After winning nearly 80 percent of the Muslim vote in 2000, George Bush bled much of it away in the post 9/11 era. The war in Iraq, the PATRIOT Act, detainment and other policies drove at least half of that support to John Kerry and third party candidates in 2004. But all the while, several influential Muslim Republicans, both inside the administration and out, were working hard to staunch the bleeding and build a donor base among wealthy members of the Muslim community.
Today, several of them say that their efforts are being undermined, if not completely destroyed, by Republicans stoking anti-Muslim sentiment by opposing the construction of the Cordoba House — now known infamously and inaccurately as the “Ground Zero Mosque”.
“We’ve been working hard, some Muslim Americans, some non-Muslims, to keep the Muslim American community and other minorities on the party side, to keep relationships going,” says David Ramadan, a Vice Chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia. “All of that is threatened to be thrown down the drain.”
“Most of [that work] is at risk, if not all,” Ramadan told TPM. “How can I, an operative of the Republican party of Virginia that goes out and holds events for candidates, how can I go out to the Muslims of Loudoun County… how can I go out today in good faith and say I’d like to invite you to a Republican event, or to a candidate event on a Republican event who shares your values? Who’s going to give me a dollar today? Who’s going to give me a dollar when Republicans are comparing Muslims in general to Nazis?… Excuse me! My mother is not a Nazi!”
Former Muslim members of the Bush administration are equally outraged and equally concerned that the political cost to Republicans will be long lasting — not just among Muslims but among all religious minorities.
“Some GOP leaders like Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin are working overtime to ensure that we’ll never get the Muslim vote back,” said Suhail Khan, Chairman of the Conservative Inclusion Coalition, and a former Bush political adviser.
“The community is one that is looking for help on bread and butter issues: taxes, health care, the economy, education,” Kahn added. “But if you have party leaders coming out and trashing religious freedom issues, private property — these are things that people came to the party for. People are going to remember that.”
Under President Bush, things were different. Bush lost the support of a huge number of Muslim voters over major policy differences, but he was able to retain the allegiance of a core number of supporters, in part by suffocating the element in his party that the GOP leadership is currently rallying around and flaming.
“The War on Terror made it challenging, but it didn’t stop the Bush Administration from making a strong effort to reach out to Muslim communities in America, particularly moderate Muslim communities,” said Jamil Jaffer, one of a number of Muslims who worked in high profile positions in the Bush administration. Jaffer served as an Associate Counsel to the President and as Counsel to the Assistant Attorney General for National Security. “President George W. Bush was the first President in history — ever — to describe America as a nation composed of three religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.”
Jaffer pointed to his experience as evidence that the previous White House wasn’t pandering. “I did substantive national security work, and I never felt that anyone in the Administration — particularly not the political appointees - -looked at me with any suspicion as a result of my religious beliefs. To the contrary, I was always felt like a valued member of the Bush national security team.”
“There were more Muslims than ever before in the Republican camp and the GOP made larger [fundraising] gains than Democrats in 2000 and 2004 from the Muslim community,” Jaffer added.
But the Republican party isn’t comprised of political naifs who, one would assume, must have understood the political costs and benefits of (again) alienating the Muslim community before beginning the campaign. For instance, if one looks at the data from 2004, one sees that Bush won a significant victory over John Kerry with fewer Muslim votes than he earned when he didn’t win a popular majority against Al Gore. But in the long run, most operatives recognize that an ever whiter, more conservative Republican party can’t survive nationally. With that in mind, critics disagree about why the GOP decided to turn up the dial on their anti-Muslim and anti-mosque rhetoric in the first place.
“I really think it was not coordinated,” says Ramadan. “I truly believe this started out on a couple blogs, people went against it. One way or another it got to Speaker Gingrich and Governor Palin. They didn’t really think hard about or strategize on. It took off. After that it was a slippery slope. But they didn’t back out and used it to take shots against the President…and now it’s too late.”
Khan has a somewhat different take. “The only thing I can think of is some folks like Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich are thinking they can galvanize a certain section of the electorate on these hot button issues, and get them out. But again, I think it’s a very short term strategy.”
Ramadan echoed a sentiment that conservative activist Grover Norquist shared with Slate: in Norquist’s words, “Republicans will lose Jewish votes by focusing on a mosque in New York…. You’re going to lose Jewish votes, Indian votes, Buddhist votes. Every member of a minority group looks at a situation like this and says, oh, the people hitting this minority will eventually start hitting me.”
“The folks who were warming up to the Republican conservative ideas, particularly because they shared an affinity for an ‘up by your own bootstraps’ economic philosophy and the like, there is a distinct possibility you’ll see some of that ground being lost as a result of this ongoing debate,” says Jaffer.
The frustration has been enough to draw these Republicans into a public debate with their own party faithful, but not enough to shake their loyalty to the GOP cause. In 2012, if the GOP presidential nominee is somebody who, like Palin, or Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, fought the Cordoba Initiative’s project, they can still expect support from Muslim Republicans…though maybe not quite as much.
“It will last, because it hits people right in their hearts. It makes people doubt whether they’re safe with the Republican party,” Ramadan said. “I will always support the party. The question is how much we will do for the party. How much of my time, my money…it all depends on which candidates are going to run.”
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at email@example.com.