Can the Republicans resolve their Muslim problem?

Saba Ahmed is one of a bold band of American Muslims trying to convince Republicans that Islam is not their enemy. She came to national attention after wearing a Stars and Stripes hijab on Fox News.

Her attachment to the Republican Party should not come as a complete surprise given that up to 2000, an estimated 70% of Muslim Americans voted Republican. That all changed after 9/11 and the ratcheting up of the war on terror. Saba herself ran as a Democrat in 2011 before coming to the conclusion that she was in the wrong party.

Islamic values are very much traditional family values: pro-life, pro-marriage, pro-traditional family values, pro-business, pro-trade.

She subsequently set up the Republican Muslim Coalition “to bring the voice of conservative Muslims to American politics”. ┬áHer view of the Trump victory is resoundingly positive but she worries that fellow Muslim Americans will shun the new President.

As a Muslim of Pakistani heritage, she believes Pakistani-Americans have been way under-represented in Washington DC but that Trump, with values that are not so dissimilar to those of Muslim Americans, could be an open door. The evidence for that is a bit thin as Trump begins his presidency after a campaign that was long on anti-Muslim rhetoric. Clearly the hope is that his harsh words were electioneering rhetoric and the reality will be entirely different.

 

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Anger at a list of alleged “most dangerous anti-Muslim extremists”

On October 27, 2016, the Southern Poverty Law Center published what it claimed was a “field guide” to the fifteen “most dangerous anti-Muslim extremists”. A post on the SPLC website website explained:

Ever since the Al Qaeda massacre of Sept. 11, 2001, American Muslims have been under attack. They have been vilified as murderers, accused of conspiring to take over the United States and impose Shariah religious law, described as enemies of women, and subjected to hundreds of violent hate crime attacks.

It went on to allege that a network of anti-Muslim extremists and their “enablers” had been demonising the entire Islamic faith, characterising Muslims as terrorists and determined to undermine the US constitution. The SPLC got together with three other organisations – Media Matters for America, the Center for New Community and ReThink Media – to compile this field guide primarily aimed at journalists.

A stated aim of the guide was to encourage newsrooms not to use these voices as they would spread falsehoods about Islam and encourage hate based violence. The fifteen names included anti-immigrant voices like Ann Corcoran as well as high profile blogger Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, both of whom have attempted to forge links to Europe’s Far Right and have been banned from entering the UK. But more contentiously, the field guide listed Majid Nawaaz, a former Hizb ut-Tahrir member who has campaigned in the UK against the Islamist ideology he once adhered to.

Nawaaz works at the Quilliam Foundation, a group that takes a strong position against both Islamist ideology and the salafi-jihadism of Daesh and Al-Qaeda. Its anti-Islamism and support for the UK government’s counter-terrorism strategy has earned Quilliam the ire of Islamist-inclined groups who reacted very favourably to the field guide and bated Nawaaz with his inclusion in the list of anti-Muslim extremists.

The problem with the field guide is that while Geller and Spencer are undeniably hostile to Islam as a faith, Nawaaz is a practising Muslim. He opposes Islamism as a regressive ideology within Islam as opposed to denigrating his own faith. He wants Islam to be reconciled with liberalism and western values, a far cry from the implied allegation that he seeks to provoke hate crime against his fellow Muslims.

So what was the evidence against Nawaaz from the SPLC?

  • Nawaaz reportedly claimed: “The ideology of non-violent Islamists is broadly the same as that of violent Islamists; they disagree only on tactics”. This is an argument about the tactics employed by Islamists but makes no general statement about Muslims as a whole.
  • He called for the niqab to be removed in “identity sensitive” areas like airports and banks. Many feminist Muslims would take issue with this intrusion into women’s rights and in light of events in France, where niqab bans have been championed by the Far Right, one hopes Nawaaz would drop this suggestion in future
  • He tweeted the infamous Jesus and Mo cartoon, leading to death threats against himself. Here, the SPLC falls into the Islamist trap of defining Islamophobia beyond attacks on Muslims and their property to calling for blasphemy laws, the like of which were scrapped a hundred years ago in Europe and have been viewed as undemocratic and unconstitutional in the United States
  • The SPLC mentions his trip to a strip club, reported in April 2015. What relevance this has to being an alleged “anti-Muslim extremist” is anybody’s guess.