It happens every four years in the United States. Primary elections or caucuses are the state-by-state voting campaigns within a political party that determine who will end up on that party’s final Presidential ticket. This week, all eyes are on the southern state of Florida and the battle among Republicans for their presidential contender. The latest polls suggest former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is surging against one-time Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, in Florida with former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum and current U.S. Representative Ron Paul also vying for votes.
Many analysts view Florida, the fourth state primary in this election cycle, as key to determining which Republican will run against President Obama next November. Republican committees in Ohio, New Hampshire and Florida have been scrambling for weeks to raise funds, promote the party’s platform and bring in new voters. To do so, they depend on staff and volunteers to make phone calls, write speeches or hand out flyers. Some of them are volunteers such as American Muslim Mohamed Alo.
Alo says he has been politically active in his home state of Ohio for as long as he can remember, writing speeches for local Republican candidates or helping design their political campaigns.
“What attracted me to the party,” Alo says, “and what attracts many Muslims to it is that it’s supposedly the party of family values, fiscal conservatism—you know, not spending more than you make, being really supportive of the core family unity. That’s what most Muslims believe in.”
In addition, Alo says he is attracted to some conservative and faith-based factions within the Republican Party which oppose “homosexuality, pornography, premarital sex, unbridled abortion”—in short, he says, “all those things that have led to the deterioration of America’s moral fabric.”
Alo recognizes that as a Muslim Republican, he is somewhat of a rarity these days. “If you go back into the ’80s and ’90s,” says Alo, “Muslim American voters were almost exclusively Republican.” However, he says that in recent years, American Muslims have distanced themselves from the party. “I would say now that they’re probably split about fifty-fifty, or maybe even more towards the Democratic side, like sixty-forty.”
There are no statistics to back up Alo’s estimate. Because voter registration forms do not ask for an applicant’s religion, there are no precise statistics on how many Muslims are actually registered to vote in the United States. Nor are there statistics on which party they most identify with.
Still, there is evidence to demonstrate that in recent years, Muslim American voters have begun to identify less and less with the Republican Party. At first, George Bush appealed to Muslim voters. Consider, as VOA reported in mid-2004, that 78% of Muslims who voted in the 2000 presidential election voted for Republican candidate George Bush.
But things began to change after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, says Alo:
“September 11th happened, and then the Afghanistan War and the Iraq War and all this, a lot of Muslims, especially ones who were more immigrant than indigenous, they viewed those foreign policies as, well, it was Bush who came up with this… and look at all these horrible things they are saying about people where we come from, so these guys have got to be bad.”
But a 2006 survey of 32,000 American Muslim voters that was conducted by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) showed a definitive shift in attitudes among American Muslim voters. That poll showed that only 17 percent of American Muslims considered themselves to be Republicans, while 42 percent said they identified more with the Democratic Party (the remaining 28 percent claimed they were not affiliated with any political party).
Back in Florida
Nezar Hamze, the executive director of Florida’s CAIR office, says he is one of the few Muslim Republicans he knows these days. His name popped up in newspaper headlines last September after he applied for membership to the Broward County [Florida] Republican Executive Committee (BREC) and was turned down in an unprecedented public meeting. He says BREC also turned down his request to create a Muslim Republican Club in Florida, which he estimates has an impressive Muslim population of 90,000 to 110,000.
The majority of BREC members said they had no complaint with his religious faith, but were concerned about his affiliation with CAIR. In 2007, CAIR and many other Islamic organizations were named on a list of “unindicted co-conspirators” in a major terror financing trial against an Islamic U.S. charity, the Holy Land Foundation, in 2007.
The designation is generally used to describe people or institutions alleged in an indictment to have participated in a conspiracy, but they are not formally charged with any wrongdoing for a variety of reasons, including problems with proper evidence. In this case, the Holy Land Foundation was accused of funneling money into the Hamas terrorist group. CAIR has denied any connection to terrorism and cites the case as an effort to “demonize” it. In 2010, a federal judge exonerated CAIR and other groups, saying that list of unindicted co-conspirators should never have been drawn.
The incident made national headlines after the popular television satire show, The Daily Show with John Stewart, satirized BREC on national television.
Hamze admits the entire public experience has been challenging but he wants to stay in the Republican Party:
“It takes thick skin. I absolutely recognize that BREC is infested with some far, far right extremists. And I saw that that evening when I went in there, you know, it was pretty aggressive: people were yelling and calling me a ‘terrorist.’ But that’s not the first time that’s happened.”
But Hamze points out that the entire party cannot be judged on the actions of one regional committee. He says his opponents represent a neo-conservative viewpoint that can be found at the far right of the Republican Party.
He also points out that he has some support on the Committee: 158 members voted against his membership, but that left 11 BREC members who back him.
“They say, ‘Don’t quit, just keep coming to the meetings, you’ll be okay,’” says Hamze. “And then even some of the people who were yelling and calling me terrorist and stuff like that, there were two people, they came up to me and they shook my hand and said, ‘Thank you for coming.’”
Hamze says he will remain a loyal member of the Republican Party because he believes it best represents conservative family values.
“That’s really one of the foundations of Islam, besides the teaching of the oneness of God. The conservative family values are the thread of the family, which in turn becomes the thread of community, which in turn becomes the thread of the society. That is one of the reasons the Republican platform is so appealing to traditional or conservative Muslims.”
As for anyone in the Republican Party who might be ignorant about Muslims, Hamze says he is confident that, with time, they can be “educated,” and it would be far more constructive to work with them from the inside than criticize them from the outside.
Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for Dubai-TV English. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf regions, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA and MEV a keen understanding of the region's top social, cultural and political issues.