Republicans Should Be Targeting Muslim Voters, Not Demonizing Them

Let's talk a little practical politics here.

To the Republican candidates who are doing all they can to demonize Muslims, I have one fact for you:

This country has approximately 3-5 million Muslims. We are hard working, loyal Americans. We serve in the armed forces. We have families and responsible jobs.

And we vote.

Did I mention there are almost 5 million of us?

That's a lot of votes. In a country where presidential elections have teetered on fewer than a half million votes, that's a significant number. Do you want to carry Michigan? Detroit has one of the highest Muslim populations.

Many of us tend to lean conservative. We own a lot of small businesses. We have conservative family values. We should be your kind of voters. Go ahead. Stir up the electorate to hate us. You and your conservative media mouthpieces are guaranteeing that every single one of us votes against you.

We're an easy group to target. After all, aren't we at war against radical Islamic forces? It's so easy to paint all Muslims with the same brush. Many conservative Republicans, as well as front-runner Donald Trump, have tried to de-legitimize President Obama by insisting he is really a Muslim.

How do you think that makes about 5 million of us feel?

GOP candidate Ben Carson said on CBS' "Meet the Press" that he would "not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that." In explaining his remarks the next day he said, "we have a Constitution and we do not put people at the leadership of our country whose faith might interfere with carrying out the duties of the Constitution."

In response, donations reportedly poured into the Carson campaign.

Of course, as many people have already pointed out, the Constitution prohibits a religious test for anyone seeking a federal office. We can argue all day whether the basic tenants of Sharia law are consistent with the Constitution. I believe they are. But that is not the point.

People who say that believers in Islam should be prohibited from being president are really saying that almost 5 million Muslims in the United States are not full citizens. They are.

Religious bigotry has raised its ugly head in U.S. elections going back perhaps to the founding of the Republic. For more than a hundred years, Catholics were the target.

Alarmed by a surge of Catholic immigrants largely from Ireland, an entire political party known formally as the American Party and commonly as the "Know Nothings" arose in the 1850s.

Made up entirely of Protestants, Know Nothings stirred up fears about these Catholic immigrants, saying they would be controlled by the Pope, who hated liberty and democracy.

While the Know Nothings didn't last long as a formal party, anti-Catholicism underlay American politics for more than a century. Republican James G. Blaine lost his bid for the presidency to Democrat Grover Cleveland after a Blaine supporter labeled the Democrats as the Party of "rum, Romanism and rebellion." That spurred Catholics to go to the polls and vote for Cleveland.

In the 1928 election, Democrat Al Smith was the first Catholic nominated by a major party, and he lost overwhelmingly to Republican Herbert Hoover in part because of an anti-Catholic campaign that insisted that if Smith won, the pope would rule America from a fortress in Washington.

Does any of this sound familiar? An evil religion that wants to overthrow our country from within and turn it over to a malevolent outside force?

Not until John Kennedy's election in 1960 did a Catholic finally win the presidency. Catholics are no longer the boogeymen of American politics because there are lots of them and they vote. Both parties court them.

And the pope? His arrival in the United States was greeted by throngs representing many religions who appreciated his humble demeanor as a breath of fresh air as he urged compassion instead of suspicion and hate.

As the first pope to address a joint session of Congress, Francis urged the lawmakers to move pass their political paralysis to take leadership on the many issues, such as immigration and climate change, which have moral dimensions.

"Your own responsibility as members of Congress is to enable this country, by your legislative activity, to grow as a nation," he said. Instead of throwing up walls against new immigrants, he reminded the legislators that they are the offspring of past immigrants. He admonished them to view the newcomers as "as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation."

This is wisdom desperately needed.

Like Catholic immigrants before them, American Muslims are molding their lives and their religion to embrace the values of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. As a Muslim who has lived here for nearly 50 years, I have seen the transformation.

But the Know Nothings of today want to whip up age-old prejudices of one religion against another for their political advantage. They wrap themselves up in the Constitution while doing violence to it. They claim respect for the nation's founding principles while mocking them.

Muslims have been so demonized that a 14-year-old boy was arrested for bringing a clock he built to school. He's a Muslim, the thinking went. It must be a bomb.

So here's the takeaway to all you politicians who demonize Muslim Americans in order to play to the prejudices of your base voters. Don't come courting us in October. We're gone.

If you can make up those millions of votes elsewhere, good luck to you. You have acted at your peril.

And you have done grievous damage to the nature of American politics, to the founding principles of this country, and to human decency along the way.