Muslim Republicans Feeling Lost Amid Party Leaders’ Increasingly Anti-Islam Rhetoric

Mohamed Elibiary outside his home in Plano, Texas, in 2015. (Cooper Neill, BuzzFeed)
Mohamed Elibiary outside his home in Plano, Texas, in 2015. (Cooper Neill, BuzzFeed)

Anwar Khalifa is about as Texan as you can get. He speaks in a sharp twang and cruises around in a Chevy truck with real longhorns mounted on the front. He never skips “worship day,” he taught his three daughters to shoot, and, most important for his standing in Tyler society, the 57-year-old is a lifelong Republican.

For decades, Khalifa’s conservative politics coexisted just fine with his Muslim, immigrant background; his family moved from Egypt to Texas in the late 1960s. He chairs the nominating committee of the local Republican club, and he’s invited a slew of Republican politicians to the mosque his parents helped build. The biggest display in his office is a framed photo of him in a cowboy hat next to then-president George W. Bush at a White House event one Ramadan.

Khalifa’s loyalty to the GOP runs deep, and yet he’s down to maybe two Republican candidates he says he can vote for in good conscience in the November midterm elections. His East Texas ballot will include a candidate who apologized after approving a white nationalist rally, a bankruptcy-plagued radio host nicknamed “the Trump of Texas,” and a state official who compared Syrian refugees to rattlesnakes. Oh, and Sen. Ted Cruz. (“Just evil,” Khalifa said.)

Khalifa can’t bring himself to vote Democrat, but he sure isn’t voting for that GOP lineup, either.

“I can’t vote for people who are not just anti-Muslim, but who are anti anything that isn’t like them,” he said. “Unless you’re a white person in this country, you don’t matter to them.”

Khalifa is among the last of the Muslim Republicans, a subset of voters that’s disappearing as the GOP moves right on race and religion, with leaders openly demonizing Islam and staying silent when President Donald Trump makes bigoted remarks. Last month, just a couple hours from where Khalifa lives, an internal battle erupted in the Tarrant County Republican Party over calls to remove the party’s vice chair, Shahid Shafi, because he’s Muslim. That fight is still going on.

Making up just 1% of registered voters nationwide, Muslims aren’t kingmakers, but they have the numbers to influence tight elections in places with high concentrations of Muslims. The Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, the nation’s largest Muslim advocacy group, flagged five statewide midterm elections where the relatively high number of registered Muslim voters — Democrats and Republicans alike — might swing a tight race: Senate seats in Texas, Missouri, Florida, and Arizona, as well as the dead-heat match for Wisconsin governor.

As with other marginalized communities, Muslims saw a surge of political engagement after Trump’s election, with the emergence of first-time candidates, new lobbying groups, and Muslim-led voter drives. In California, a Muslim Republican, former Pentagon prosecutor Omar Qudrat, will be on the November ballot in a deep blue congressional district. Overall, however, the newfound energy has focused on Democrats. Muslims left the GOP en masse in the post-9/11 era of the Iraq War and the Patriot Act.

Now, under Trump, Muslims who stayed Republican are once again navigating what it means to be in a party where they no longer feel welcome. As the episodes become uglier and more frequent, they face a choice: Leave the party in protest or stay and fight?

Khalifa said the stakes are too high for him to walk away from access that took 25 years to cultivate. His cachet in Republican circles means that when he sees old friends taking potshots at Islam, he can confront them, as he did recently when he asked a buddy running for sheriff to scrap a campaign line about keeping “Sharia law” out of Smith County.

“If we get involved, if these politicians know us, when we show up, we matter,” Khalifa said. “When we don’t show up, we don’t exist, and they can do whatever the heck they want to us.”

Six other Muslim Republicans interviewed this month said they too had decided to stay with the party they’ve supported for decades, though some are backing off from active participation or, like Khalifa, abstaining from midterm voting. They argue that even a muted Muslim voice in the ruling party is better than no representation as policies are drawn up to ban, deport, or bomb Muslims.

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SOURCE: Hannah Allam
BuzzFeed News