Dr. Oz, known for his popular television show, recently ran as a Republican in the U.S. Senate. (Spoiler alert: He lost.) His campaign received much attention from the Muslim and non-Muslim communities, with some excited about his nomination, and others wary of his intentions.
What made Dr. Oz’s campaign so important was that if he won, he would have been the first Muslim elected to serve in the U.S. Senate. Dr. Oz’s campaign is presented with a dichotomy of Muslim Republicans and prompts us to examine why Muslims join the party, as well as how they can hurt or help the representation of Muslims in the public eye.
Conservative Muslims – the Unicorn of the Muslim Community
A study from the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding found that 10% of American Muslims identify as Republicans. While some may be surprised, this makes sense. Generally, Republican policies align with Muslims who are more traditional, conservative in practice, and have a more literal interpretation of the Quran; especially on abortion, same-sex marriage, and even immigration.
I don’t fault some Muslims for aligning with the Republican party because they feel as if their policies align with their interpretation, practice, and belief in Islam. Sometimes we forget that the Muslim community is diverse, not only in race, but in how we practice our faith as well. This is what makes religion both beautiful and complex.
Just because Muslim Republicans make up a very small, underrepresented group within our community does not give us the green light to deny their existence. Although they are small, we can’t underestimate how their decision impacts both representations of the community and the public’s perceptions of the community.
“Pick Me” Muslims
No one is asking you to be a role model for your respective communities. If you do not feel comfortable or you don’t identify with members of your faith, that is okay. Your story and journey with your identity are complex. I give Dr. Oz credit for this and respect him for sharing his story about his Turkish upbringing and his struggle with being Muslim.
However, just because you don’t feel comfortable does not mean you can spread lies, ignorance, and hatred about members of your community. You can represent your political party and promote your policies without disrespecting an entire group of people.
This is where Dr. Oz faltered. He used his campaign to spread the same stereotypical and dangerous lies about the Muslim community that the Republican party has recycled for years. When narratives like this come from people like Dr. Oz, I find myself more disappointed than when it comes from other people. We hold candidates like him to a higher standard because they should know better. While I believe we should give these candidates some grace, there is a line to be drawn.
Throughout his campaign, I felt as if Dr. Oz was trying hard to convince the world that he was not like other Muslims. Oftentimes when candidates who are from a marginalized religion or race join the Republican party they do everything they can to separate themselves from their community. They present a more docile, compliant, malleable version of themselves to gain votes and appease their party. As a voter, when I see political candidates doing this I lose all respect for them. How am I supposed to support an individual who claims to be proud of their identity when they don’t even support the community they claim to be proud of?
What many candidates like Dr. Oz don’t realize is all that effort is not going to make the Republican party (and even the Democrats) respect or like you. You are still going to be the token race or religion which they can use to appeal to diverse voters. Nothing you do or say will ever be of value to them, so it’s not worth dumbing yourself down.
Additionally, the Republican party has a history of supporting problematic and racist laws that have resulted in discrimination and violence against the Muslim community. Why would you join a party that actively works to destroy and even deny your right to exist? As a party member, you would actively contribute to the disenfranchisement of your community and other communities. Just because you join the party does not mean you will be immune to what they do next. If their policies don’t hurt you, they will hurt a family member or someone you know.
Dispelling myths between culture & religion
Politics has permeated practically every part of our lives and the Muslim community is not immune to its effects. We have a general stereotype within the Muslim community that Muslims who are more secular or liberal are not actually Muslim because they don’t practice or sacrifice their beliefs in the process. On the other hand, we have a problem with thinking Muslims who are more conservative are uptight and want to preserve outdated traditions and practices. Being Muslim and joining a political party are not mutually exclusive – you can be Muslim and be invested in politics.
Maintaining a divide between politics and our faith is important so we can take a step back and see if politicians and our preferred party are actually following through on their promises. Politics should not influence our faith; our faith should guide us. This is extremely nuanced and is going to look different for everyone. But if we let our faith guide us we can see if the party’s values and beliefs align with our own or if we are simply led to believe they do.
This may be one reason why so many from the Muslim community identify with the Democrats. Their messages have an undertone of empowerment, tolerance, and building community. From what I understand, they don’t have an adverse history toward the Muslim community. They actively try to build a society that works for everyone, not just a certain group within society.
Yes, the Democrats have many shortcomings, and sometimes their messages don’t always translate to paper, but they are trying, which is recognized. This effort, while not perfect, is more than I have seen from the Republican party, but I hope to see their party making changes in the future
Being part of the conversation – bringing Muslim Republicans to the table
Inviting Muslims to the table who choose to be part of the Republican party is important. We shouldn’t allow our political preferences to create a divide or ostracize one part of the community. They are still our brothers and sisters, and finding common ground is possible.
The differences come in the interpretations we have of Islam and how we practice it in our daily lives. This translates into what type of society, social values, and environment we want to live in. I believe delving into conversations on both sides helps us understand what influences our decision.
Muslim candidates should point out the flaws and call out the shortcomings in our community – when in dialogue with our communities. We are by no means perfect and have room to learn and grow. Effective change and growth can happen when it is coming from people within our own community rather than an outsider.
However, it is ineffective for us to resort to low blows when speaking about our communities’ flaws to the masses who don’t identify as Muslims. This language only sets us back in the progress we have made. When this happens, we then focus on combatting these toxic narratives instead of focusing on creating our own narratives.
We have a shared experience, and while unique to each individual, we have a collective understanding of what it means to be an American Muslim. We should be drawing on our experiences and creating policies that work within the peripheral vision of our community.
I believe Dr. Oz’s campaign is certainly not going to be the last of its kind. His campaign did bring a new perspective for our community and candidates on both sides. Regardless of the party that you choose to be in, I hope you are able to represent and advocate your beliefs, and even the community, in a constructive and honest manner.