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How to Lose Friends and Alienate Muslims, GOP Edition

Republicans have gone from courting Muslim voters to antagonizing them. What's that mean for the 2012 race?

| Tue May 24, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

In late January 2001, the day after George W. Bush was sworn into office, a group of conservative politicos including recently retired House Speaker Newt Gingrich gathered at Grover Norquist's Washington, DC, office for a meeting with influential faith leaders.

That, in itself, was hardly newsworthy. Bush had swept into office on the backs of values voters. But the gathering wasn't catering to evangelical Christians; the purpose was to discuss a variety of issues of concern to American Muslims—everything from political appointments, to civil liberties, to a Ramadan postage stamp. It was organized by the Islamic Institute, a think tank founded by Norquist, the conservative anti-tax crusader, and the guest list was culled from the ranks of Muslim–American organizations and community leaders. By some estimates, Muslims had turned out in huge numbers for Bush; at least one prominent Republican credited them with making the difference in Florida.

But those days are over, and if the rhetoric from the current crop of candidates is any indication, there's little hope for a rebound in 2012. Since 9/11, Republicans have turned a once-promising—and rapidly growing—voting demographic into a punching bag. Lately, Republican lawmakers across the country have further antagonized their Muslim constituents by pushing quixotic legislation to ban Islamic sharia law from being used in state courts. Even the founder of the group Muslims for Bush, Colorado GOPer Muhammad Ali Hasan, left the party, citing frustration with its newfound anti-Muslim "bigotry."

Now, as Republicans head full-steam into the nominating process, they face a choice: Tone down the rhetoric, or risk permanently alienating a community that's expected to double in size over the next two decades.

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"[Republican candidates] have not reached out to me, and I'm not aware of any efforts that they have made to reach out to other community leaders," says Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), who attended Norquist's meeting. "From 2000 until now, there's been a huge difference in terms of what kind of relationship we have with them. Their ability and desire to reach out to the Muslim community is almost like night and day."

The 2000 election was the high-water mark in the campaign by Muslim leaders to position the community as the swing vote of the future. More affluent than the American average, big on civil liberties and social justice, and historically independent (they'd gone for George H.W. Bush in 1992 and then for Bill Clinton in 1996), Muslims represented a natural target for both parties. Or so the thinking went. But Muslims' political clout had been hampered by years of poor turnout. As Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) put it in 1994, referring to Muslims, "I don't have time to meet with people who don't vote."

The bottom fell out for the GOP in 2008 when, according to the American Muslim Taskforce on Civil Rights and Elections, just
2.2 percent of Muslims voted for Sen. John McCain.

Leaders of four of the largest Muslim–American organizations decided to try something new: The plan was to emulate the model employed by Jewish–Americans, who held a similarly small share of the population but wielded outsize political power through groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

So they formed a bloc. There are just 3 million Muslims in the United States, but they're clumped disproportionately in battleground states like Michigan, Florida, and Ohio. Pool those votes, and you could have the kind of powerful lobby politicians would have no choice but to listen to. CAIR, along with the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), the American Muslim Council, and the American Muslim Alliance, joined forces to form the American Muslim Political Coordination Council PAC.

The new political action committee spurred voter registration drives and candidate forums, and served as a portal for fundraising efforts; it ultimately endorsed Bush, after securing key promises on the use of secret evidence in deportation cases and racial profiling. After the election, CAIR trumpeted the role of Muslim–Americans in the Republican victory. According to an informal survey of the group's membership, 72 percent of Florida Muslims had cast their votes for Bush. From all appearances, the bloc experiment was a win-win.

The September 11 attacks changed things, but only gradually. The Bush administration tacked hard against the kinds of civil liberties they'd campaigned on while nonetheless taking steps not to vilify the Islamic faith. But there was a shift within the party.

"There were people that took advantage of the lack of communication that was taking place—people who had a specific agenda, and specifically, people who were involved in the Islamophobic industry," says Haris Tarin, MPAC's DC director, referring to network of think tanks and commentators that are benefiting from the sharia freakout.

Rising conservative politicos like Suhail Khan, a Bush White House liaison to the Muslim community and later an official at the Department of Transportation, increasingly found themselves in the crossfire. Khan, for his part, was accused of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood (which he has denied). Meanwhile, Mohamed Elibiary, a young Republican activist in Texas, was attacked by right-wing sites like Jihad Watch and others for attending an event at a mosque in Irving that honored the Ayatollah Khomenei, the late leader of Iran's Islamic Revolution. Some of those concerns were more serious—Sami Al-Arian, a former University of South Florida professor who'd played a key role in Bush's 2000 outreach efforts, was convicted of material support for terrorism and sentenced to 57 months in federal prison.

The rift between the Republican Party and Muslims was reflected at the polls. The bottom fell out for the GOP in 2008 when, according to the American Muslim Taskforce on Civil Rights and Elections, just 2.2 percent of Muslims voted for Sen. John McCain. (Gallup placed that number at 11 percent, but no one has come up with a higher figure than that.)

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