Why I can't 'come out of the closet' as a Muslim Republican quite yet

Many American Muslims, myself included, believe in conservative ideals and fiscal policies. Rather than alienating potential allies, Republicans should shift their message to one of civility and inclusiveness, especially when it comes to Muslim Americans.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal speaks at the 40th annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Md., March 15. Mr. Jindal called on Republicans to 'stop being the stupid party' earlier this year. Op-ed contributor Zargham Shah says the GOP should stop 'the hate rhetoric against American Muslims' as 'there are some obvious points of overlap between Muslim-American values and conservative ideals.'

As an American Muslim, I have been too embarrassed to “come out of the closet,” so to speak, to admit my potential allegiance to the GOP. Every time I gained the strength to push the door open, someone from the Republican campaign would make bigoted or stupid statements, many times about American Muslims or other law-abiding citizens, forcing me back in. With my wife’s support, I have now gained the courage to open the closet doors wide open – but I refuse to step out just yet.

Louisiana’s Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) eloquently remarked earlier this year that the GOP needs to “stop being the stupid party.” Republicans, it is time to start a conversation: Stop the hate rhetoric against American Muslims and other patriotic Americans and rebuild the tarnished brand of Lincoln’s party with a sensible and inclusive strategy.

Many American Muslims, myself included, believe in conservative ideals and fiscal policies, which make the Republican Party an appealing alternative to the liberal, tax-and-spend positions of the Democrats. Rather than alienating potential allies, Republicans should shift their message to one of civility and inclusiveness, especially when it comes to Muslim Americans.

Many Republicans take solace in the imagined fact that the 2012 presidential election was “close,” and the loss is simply an aberration. But the fact is, that there have been six other modern American presidential elections that had a closer outcome than the one in 2012. Additionally, the Republican candidates have lost the popular vote in five of the last six elections. Starting in 1992, no Republican presidential candidate has received more than 300 electoral-college votes. These are some stunning statistics – a far cry from the 1984 presidential election when Ronald Reagan prevailed in 49 states.

The demographics of the electorate continue to change in the United States. Yet many Republicans still appear unwilling to admit the need to change course.

Mr. Romney ran his campaign thinking it would be a referendum on Mr. Obama and his handling of the economy. Instead, the election and the months since have been a kind of referendum on the extremist brand of the Republican Party. A coalition of most college-educated Americans, African-Americans, Latinos, and Asians across various religious leanings have rejected the direction of the Republican Party.

According to some estimates, less than 5 percent of American Muslims voted for Romney. American Muslims, while by no means a large part of the electorate, as equal citizens of this country do not deserve to be demonized or have their patriotism questioned by campaigning Republicans.

Two stark reminders of the bigotry plaguing the GOP stand out: Last summer, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) of Minnesota launched a McCarthy-esque witch hunt against American Muslims calling for investigations of Muslims working in the State department to determine their allegiances and whether they might be infiltrating the US government. And though time has passed, it’s hard to forget former presidential candidate Herman Cain’s May 2011 proclamation that he would not be inclined to appoint a Muslim as a member of his cabinet.

If Republicans still refuse to embrace American Muslims, they should at least learn from the last presidential election loss – that spewing what amounts to bigotry toward them, or others, is not winning the GOP votes from the broader diverse, educated, and independent electorate – votes that Republicans will need to remain competitive in the future.

And Republicans may find natural allies among Muslim Americans. From an ideological standpoint, there are some obvious points of overlap between Muslim-American values and conservative ideals, including the importance of traditional family values, self-reliance, and a pro-life stance. In many respects, most Muslims in America are as religious as Christians here. According to a 2011 Pew Research Center survey, 69 percent of American Muslims say that religion is very important in their lives, compared to 70 percent of Christians. 

In many ways, the teachings and practices of the Prophet Muhammad are consistent with conservative values of entrepreneurship and small government. For example, the prophet was a businessman and worked as a trader for most of his adult life. Upon establishing a government, he introduced a nominal tax rate (2.5 percent) on “net wealth.” This tax was an incentive to discourage hoarding and stimulate investments – not just to run government and redistribute income – as capital machinery, factories, and equipment were exempt from taxation.

And according to the Pew study, 20 percent of American Muslims are self-employed or small business owners, compared to 17 percent of the general public.

To win the hearts and minds of the American people in the years to come, it is time for Republicans to show leadership by either educating or eradicating the toxic voices within the party. Ronald Reagan, despite his shortcomings, was never short on respect for the individual, had an ability to disagree without being disagreeable, and lived the values of being a uniter and not a divider.

If the GOP embraces Reagan’s values of civility and inclusiveness, then I, along with other “closet Republicans” who represent America’s rich diversity will step out and be prepared to wholeheartedly support a revived Republican party.

Zargham Shah has been an investment banker and is a student at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. An immigrant from Pakistan, he first came to the United States with his family at the age of three and is now settled in Chicago with his wife and two children.

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