Muslim Americans will reach a milestone next week when Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar join the House of Representatives. The Democrats from Michigan and Minnesota will be the first Muslim women in Congress, and many have hailed their election as a sign of rising diversity in politics.
On the other side of the aisle, a brewing controversy over a GOP leader in Texas targeted by fellow party members because of his Muslim faith is also drawing national attention. It has become a test case for an issue the Republican Party struggles with as voters in Texas and beyond grow more racially and religiously diverse: Is there room for Muslims?
Members of the Tarrant County Republican Party will vote Jan. 10 on whether Shahid Shafi, a 53-year-old trauma surgeon and city councilman in the Fort Worth suburb of Southlake since 2014, should be removed as a vice chairman.
A precinct chairwoman forced the vote after making unproven claims that Shafi, who has served as a delegate to several GOP state conventions, has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and terrorism and wants to impose sharia law. Other precinct chairs have joined in the calls to remove Shafi.
Shafi, who has forcefully denied the accusations, declined to be interviewed. In a statement, he said he would not “allow this small group of closed-minded people to damage our party.”
“I have never had any association with the Muslim Brotherhood … nor any terrorist organization,” Shafi said. “I believe that the laws of our nation are our Constitution and the laws passed by our elected legislatures — I have never promoted any form of sharia law.”
Shafi was appointed Tarrant County Republican Party vice chairman in July. That’s when the accusations against him first appeared, initially via postings on conservative Facebook groups before spreading to anti-Muslim blogs.
Dorrie O’Brien, a precinct chairwoman from Grand Prairie, called for the vote — under party rules, a single chairperson can propose an appointee’s removal — and is among those spearheading the campaign against Shafi. On a Facebook posting about him, O’Brien appeared to say Muslims were inherently extremist.
“ISIS is Islam with all the public fakery removed,” she wrote, referring to the Islamic State militant group. In an interview, she said she and allies “certainly have enough votes” to oust Shafi.
O’Brien declined to answer further questions and referred The Times to a December article on the website Jihad Watch that quoted her. The Southern Poverty Law Center lists Jihad Watch, which it says is based in Sherman Oaks, as an anti-Muslim hate group.
“We believe that Dr. Shafi is unsuitable to be the face and voice representative for all Republicans in Tarrant County,” O’Brien says in the article. “There are too many questions surrounding him on too many issues.”
Aside from targeting Shafi’s religion, O’Brien and her allies have questioned whether he is sufficiently pro-Israel and whether he’s really a conservative.
In his statement, Shafi said he believes in “Israel’s right to exist” and listed his conservative credentials, including training local GOP candidates and founding a Republican club in Southlake.
In recent weeks, Shafi has appeared on CNN to defend himself and traveled to Austin to appeal to Texas Republican leaders for support. There, state party leaders this month passed a resolution to “reaffirm our core values of religious liberty and the freedom to practice all faiths.”
Prominent party members, including Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush and Sen. Ted Cruz, have spoken out in his favor. “The party of Lincoln should welcome everybody & celebrate liberty,” Cruz tweeted this month.
Muslim Americans have also come to Shafi’s defense, though some have questioned his loyalty to a party where he’s an anomaly. Some don’t understand how Shafi could belong to a party whose leader, President Trump, said during his campaign that “Islam hates us” and whose travel ban blocks most nationals of several Muslim-majority nations from entering the U.S.
“There is no doubt that the Republican Party has lost American Muslim support,” said Republican activist Suhail Khan, a Muslim who was a White House appointee under President George W. Bush and volunteered with Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign. A corporate attorney living in Washington, D.C., Khan founded the Conservative Inclusion Coalition eight years ago to recruit Muslims and other racially and religiously diverse groups to conservative causes.
Khan called Shafi one of the “most prominent” sitting elected Muslim Republicans today. He described the politician as among a handful of remaining lines of defense for the Republican Party in a time when it has been accused of being anti-Muslim through its association with Trump.
“Dr. Shafi’s situation is an unfortunate case of discrimination and bigotry,” Khan said.
Darl Easton, the Republican Party chairman in Tarrant County who appointed Shafi to his position, agreed.
“There are some people in our party who are plain anti-Muslim,” Easton said.
But he and Khan both said the president was not to blame for anti-Muslim sentiment.
“I don’t think the president has had any effect on that,” said Easton, who said he believed “most Muslims around the world are peaceful.”
Shafi, who was born in India and immigrated to the U.S. in 1990 from Pakistan, joined the Republican Party after becoming a citizen in 2009. He said in a statement to The Times that he has “always felt welcomed in the GOP.”
“The call to remove me from the party of Lincoln and Reagan because of my religion is wrong for several reasons,” Shafi said. “First, discrimination based upon religion is illegal, immoral, unethical, un-American, and against the foundations of our country and the principles of our party. Second, it plays right into the false narrative of racism and bigotry fomented against the Republican party. Third, it distracts from our core value of religious liberty.”
In his statement, Shafi touted his conservative values: “I support our 2nd Amendment rights unconditionally, and I believe in the sanctity of life from conception onwards. I believe in small government, lower taxes, individual responsibility, religious freedom, school choice, energy independence, rule of law, and secure borders.”
There are about 3.45 million Muslims in the U.S., mostly concentrated in urban areas and large states including Texas, Illinois, Florida and California. Because they make up just over 1% of the U.S. population, they cannot make or break major federal or state elections and are typically not a part of major outreach from Republicans or Democrats.
A Pew Research Center report this year found 13% of U.S. Muslim adults to be Republicans, compared with 66% of them who are Democrats, numbers that have remained steady for a decade.
Pew did not survey Muslim Republicans before 2007, through Muslim civil rights groups have often cited wider Republican support among their members before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Several Muslim groups, including the influential American Muslim Political Coordinating Council PAC, endorsed George W. Bush in the 2000 election. A Zogby poll after that election found a plurality of Muslim voters had supported the Republican candidate.
Experts said that changed after Sept. 11, when Muslim civil rights organizations decried the Bush administration’s “war on terror” as unfairly targeting Muslims as suspects with the signing of the Patriot Act, the war in Iraq and the opening of a prison for terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba.
Azhar Azeez, a Dallas-area Muslim leader who is friends with Shafi, predicted the controversy over the GOP leader could further turn Muslims away from Republicans.
“Not only in Dallas or Fort Worth, but all around the country Muslims are talking about this case,” said Azeez, 47, who was a Republican until 2001 and today votes for Democrats. The former president of the Islamic Society of North America, Azeez described Shafi as an “honorable and respected man in the community.”
“It’s very unfortunate that somebody is making a big deal out of an individual’s faith,” Azeez said. “Hatemongers are making a big deal out of nothing.”