Thank God, the Muslims are here!”

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David’s view

In his first campaign for president, Donald Trump appealed to LGBTQ voters by pledging to protect them from a “hateful foreign ideology” that he falsely linked to ordinary Muslim Americans. Seven years later, Republicans are wooing Muslim voters by promising to protect them from LGBTQ rights advocates whose demands conflict with their faith.

The anti-Muslim politics that Trump tapped into for years — offering cash to stop a “Ground Zero Mosque,” spreading inflammatory lies about Arab neighborhoods, proposing a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the U.S. that turned into a travel ban that mostly affected Muslims — don’t have as much traction with GOP candidates anymore.

What replaced it? Trump told a Republican crowd in a recent speech that “transgender” is a guaranteed applause line even though “five years ago you didn’t know what the hell it was.”

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Nobody’s explicitly disavowed the old Republican politics, but presidential candidates don’t warn about “Islamofascism” in Des Moines; they don’t talk about banning sharia law in Charleston; and Trump himself has only talked off-camera about restoring the “Muslim ban.” Support for deepening ties with Gulf states like Saudi Arabia increasingly codes as MAGA thanks in part to Trump’s friendly diplomatic and business relationships.

That’s created some space for a project that conservatives shelved for two decades: Making cultural appeals to observant Muslims, and separating them from a secular, progressive Democratic Party. The Muslim vote collapsed after the party’s post-9/11 turn, and didn’t recover when Trump led the GOP.

“They are not big on ‘woke’ stuff and are not susceptible to being bullied,” said Grover Norquist, the president of Americans of Tax Reform, whose own effort to bring Muslims into the GOP fizzled during the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. “They are woke-resistant.”

Muslim voters are a small share of the electorate; pre-Bush GOP outreach was focused mostly in Michigan, a swing state where support from Muslims and non-Muslim Arabs can be decisive. Last year, after Muslim parents in Dearborn, Mich. demanded that “filth” and “pornography” be taken out of public schools, Republicans rushed in. The party’s unsuccessful statewide ticket rallied in the city; in February, the state GOP chose Rola Makki, its first-ever Muslim official, as its outreach director.

Michigan Democrats swept the midterms, but their vote share declined in Dearborn. Makki told Semafor that the shift helped convince GOP delegates to elect her to the outreach role. She wanted to introduce Muslims and Islam to more Republicans, in a state where an anti-Muslim state senator ran for governor just five years ago. And she wanted to convince more Muslims that the Democrats had abandoned them.

“A lot of people from the Middle East were persecuted for their beliefs and wanted to come here for religious freedom,” said Makki. “How did we go from love, tolerance, and acceptance to forcing beliefs on people?”

Gender identity and LGBTQ content in schools were forcing that question, said Makki; in March, she tweeted that when “someone asks me why as a Muslim I’ve aligned with the GOP, I just go to the Libs of TikTok page and show them the insanity from the progressive left.”

“The kids are too young to be exposed to this ideology,” said Khalil Ahmed-Saif Othman, a Dearborn activist and former Democrat who joined Makki and state chair Kristina Karamo at a GOP outreach event at a banquet hall in the city last month. “The Michigan GOP is becoming more welcoming to minorities.”

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Room for Disagreement

Wa’el Alzayat, the CEO of the Muslim political action group Emgage, said that the GOP outreach to that community would bump up against the rest of the party’s agenda.

“Some people will always be swayed by this, but Republicans have a lot of baggage to deal with,” said Alzayat. “The first thing the Republican speaker of the House did this year was strip Ilhan Omar of her committee assignments. Trump still wants to reinstate the Muslim ban. Yes, they’ve pivoted from some talking points, but there’s a fundamental problem with Republicans and American Muslims.”

Sami Khaldi, the president of the Dearborn Democratic Club, acknowledged that Republicans had made some gains there. In 2020, after making the “Muslim ban” reality, Trump had even improved on his 2016 vote share. But he ticked off issues where “the Democratic Party, which is a welcoming party,” had more to tell Muslims — auto insurance costs (a major Michigan-specific issue), education, and healthcare.

Asked about GOP outreach in her district, a spokesman for Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib pointed to her statement last month condemning the Parents Bill of Rights for turning students “into pawns in their political games.” After the Dearborn protests, Tlaib told Fox 2 Detroit that “extremists on the right” were “promoting lies, fear, and outrage while chanting Trump’s name.”

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Notable

  • In Hamtramck, not far from Dearborn, the all-Muslim city council will vote tonight on whether to prevent all but five flags from being flown on city property. Pride flags would be prohibited, which prominent conservatives have argued in recent days should not be used in an official capacity.
  • The idea of winning social conservative Muslims over to the GOP isn’t new: Dinesh D’Souza suggested it in his 2007 book “The Enemy at Home,” arguing that “the right is perfectly poised to forge an alliance with traditional Muslims” once it stopped “its ridiculous preening as the champion of secularism and feminism.”
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