A recent story making the rounds is about an attempt by Republican leaders in Texas’s Tarrant County to oust a Muslim party vice chairman. The move comes after Beto O’Rourke, Democratic opponent to Republican Senator Ted Cruz in the November 2018 midterm elections, won the county. It was the first time a Democrat running for federal office won this third-most-populous county in Texas.
Even though Sen. Cruz won reelection and O’Rourke lost the race, Republican leaders in Tarrant are spooked by the blue wave that overtook their county. These leaders blame themselves for being “lax” and part of their toughening-up plan is to clean ranks, with special focus on their one Muslim member, Shahid Shafi. Although they insist the move is not based on anti-Muslim animus, their proffered reasons for removal include Shafi’s so-called “loyalty” to Islamic law, or sharia. Shafi, for his part, disavows any such loyalty.
The story is troubling for a number of reasons, but what I find most striking is the way fears about a Democratic takeover are conflated with fears about Muslims, even one like Shafi, a dedicated Republican who has in the past unequivocally supported anti-sharia laws. Why is removing Shafi the solution to Tarrant County turning blue? More to the point, why are Shafi’s rights at risk because of a political fight that generalizes his religion and uses it as a pawn?
This isn’t the first time Muslims have figured into a conservative-liberal fight. Back in 2010, when Oklahoma was considering its anti-sharia amendment titled, “Save Our State,” state Rep. Rex Duncan made television appearances describing the law as a form of resistance to “liberal judges.”
The proposed amendment would prevent judges from considering sharia law in their decision-making. When an MSNBC newscaster asked incredulously whether there was “imminent danger of judges considering sharia law when deciding cases,” Duncan responded, “It’s not just a danger. It’s a reality.”
Newscaster: “Reality? Wait, has that happened in your state of Oklahoma?”
Duncan: “It has not. This is a preemptive strike to make sure that liberal judges don’t take the bench in an effort to use their position to undermine those founding principles and to consider international law or sharia law …”
Newscaster: “I’m sorry, Mr. Duncan. But less than 1 percent of your population is Muslim, so where would that threat come from?”
Duncan: “It’s a growing threat, frankly. And this again is a preemptive strike. They understand that this is a war for the survival of America. It’s a cultural war. It’s a social war. It’s a war for the survival of our country. And other states, while they’ve looked away too long, looked the other way, and kowtowed to political correctness, have lost an opportunity perhaps to save their state …”
Like his party members in Texas, Duncan melded concerns about liberals (here, liberal judges), “political correctness” and fears about Muslims and sharia. In his view, liberals are trying to undermine America’s founding principles, which he described as “Judeo-Christian.” And apparently, Muslims are their partners in crime.
An even more dramatic iteration of this argument is Ben Shapiro’s theory in his piece, “Why the Left Protects Islam.” He argues: “the Left believes that the quickest way to destroy Western civilization is no longer class warfare but multicultural warfare: Simply ally with groups that hate the prevailing system and work with them to take it down. Then, the Left will build on the ashes of the old system.”
Which Muslims specifically is Shapiro referring to? He mentions Linda Sarsour, an American Muslim progressive activist and co-organizer of the Women’s March on Washington, and Palestinian Arabs in Israel-Palestine. In his view, the Left allies with these Muslims because they want to dismantle Western civilization. Together, Sarsour and Palestinian-Arab activists represent for Shapiro all Muslims and allow him to make overbroad statements about the Left allying with not just certain, select Muslims but the entire nationwide and worldwide community of Muslims.
Political conservatives haven’t always been this contemptuous of Muslims. As Peter Beinart wrote in The Atlantic, “During George W. Bush’s presidency, Christian conservatives often described Muslims as ideological allies.” Even “[a]fter 9/11 … a review of responses to the attacks noted that the Christian right is ‘refusing to vilify Islam after Sept. 11 and remains committed to an alliance of ‘orthodox believers.’” A 2015 op-ed in The Guardian by Jeff Sparrow also catalogues past “Islamophilia” among conservative commentators who today espouse a virulent Islamophobia.
The reasons for this switch from Islamophilia to Islamophobia are complex, but at both points, conservatives’ relationship with Islam was necessarily tied up with whether Islam and Muslims could help conservatives oppose liberals (and liberalism). However Muslims figure into this ideological fight, they do so largely without agency — in formulating their position on Muslims, conservatives rely on their own broad, speculative conception of what Islam is instead of any real, sustained engagement with a diverse set of Muslims.
Even more troubling is the implication for human rights. Both, sweeping generalizations about Islam and Muslims and the supposed alliance among all Muslims with the Left, result in the politicization of Muslim rights. Shahid Shafi is in danger of losing his position in Tarrant County, Texas. Muslims in Oklahoma and throughout the nation (43 states, to be exact) have to deal with anti-sharia laws that prohibit their religious arbitration. All American Muslims have to live in fear of the next hate crime in a wave of anti-Muslim hate crimes on the rise since 2016.
Political fights are an unfortunate part of our reality and I don’t expect the battle to be over anytime soon. But politics cannot translate into a deprivation of rights.
Asma T. Uddin is senior scholar at the Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum Institute. Her email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.