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Strict religion, strange party identity

Why are most elected Muslim politicians in America Democrats?

Nihad Awad, executive director and co-founder of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, speaks at a rally in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 25, 2021. Associated Press/Photo by Amanda Andrade-Rhoades

Strict religion, strange party identity
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After the U.S. midterm elections, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) reported a final count of 82 Muslim Americans who won in local, state legislative, statewide, judicial, and federal elections. As one of the most prominent Muslim advocacy organizations in the United States, CAIR celebrates the victories, precisely because of the religion of the winners, which, for them, reflects a remarkable venue to advance Islam and its values.

“We call on all American Muslim elected leaders to draw inspiration from their Islamic faith and work for the best possible future of all Americans,” said CAIR National Executive Director Nihad Awad.

Every election cycle, CAIR works diligently to get Muslims elected to political posts. And last year, 50 of the 82 Muslim victors were Democrats—the rest were independent, nonpartisan, and only two Republicans. Given the fact that the Democrat Party is rapidly moving left, especially on matters of abortion, sexuality, and LGBTQ issues, many are surprised that Muslim politicians are joining a party that hardly reflects Islamic social preferences and sexual ethics.

How can we understand CAIR and its stated mission of empowering American Muslims in “their participation in political and social activism”? And why are the vast majority of elected Muslims identified with a party that seems to contradict Islamic values?

A brief historical background is necessary. Since its founding in 1994, CAIR has been notorious with respect to reported connections to terrorist Islamist groups. In 2014, the United Arab Emirates—a Muslim nation—openly designated CAIR as a terrorist organization, alongside more than 80 other Muslim groups, such as al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Boko Haram.

This designation wasn’t a total surprise for many, especially as some of the current leadership of CAIR has been known for their strong ties with two radical Islamist groups: Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas is designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the United States, while the European Union treats it as a global terrorist entity. As for the Muslim Brotherhood, the matter isn’t much different. In 2014, several Arab Muslim countries—including the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Egypt—formally declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. Thus, while CAIR is banned from operating in several Arab Muslim nations, it is legal and flourishing in the United States.

It is religiously permissible for a Muslim to accept, do, or follow a haram (religiously prohibited matter) in order to achieve a necessity.

CAIR, like other Islamist organizations, operates within a particular view of Islam that is often labeled as political Islam or Islamist ideology.

Political Islam is a religio-political ideology that emphasizes the religion as an essential part of ruling society. For advocates of political Islam, often known as Islamists, the religion itself goes beyond spiritual values to cover all aspects of life, especially governing society. In this ideology, Muhammad was a prophet and statesman. Thus, the logic goes, society must be governed by Allah’s laws and Muhammad’s teachings, of course, as defined by these Islamists. While cultural and nominal Muslims may simply be content with following basic religious rules for life and worship, Islamists insist that “Islam” has authority in both the mosque and the state, worship and political leadership—no separation whatsoever between the two spheres.

This is why CAIR views Islam as a decisive catalyst in politics, as evident in Awad’s statement, highlighting the victories as “a testament to our community’s ongoing rise in American politics.” For Awad, these Muslim victories represent “the next step in the American Muslim community’s political transformation from marginalized voices that were sidelined, or worse, to decision makers.”

But why would many Muslim politicians identify with a political party that doesn’t seem to share Islamic social and cultural values?

There are arguably many reasons, but one important answer lies in an exclusively theological Islamic rule that “cases of necessity make forbidden things permissible.” This theological concept makes it religiously permissible for a Muslim to accept, do, or follow a haram (religiously prohibited matter) in order to achieve a necessity. Some may simply equate this rule to “the end justifies the means,” where the end in this case is for Islam to be victorious in political spheres. Thus, joining a party while adhering to what Islam forbids becomes halal (religiously permissible).

Other factors are also at work. CAIR and other groups may claim elected officials as Muslim, even if they represent a liberal form of Islam that would not be tolerated within the majority-Muslim world. Political expediency often collides with religious principles. In any event, the identification of so many Muslims with the Democratic Party indicates that something beyond religious principles is involved here. What exactly? Time may tell.

A.S. Ibrahim

A.S. Ibrahim, born and raised in Egypt, holds two PhDs with an emphasis on Islam and its history. He is a professor of Islamic studies and director of the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has taught at several schools in the United States and the Middle East, and authored A Concise Guide to the Life of Muhammad (Baker Academic, 2022), Conversion to Islam (Oxford University Press, 2021), Basics of Arabic (Zondervan 2021), A Concise Guide to the Quran (Baker Academic, 2020), and The Stated Motivations for the Early Islamic Expansion (Peter Lang, 2018), among others.

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