Muslim-American personalities and political polarization – part 1


I was meaning to write this for some time now but somehow I kept postponing. Razib’s recent post about Mehdi Hasan inspired me to sit down and finish what I was thinking of writing down ( This long post is not about Mehdi Hasan par se, or even Ilhan Omar (sheepishly admitting her clickbait value). This is mainly about prominent Muslims in American public life and public perception of Muslims. In the first part of this post I will discuss direct political aspects of Muslim public representation and in the second I will dive into some of the relevant socio-political and moral issues.

Barack Hossain Obama became the first African-American person to be elected President of United States in 2008. He was reelected in 2012. Now, there are lot of grounds for criticism of Obama’s presidency. His leadership in lot of important matters, particularly in foreign affairs , have come under lot of criticism since the end of his presidency. In domestic matters too, his leadership record has lost lot of luster even among his supporters. However, most Americans agree that Barack and Michelle Obama occupied the White House with exemplary dignity and fulfilled the inspirational role that Americans generally expect the presidential office to provide in this very republican (small R) of countries.

The Obamas were very acutely aware of the huge responsibility they had as the first African-American couple in the White House. They knew personal scandals, failure to control and command, would create huge barriers for the next ethnic minority aspiring to be president. That’s why they were dignified and moderate to a fault in their conduct. In that consideration, the Obama presidency was an unqualified success. Today Barack Obama is the most popular living President to Americans with 60% approval rating ( and Michelle Obama is frequently polled as the most admired woman in America. The next presidential candidate of African-American descent who will reach the final stages of election, will not face any questions because of his/her ethnic background except from the incorrigible bigots.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy became the first Catholic president in 1960. It’s hard to believe now but prejudice against Catholics was very widespread among mainstream Protestants of America, who were the overwhelming majority, until fifty years ago. When populist nativists of the early 20th century railed against domestic and foreign enemies of the people, ‘Jews, Papists and the N-word’ was the standard phrase used. Kennedy was aware of the great headwind facing him in seeking primary nomination and then eventual victory. He famously said before the election, “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me,” ( He kept emphasizing this point before the election and was mindful of his role as the first Catholic president after getting elected. Suffice it to say anti-Catholicism ceased being significant in American political sphere after the Kennedy’s presidency.

Ilhan Omar became the first visibly-Muslim, hijab-clad elected representative at federal level in 2018. Understandably, her ascension to national stage created huge amount of interest, savory and unsavory, in all corners of the politically engaged section of the people. I am not going to mention the long list of accomplishments and  controversies Ilhan Omar has been registering in almost daily basis since her election. It will not be an exaggeration to say that she has become one of the most prominent banner issues that are feeding the frenzy of the two battling political armies in national arena. She is inflaming passion even more than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who may be representing more the economic division than the cultural division represented by Omar.

I personally think that Ilhan Omar is not a very religious Muslim, the identity aspect of the religion is more important to her. Rather than cosmic theology, her religious identity offers her a worldview theology; providing explanation of power relations among communities, groups and institutions of today’s world. Socio-cultural beliefs define the modern political man and Ilhan Omar represents the current cleavages more starkly than almost any other public figures.

However, Ilhan Omar was not lucky enough to get the elite education and varied experience that both Obama and Kennedy had. Experiences greatly influence worldview. A liberal, integrative, long-term worldview that typify Obama, Kennedy, may be too much to ask from her. I personally think she is not very sophisticated but that is not germane to this discussion. However, among her most prominent public defenders there are many who have benefits of background and who are very articulate. That brings me to public personalities like Mehdi Hasan.

In the last couple of years, several Muslim media figures have been regularly invited into mainstream media like CNN, MSNBC, NYTimes, WaPost whenever some events related to Muslims became prominent in the fast churning stream of news and views. Mehdi Hasan, Wajahat Ali probably commanded bulk of those airing of Muslim perspectives. They are among the staunchest defenders of Ilhan Omar (also of other minority social justice public figures) in media. They are also among the most vehement critics and denouncers of Trump, Trump-supporters, the Republican Party and American foreign policy in general. They had been like this since Trump became the Republican nominee. I remember how I first saw Wajahat Ali in CNN before the 2016 election when he repeatedly and day after day described Trump as ‘impotent’. I cringed every time I heard that, but it could have been just me.

Now, people like Ilhan Omar, Mehdi Hasan and Wajahat Ali have lot of justification to go ballistic against Trump and his supporters. I think that Trump is significantly more racist than an average white American septuagenarian, his policies have targeted Muslims discriminatorily, his utterings have stoked outpourings of anti-Muslim hate, Muslims in America may become further victimized if Trump is reelected. However, opportunities of public criticism should not just opportunities for lashing out. We should evaluate effects of these criticisms, whether they are benefitting the country or even Muslims themselves. There is also an ethical aspect of this public criticism, which I will discuss in part II of this blogpost.

Ever since the 9-11 attacks the partisan divide in attitudes towards Muslims and Islam has gradually diverged in America. There are reasons to believe that the divide has become starker in recent years. A recent survey conducted before the 2018 elections show that 71% percent of self-described Republicans agreed they don’t believe Islam is compatible with American values, compared to an overall 42%. 60% of Republicans agreed with the idea that Muslim Americans weren’t as patriotic as non-Muslim Americans, compared to 38% generally ( The wide difference between the Republican numbers and the average for the population means the difference in attitude between the two parties is very wide. Few wedge issues signal the difference between the two parties more clearly now than their respective attitude towards Muslims in America.

Shadi Hamid has said that he is comforted that at least one of the two political tribes of America is acting as a shelter for American Muslims in these troubled times (  Muslim Americans reciprocate the Democratic support faithfully. It is estimated that about 90% of them vote for the Democratic party in national elections now, before 9-11 the figure was more even. As much as 30-40 Muslims voted Republican in the 1990s. Other analysts OTOH have expressed reservation about the state of Muslims in the political polarization. Republican disdain for the Democratic Party and suspicion about Muslims in America may be reinforcing each other, worsening the political divide. Moreover, it’s not that Muslims find a very natural place in Democratic Party that is mainly characterized by secularism and progressivism. Shadi Hamid recounts that a religious Muslim told him, “I can sense the disdain from the Democratic Party towards my faith, even as they don a cape against Islamophobia. The underlying view Democrats have [about] anyone seriously religious is that they’re, at best, silly and gullible, and at worst, dangerous.” ( )

For a minority that comprises only 1% of the voters, this kind of polarization should be very alarming. Its true that there are other minorities who also are reliable member of the Democratic clan. Black-Americans generally vote for the Democrats in the 90s while Jewish voters vote in the 70-80% range. However, the socio-political positions of Muslims are not same as Blacks or Jews. Black American voters comprise about 12% of the total voters; they are indispensable core of the Democratic coalition and a un-ignorable part of America for Republics. Moreover, sufficient number of Black Americans take part in Republican politics and intellectual development , making them always cultivable for Republican political leadership.  While Jewish voting population is close to 2% of total, they have very powerful representation within the Republican establishment.

We must consider this context when examining the role of Muslim political and media personalities in the political sphere. It seems to me the most visible Muslim personalities in politics and media, determinedly and gleefully want to exacerbate the partisan divide. Few rational observers would disagree that Donald Trump has been most un-presidential in his public sayings during this political phase of his life. Even labelling those words as juvenile would probably be unjust towards the youth. However, these Muslim public personalities seem to think that going toe to toe and tit for tat with Trump and the Republicans, are the best tactics for Democrats and Muslims. I think, apart for impact on partisanship, there are important ethical aspects in these public exchanges that also have deep and wide consequences, which I intend to discuss in the second part.

These Muslim public personalities want total war against Trump and Republicans where crossing the line or fraternization with the enemy will be unthinkable. A few days ago, a very prominent Muslim religious leader, Hamza Yusuf, got widespread notice among Muslim Americans for joining a multi-religious state department commission on Human Rights ( Many people would argue this as a very sensible move considering the plight of Muslims in many countries of the world and the very important role that America has in global concerns about those hapless Muslims. However, for political activist Muslim-Americans, Hamza Yusuf joining a Trump presidency commission was an ultimate betrayal, an act of Vichy French ignobility.

A Blitzkrieg style total war wouldn’t be so reckless if the chances of victory were good. However, chances don’t look good at least in the short term. When Trump became presidents, Democrats and liberals were openly speculating how he would be removed from power within one or two years because of all the scandals and malfeasance in the past and before the election. With low presidential approval ratings acting as comfort blanket, few Democrats were thinking Trump would last the full first-term, let alone getting reelected. Now desperation is in the air. Democrats openly speculate that Trump is heading for a second-term and Democrat’s chances are not so good. Betting markets reflect that increasing despair also. This political atmosphere again demand that Muslim Americans take long hard look how their political and media personalities are representing them in the public sphere. I have not read any reports of how Muslim Americans view role of their representatives in the public arena but from my personal interactions I gather that most of them are very uncomfortable being the spearhead of the resistance. Lot of them say that they physically wince whenever Ilhan Omar is in the news and they wish she would be far less prominent.

However, coalition-building, gradual advances may be things of the past and the spirit of the times may demand reckless combativeness. Just as revolutions in military affairs made Blitzkrieg possible, revolutions in socio-political affairs of current era may be favoring bold tactics. After all, Republicans had their May 1940 moment in November, 2016 in a most improbable victory with a most improbable candidate who refused to occupy the center ground. In these kind of historical victories, being the armored spearhead of deep battles brings everlasting glory. Nevertheless, people should also remember that Blitzkrieg grinded to a halt in 1941 in face of obdurate structural conditions and determined resistance. The spearheads were obliterated.


24 thoughts on “Muslim-American personalities and political polarization – part 1”

  1. “Democrats were thinking Trump would last the full first-term, let alone getting reelected. Now desperation is in the air. Democrats openly speculate that Trump is heading for a second-term and Democrat’s chances are not so good. ”

    I am also a bit puzzled on the democrats desperation, from what i remember there is hardly anything significant in the last year (from mid term polls) which would pump up Trump numbers. If the democrats relied on Muller, i think there even bigger fools than what i had originally thought.

    I think the democrats sense something which perhaps others dont. Perhaps they feel they cannot swing the swing states back to them and those folks will still vote for Trump. That their hard left turn has only hardened their base , but has not won significant neutral voters in those states. If the democrats cant win this one, i am not sure what else can they do. Perhaps turn even more left. Is Jobs-for-all coming after Healthcare-for-all ?

    1. Not sure about the Democrats but the mainstream (centre-left) media did seem to be obsessively covering the red herring issue of Russia collusion for all of the first two years of Trump’s presidency. And the lack of any evidence to prosecute Trump seem to shock them deeply.

      This sort of reveals how those people think. They simply cannot grasp the thought that the issues Trump ran on and which he still keeps obsessing over are intuitively and emotionally appealing to lots of (even most) Americans. So they thought the only way Trump could have won was by some nefarious entity (Russia) poisoning the minds of Americans.

      These guys live in a bubble, and are fast making their entire profession irrelevant.

    2. Saurav,

      If the democrats relied on Muller, i think there even bigger fools than what i had originally thought.

      In a sense that is the democrat establishment problem. They want to defeat Trump, not listen to middle America and adjust their platform/agenda accordingly.

      Similarly, Trumps agenda was against the Republican agenda. He won the primaries and elections in SPITE of republican establishment being against him.

      The democrats want a candidate who pushes the establishment wishes/agenda.
      So Bernies Sanders and Tulsi Gabbard are not OK.

      In 2016 I predicted that Bernie Sanders had a chance of defeating Trump. Hillary was tone deaf to middle america calling them deplorables.

      Tulsi too has even more street cred than Bernie. She is a veteran, and there is a hell of a lot of kudos for veterans in middle america. Plus Tulsi is anti war, also a agenda that got a lot of support for Trump.
      Tulsi being a veteran and anti war can beat Trump at his own game of anti war.

      Unhappily, these are not agendas that the Democratic establishment supports

      1. You overestimate Sanders’ appeal. Middle America would have been less inclined to vote for him compared to even Hillary because the “socialist” label could be effectively (and accurately) pasted on him. Trump’s election may have been closer to a landslide had Sanders been his opponent. Also, remember that Sanders had come round to the left’s view of immigration, so that wouldn’t have endeared him to Trump voters.

        I’ll still maintain Hillary ought to have won easily in 2016 if she hadn’t made elementary mistakes like the “deplorables” comment (surely she remembered Obama’s “clinging to guns” comment that almost derailed his election) and refusing to run even a basic campaign in Midwestern states that she ended up losing by whiskers. And Comey’s antics, like the last minute opening up of an investigation (however brief) over those emails, did permanent damage to her prospects.

  2. Mehdi Hassan or his ilk may try very hard to give a polish on the image of Islam in English speaking countries and the view of majority of folks is negative towards Islam.

    Just 2 days back this is the result

    No change from few years back
    Almost a third of UK adults think Islam encourages Muslims to carry out acts of violence against non-Muslims, a survey suggests. It found nearly half (48 per cent) think the religion is ‘incompatible’ with British values.

    No amount of spin doctoring can pull wool over people’s eyes when they base their opinions on happenings on the ground, not some south Asians’ sugary talk.

  3. The economy’s remained strong under Trump and the deficit will have to be dealt with his by successor. His foreign policy hasn’t led to any new hot conflicts or combat deaths. He tends to appoint incompetent sycophants and much prefers watching TV, being on Twitter and playing golf to energetically reorganising government. So like they said about JFK, his inaction keeps liberals happy and his rhetoric satisfies conservatives.

    None of the Democrats look like they can break through. Biden was a serial runner for the nomination going back to 1988 and was never a serious contender. The biggest source of support for Trump is anti-immigration whites without a college degree. The Democrat base is now at the stage where they object to the term illegal immigrant and arresting, detaining and deporting them is utterly inhumane. So I doubt Trump will lose any votes and he will likely have won over those who reckoned he would be a reckless disaster.

  4. // Coalition-building, gradual advances may be things of the past and the spirit of the times may demand reckless combativeness. //

    Isn’t this combative attitude mixed with unreasonable hope & permanent victimhood is turning every Identity group into the behavior which has been explained in the following article –

    Also read – The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century by Walter Scheidel

    Revolutions always end in leveling everything up by making everyone equally poor. Name one revolution that has started with certain objectives & achieved that objective ?

    The source of the term ‘Unreasonable Hope’ comes from the following interview of Arundhati Roy –

  5. TL; dr.

    What’s the tweet here? “Trump is bad but Muslim Americans shouldn’t attack him”?

    (240 characters only. The internet has killed my attention span. Sorry).

      1. Thanks. I get it.

        Counterpoint tweets:
        Now that Trump is the face of America, Ilhan Omar is the Muslim American he, and all of us, deserve.

        In the era of the Internet Hindu, Boris Johnson, and Diamond and Silk, shouldn’t we expect Ilhan?

        Or, to use a tweet from another decadent era:

        sifle hue aziiz, aziiz ab hue ḳharāb
        be-jauharoñ meñ qadr-e-sharāfat nahīñ rahī
        Siraj Aurangabadi (1712-1763)

        (Give me some time for a translation. This one is hard).

        1. As.promised:

          “Trolls are honoured, the honoured go rotten;
          In this jewel-less land, decency has no power”.

  6. being defensive won’t work. muslim americans must hold their ground firmly against right wing attacks. however, they must build coalitions with other minorities. they will be picked out easily if they stand alone.

    they must also condemn terrorist attacks in loud, clear and no uncertain terms. dismissing such attacks as “some people did something” only gives fuel to their enemies.

    1. but they already are on all those fronts.

      i think in general tbh black american muslims do a better job than immigrants to the children of immigrants. both omar and talib come form antisemitic milieus. even if they are not themselves antisemitic the way they criticize israel sounds that way cuz as pelosi said they don’t use language the right way.

  7. American Muslims should not ghettoize themselves in one party. Just like Jews are represented in both parties, and in the UK, Muslims and non-whites are prominent in the UK Conservative Party (Priti Patel is the Home Secretary now and on the right wing of the Conservatives), American Muslims need to spread themselves across the political spectrum. Weren’t Muslims supposed to be natural Republicans, with their family values, distrust of LGBTQ agenda etc etc?

    1. That’s unlikely to happen. The current default of the GOP is to be full on Islamophobe since that makes their base happy and doesn’t really cost them votes or donations. US Muslims would find it much easier to ally with the gay\trans lobby. Acceptance of gay marriage is higher among them than it is for white evangelicals see the NYT article below. Pre-Donald Trump both parties regarded Muslims as being politically toxic, so they will go with the one option they have.

      Also Priti Patel is a Hindu, Sajid Javid is Chancellor of the Exchequer and the second most powerful man in the government. Of Pakistani heritage but an ex-Muslim.

  8. About 80% of muslims voted for Bush in 2000. In 2004 Bush probably won a majority of muslim voters.

    Pre Trump many muslims were part of the Republican establishment and major donors to the GOP. I think this natural alliance will reassert itself post Trump.

    Muslims significantly socio-economically outperform American caucasians. Including in academic performance and academic credentials. Musllims are over represented among senior corporate executives, technology, academia, law, medicine, consulting, I Banking/Asset management/Private Equity/Wall Street, Venture Capital.

    Part of what went nuts in the US was the angry backlash many Americans had against Iraqi Americans and Afghan Americans post 2004.

    Many Afghan Americans lobbied Congress and Washington DC for economic and military aid for Afghanistan and for the Afghanistan National Army (which remains deeply popular and respected among the large majority of Afghans). However many Americans who opposed foreign aid to Afghanistan and aid to the Afghanistan National Army started to viciously attack Afghan Americans as traitors to America who were trying to spend American blood and treasure to advance Afghan interests at the expense of American interests.

    Similarly many Iraqi Americans lobbied for economic and military aid for Iraq and for the Iraqi Army (which remains deeply popular and respected among the large majority of Iraqis). However many Americans who opposed foreign aid to Iraq and aid to the Iraqi Army started to viciously attack Iraqi Americans as traitors to America who were trying to spend American blood and treasure to advance Iraqi interests at the expense of American interests.

    Similarly many Sufi, twelver, sixer, Ahmedi, liberal Sunni Americans are frequently viciously attacked by Americans for lobbying to spend American blood and treasure to protect minority and liberal muslim heritage people. Muslim Americans who oppose Islamists are frequently charged with dual loyalty.

    I observed many cases of the above in Washington circles. I have also observed this sentiment among many veterans who believe that America has no dog in what they see as a vicious Islamic civil war that has been underway for 14 centuries. Many veterans ask how does it matter if Pakistan or the Pakistani Army rules Afghanistan or kills a couple hundred thousand Afghans? How does it matter if Daesh and Al Qaeda kill 10 million muslims? They have been fighting each other for over a thousand years the argument goes. Many Americans also don’t want to allow moderate muslims to move to the US for the same reason. Their logic is that Islamists hate moderate muslims and will try to kill moderate muslims inside the US. In the process many other Americans will die and terrorism against America as a whole will increase. Many believe that the only way to disengangle America from the Islamic civil war raging around the world is not to allow any more moderate, liberal, or minority muslims inside the US.

    I think this drives much of what some call Islamaphobia among the American public. Many Americans feel that if America did not let so many moderate muslims in, AQ and Daesh would focus less on killing Americans and focus more on mass murdering other people around the world.

    I have had many conversations along these lines. My response is that the world’s 6 billion nonmuslims can’t disentangle themselves from the Islamic civil war and that inevitably millions of nonmuslims will die in collateral damage. But my argument is a deeply unpopular one inside the US and across the large majority of the world’s 6 billion nonmuslims.

    1. Dude, I watch Ronald Reagan videos for fun. If I was a US citizen and age-eligible I would have voted Republican every time from 1950 to 2012 with the exception of 1964. Wouldn’t consider doing so now, I would definitely not be welcome. Frankly I would find it easier to vote for the BJP.

  9. About 80% of muslims voted for Bush in 2000. In 2004 Bush probably won a majority of muslim voters.

    i’m 95% sure both of these assertions is wrong. perhaps the majority voted for bush…but a lot of immigrant muslims are poor, and black muslims never supported him.

    zero chance he won the majority in 2004.

  10. Razib, there are many different polls in 2000 and 2004.

    The Council on American Islamic Relations estimated that GW Bush won 78% of the muslim vote. Other estimates had different numbers.

    Do you know any muslims who didn’t vote for Bush in 2000? I don’t. Even if they are embarrassed by it now.

    Are you aware of any estimates of Bush winning less than 48% of the muslim vote in 2004?

    Bush did well among poor and less educated male voters in 2004.

    Having said this, I think small sample sizes make all such estimates have large standard errors.

    America and the world were very different in 2000 and 2004.

  11. The Council on American Islamic Relations estimated that GW Bush won 78% of the muslim vote. Other estimates had different numbers.

    send me the links anan. otherwise i don’t believe it. these numbers don’t pass the smell test. black muslims were very mad about the immigrant business groups backing bush in 2000 fwiw.

    (my parents did not vote for bush either year)

    1. CAIR poll shows 78% of Muslims voted for Bush in 2000. Zogby poll from a year later (biased in that sense) shows 47% (compared to 33% for Gore). My parents voted for Bush, as did most Muslims (according to them). Democrats were running a Zionist is their explanation (Lieberman).

      Washington Post says 4% of Muslims voted for Bush in 2004. Which seems ridiculously low (more voted for Trump), but jives with a sense that the Republican policy post 9/11 supremely alienated Muslims (I don’t know any Muslim who voted for them afterward).

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