Republican Congresswoman Michele Bachmann recently gave a radio interview in San Francisco where she questioned the patriotism of her colleague Rep. Keith Ellison, the first American Muslim elected to Congress. As a Muslim and a former Republican, I would like to respond. Bachmann’s comments, where she derided Ellison for seeking to bring Muslims into the Obama Administration, reveal why Muslims like me left the Republican Party in droves over the past few years.
The fact that American Muslims historically identified and voted Republican will likely shock many people. But it shouldn’t, if we remember what the Republican Party used to represent. Growing up as an immigrant from Pakistan in Brooklyn, every Muslim I knew embraced the Republican brand of economic growth and family values. We were entrepreneurs who left our countries to find a better life in America, and loved the Republican promise of free enterprise and social mobility. As people of faith, we embraced the Republicans’ traditional values and social conservatism. And we saw Republicans like President George H.W. Bush and his Secretary of State James Baker as statesmen who were sympathetic to Palestinian suffering and willing to work hard to bring peace between Arabs and Israelis.
And then something started to change within the party. An ugly cancer of anti-Muslim bigotry began to reveal itself during the first Iraq War. I was an undergraduate at Dartmouth College, where the student body was perhaps the most conservative of the Ivy League schools. At meetings of the College Republicans, I began to hear distressing venom against Muslims. American Muslims were being openly talked of as a fifth column in the country, and my fellow students applauded rumors that internment camps were being set up in the Midwest for Muslim subversives. I was shocked to see my friends suddenly speak of my faith as the enemy. Our fight against Saddam had finally revealed the deeply held hatred for Islam among my fellow conservatives.
I watched in horror as Christian fundamentalists like Pat Robertson began to openly insult Prophet Muhammad at Republican gatherings. And I became disgusted by the neo-conservative infiltration of the Party, as that political movement, with its dreams of conquering the Middle East to promote Israeli hegemony, decided that Republican hatred for Islam would be a friendly breeding ground. Suddenly the party of small government, individual liberty, and caution in foreign affairs, became transformed into the party of a massive military-industrial complex, state control over people’s personal lives, and imperial hubris. The party of Lincoln and Eisenhower, the party I loved, was dead. So I walked away and registered as a Democrat – despite my deep disagreements with that party on many issues. At least the Democrats were not openly promoting bigotry against my faith.
Unfortunately, most of my fellow Muslims weren’t savvy to these changing tides, and they enthusiastically voted for George W. Bush in 2000. But after the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001, the Republican Party was finally in a position to reveal its new and ugly face. The party line became one of domestic oppression and a foreign policy linked to End Times theology in which Muslims had to be fought as a precursor to Armageddon. And Muslims recoiled and left the Republican Party in droves.
So here we are in 2009, with a new President who remarkably has a Muslim middle name and spent his youth in Indonesia, a Muslim country. And while I rejoice at America’s ability to renew itself and grow past its fears, there are still people like Michele Bachmann who build their careers by stoking the fires of hate.
I had the great privilege of meeting Congressman Keith Ellison, whose patriotism Bachmann questioned, during the Pilgrimage to Mecca this past December. Standing on the Arabian desert plain in pilgrim robes, Ellison became an instant celebrity. Muslims from all over the world sought to meet the man who had broken through the barriers of prejudice and sworn his oath to the U.S. Constitution with his hand on Thomas Jefferson’s copy of the Holy Qur’an.
Ellison was away from the cameras and the press. All he had were his fellow Muslims around him, most of who were not Americans and could not influence his political career. He was free to say whatever he wanted to an incredibly sympathetic audience, many of whom expected Ellison to criticize America for its foreign and domestic policies against Muslims. Instead, Ellison spoke movingly about how much he loved the United States, and how America represented the best values of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. I was brought to tears, and my faith in this wondrous country was revived.
And so I take great umbrage at people like Michele Bachmann, who represent the worst of what this country has to offer. Her political career has been based on making outrageous comments meant to inflame crowds, without any care for the damage she is doing to the fabric of discourse in this country. As one of the first Muslims to succeed in the entertainment industry, Bachmann reminds me of the caricature of celebrity excess that she and her ilk often decry. Like those lost souls in Hollywood who base their lives on grabbing the spotlight at every opportunity, no matter how crass, Bachmann is a narcissist. For all her claim to be a champion of Judeo-Christian values, she is nothing more than an attention seeker who seeks to fill the void in her heart with power and adulation.
In many ways, Bachmann reminds me of a character in my new novel, Mother of the Believers, which follows the birth of Islam from the perspective of the women around Prophet Muhammad. Bachmann is remarkably like Hind bint Utbah, the arrogant queen of Mecca who led a twenty-year war against Islam, before finally being defeated and embracing the very religion she tried to destroy. Like Hind, Michele Bachmann worships the false god of power. And like Hind, I have no doubt that Bachmann will find that power is a desert mirage – it always betrays those who chase it.
It is a lesson that I hope my erstwhile colleagues in the Republican Party will remember. God has humbled them in recent elections, and now they have a choice. Continue down the path of exclusion, hate and self-destruction with leaders like Michele Bachman at the helm. Or return to the vision of Lincoln and Eisenhower of a better America in which all are welcome and opportunity and freedom abounds.