US may elect first Muslim senator. Why are few Muslims thrilled?

Donald Trump-backed Mehmet Oz’s Senate bid fails to produce enthusiasm seen with previous Muslim firsts in US.

Oz speaking at Podium with Donald Trump standing behind him
Pennsylvania Republican Senate candidate Mehmet Oz with former President Donald Trump at rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, September 3 [File: Andrew Kelly/Reuters]

The United States may elect its highest-ranking Muslim official next week – a Donald Trump-backed Republican who has questioned the legitimacy of the 2020 elections.

Mehmet Oz, a television personality and retired surgeon of Turkish descent, is running in Pennsylvania against Democratic Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman in a race that could decide the fate of the US Senate for the next two years.

While many Muslim Americans have welcomed Oz’s candidacy, his run has failed to generate the excitement previous firsts spurred in Muslim-American communities. Oz is the first Muslim major party nominee for the Senate.

“Policies are more important for us here than anything else. Identity is great and wonderful, but if a candidate doesn’t align with our values and principles, it doesn’t make sense for us to support somebody like that,” said Nagi Latefa, a Palestinian-American resident of Allentown, Pennsylvania, who promotes civic engagement in the community.

Oz, who describes himself as a “secular Muslim”, has only discussed his identity when asked.

And unlike Muslim Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, for example, he has not centred issues that specifically appeal to Muslim Americans in his campaign, including advocacy for Palestinian rights and combatting Islamophobia.

‘We don’t want Sharia law’

Moreover, Oz’s association with Trump and past comments disparaging “Sharia law” have drawn rebuke from Muslim-American activists.

Asked by Real America’s Voice, a conservative media network, in May whether he disagrees with former Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson that Islam is incompatible with the US Constitution, Oz said: “We don’t want Sharia law in America. I’m a secular Muslim.”

He continued: “I don’t want any of these religious fanatics playing a role in American society, and I would work aggressively to block them.”

Sharia is a code of Muslim ethics interpreted differently between various Muslim groups.

After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, anti-Muslim activists started promoting unfounded theories that Muslim immigrants want to impose Sharia law in the US – claims rights advocates say are driven by Islamophobia with the aim of drumming up fear of Muslims.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, describes the anti-Sharia push as “far-right conspiracy theories”.

Ahmet Tekelioglu, executive director of Philadelphia’s branch of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), said Oz’s comments reflect a misrepresentation of Sharia law that is “emblematic of an overall political culture in America” that perpetuates bias against Muslims.

He said some people in the Muslim community are thrilled about Oz’s Muslim and Turkish background; some are sceptical about him because of his ties to right-wing populism, and others are looking at the details and nuances in each candidate’s platform.

Oz’s campaign did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

US Muslims

Muslims in the US account for about 1 percent of the overall population, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center study. They are one of the most diverse faith groups in the country.

While Muslim-American advocates often stress their communities are not a monolith, Muslim voters have largely embraced the Democratic Party in the decades since 9/11 as Republican officials increasingly engaged in anti-Muslim rhetoric and policies.

Former President Donald Trump, who is expected to seek the presidency again in 2024, promised to bar all Muslims from entering the US during his first presidential campaign and, as president, imposed a travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries.

In this election cycle in Pennsylvania, Oz is running alongside a Republican nominee for governor who once shared an article warning against Muslims running for office, which it described as a “dangerous” trend.

All four Muslims ever elected to Congress have been Democrats.

“Broadly speaking, our communities overall want to be heard more. They want politicians to value diversity, not to buy into a white Christian nationalist discourse. They want politicians to continue to speak with them, not just merely show up for photo-ops,” Tekelioglu said.

Latefa, the Palestinian-American activist, said while Muslim Americans feel alienated from the national Republican Party, many Muslim communities, including in Allentown, have good relations with local GOP officials.

He said he has been trying for months to contact Oz’s campaign to get the candidate to discuss issues with community members to no avail.

“I have personally made numerous attempts – using all my connection with the Republicans in the local community and elected officials and activists – to have Dr Oz either come meet with the Muslim community leaders or come visit a mosque and let us know who he is, so we could look him in the eye and see where he stands,” Latefa told Al Jazeera.

Oz’s policy positions

On the big issues, Oz has largely adopted standard Republican policies, including vowing to stop “illegal immigration” and backing state restrictions on abortion. He also has raised questions about the validity of the 2020 vote as Trump continues to falsely claim the election was stolen.

Oz is a staunch Israel supporter, calling the country a “dear ally” and vowing to be its partner in the Senate. Latefa said Oz’s stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is “irreconcilable with Muslim values” against oppression.

Still, conservative activists have stressed the historic nature of Oz’s candidacy as the Republican Party nominated a record number of diverse candidates this year – and some voters say Oz’s candidacy is a groundbreaking moment for Muslim Americans.

Mehmet Birtek, a 44-year-old resident of Alburtis near Allentown, said he is thrilled to see someone who shares his name on the ballot. “It feels great. It’s awesome. I’m very happy,” he told Al Jazeera.

Birtek is a former Democrat but said he switched parties because Democratic Party officials increasingly advanced socially liberal policies, especially in public schools.

Republicans have been pushing back against discussions around sexuality and gender identity in schools, finding allies in some Muslim communities that tend to be more conservative on social issues.

Birtek said he hopes Oz can pave the way for more Muslims to join the Republican Party. “He will make a big difference for the Muslim community, I believe, in the Republican Party – and this is the start.”

Source: Al Jazeera