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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 5:00 AM EDT

In contrast to Bush, who visited a mosque during his campaign and called Islam a "religion of peace" after 9/11, the current crop of GOP presidential candidates have used Islam mostly as a bludgeon.

Herman Cain, the Georgia businessman whom focus groups declared the victor of the first debate in South Carolina, made headlines in March when he vowed not to appoint any Muslims to his administration; former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum told Politico in May that "creeping sharia is a huge issue"—a comment echoed by Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.). Even former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, considered to be one of the more moderate GOP contenders, has furiously disavowed efforts by his administration in St. Paul to promote sharia-compliant mortgages for Muslims. (Islam forbids the collection of interest.)

And then there's Gingrich. Attentive and supportive at Norquist's gathering according to Awad, he now calls for a ban on sharia law in the United States and warns that the nation is careening toward a takeover by radical Islamists.

"Gingrich knows better," CAIR's Awad said. "He knows the Muslim community. He met with them. And I think this is a cheap shift, just for political gain. He's a well-read individual. But I think he's not taking the leadership position. He's exploiting the ignorance."

Still, there may be hope. Elibiary, who founded the Freedom and Justice Foundation to promote "centrist public policy" on behalf of Muslim Texans, cites Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Mitch Daniels of Indiana as candidates who could transcend the party's recent rhetoric.

Christie, who has insisted he won't run for president in 2012, broke with conservatives last summer to publicly support the Park 51 community center in Lower Manhattan (known by critics as the Ground Zero Mosque), and ignored criticism from the anti-sharia crowd for appointing a Muslim to the Passaic County Superior Court. Daniels, whose grandparents came to the United States from Syria, was recently honored by the Arab American Institute, which referred to him, in contrast to his fellow Republicans, as "the adult in the room." (Daniels has also ruled out a run in 2012.)

Elibiary believes that the party will come around to Muslims again, but it may take some time. "Republicans, I think, will fix a lot of those things come the 2016 election," he says. "A lot of those guys that are bottom feeders, like the Newt Gingrich type of people, thankfully are going to be a lot less relevant come 2016."

And in that sense, there seems to be some agreement: Beating up on Islam is good for television ratings, but there's little evidence it's a successful electoral strategy. Sharron Angle, who once warned that the city of Dearborn, Michigan, was already under the yoke of sharia law, fell flat in her Nevada Senate race. Lou Ann Zelenik, a Tennessee congressional candidate who made opposition to a proposed Islamic community center in Murfreesboro her central campaign issue, lost big to a conservative candidate who supported the mosque. And Rick Lazio, the former New York congressman whose campaign sought to exploit the Park 51 project, never made it out of his gubernatorial primary.

But even as Muslim leaders attempt to restore the community's political clout, it's unlikely we'll see anything like 2000 anytime soon. MPAC's Haris Tarin was not involved in those efforts, but he believes the idea of a "Muslim vote," championed by his organization a decade ago, is unrealistic given the immense diversity of the American Muslim community. "It could be done potentially at the local level—places like Northern Virginia, or parts of Michigan," he says. "But at the national level, having a bloc vote is impossible."

There's also a debate as to whether there was any such thing as a "Muslim vote" to begin with. James Zogby, a Democratic consultant and founder of the Arab American Institute, says that reports of a Muslim landslide in 2000 were based on wishful thinking. "The numbers weren't there," he says. "That day in my office after the election, I had like three different ethnic groups all claiming credit for winning. Anyone who had more than 500 voters in Florida was taking credit."

By Zogby's count, Bush garnered just 46 percent of the Muslim vote in Florida, a far cry from CAIR's 72 percent tally. But that's still significantly higher than anything the party's achieved since—and in a state like Florida, every vote counts.

Ultimately, Elibiary says, the Republican Party doesn't have a Muslim problem—for the most part, grassroots activists don't care about his faith—it has an image problem.

"A Muslim voter or a Latino voter, or a South Asian voter, if their window to the Republican party is Hannity or Beck or all these opinion shows, then yeah, they won't vote for these folks; they won't vote for the party," he says.

But Fox News isn't going away any time soon. And over the last few years, through harsh immigration laws, an embrace of "otherism," and rhetorical jabs at Islam, GOPers have consolidated their grip on white voters at the expense of virtually everyone else—even as that demographic reflects a smaller and smaller share of the electorate as a whole. It's too early to say whether or not Muslim voters will make a difference in Florida come 2012; President Obama has, after all, failed to deliver on many of his big promises on civil liberties. Going forward, though, Republicans' falling out with a once treasured constituency is emblematic of the question facing the party as a whole: How far can it go to win present elections without destroying its chances of prevailing in future ones?

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