Majority Of Muslims Voted For Biden, But Trump Got More Support Than He Did In 2016

Dec 4, 2020
Originally published on December 5, 2020 1:56 pm

It was almost two years ago that Shahid Shafi, a surgeon in Southlake, Texas, was targeted by members of his own political party for his Muslim faith.

A few Republican precinct chairs lobbied to remove him from his post as vice chair of the Tarrant County Republican Party. But they lost in a vote of 139-49.

"When I was attacked by a handful of people on the fringes of the Republican Party because of my faith, the entire leadership of the Republican Party, as well as the rank-and-file members, stood up to support me," Shafi said.

The support of the majority of the party is what stayed with him, not the attack on his faith by a minority.

He was attracted to the party and public service when he became a citizen in 2009.

"I was born in India and grew up in Pakistan, and I came of age in Pakistan under a brutal military dictatorship," Shafi said. "Growing up in that environment, I saw the overreach of the government, how it can invade and take over every part of a person's life — from opportunities for education, to work, to where you can live, to whom you can marry, and where you can start your business."

That pervasive and nefarious role a government can play is what drew Shafi to the messages of small government, individual liberties, lower taxes and fiscal responsibility he heard from the Republican Party.

But today that party is often linked with anti-Muslim rhetoric, the tone set from the top. In 2015, Donald Trump made a campaign promise for the "complete and total shutdown of Muslims entering the United States."

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As president, he implemented a travel ban that many saw as fulfilling his promise to bar Muslims. The ban targets largely Muslim-majority countries. In his time in office he's retweeted anti-Muslim videos from a far-right British group and told four progressive congresswomen of color, two Muslim, to go back to where they came from.

All this Shafi said is unfortunate, but it doesn't tarnish his love of the Republican Party.

"We all wish that some of his comments would be more thoughtful," he said. "But overall, I would say that my experience in the Republican Party, in my city of Southlake, in my county and in my state of Texas has been an extremely positive one. I have always been welcomed with open arms. I've found opportunities that I didn't even think were possible."

Shafi has twice been elected to serve on the City Council, and he lives in a predominantly Republican city.

He wouldn't say for whom he voted for president. That, he said, is a private choice, but it was in line with his values, and he remains a Republican.

And what of the assumption that Muslims couldn't support this party or president?

"Just like any other group of people, it is wrong to assume that Muslims in America are a monolith," he said. "Americans of Muslim origin come from different backgrounds, come with different values, and they vote for different reasons. And their reasons may not be any different than any other American's. You know, many people vote based on bread and butter, kitchen-table issues: jobs, education, taxation and certainly immigration."

In fact, Trump appears to have gotten more, not less support from American Muslims. Associated Press exit polls show 35% of Muslims voted for Trump and 64% for Joe Biden. A separate poll from a Muslim civil rights group found that 17% of Muslims voted for Trump, but that was still up by 4 percentage points from its poll in 2016.

Muslims make up a small percentage of the population, but their vote is key in states such as Michigan. It's a state where Biden won by about 155,000 votes. Trump won Michigan in 2016 by under 11,000.

The slight increase in support didn't surprise Dalia Mogahed, director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, an American Muslim research organization. It conducted a poll in the spring.

"We did see a weakening of Democratic support among Muslims," she said. "Just from 2019 to 2020, the percentage of Muslims who increased their approval rating of the president had gone up significantly."

It jumped from 16% to 30%.

The biggest predictor of whether or not a Muslim supported Trump based on the institute's data was not education or income. It was race.

"Very few demographic variables came out as significant, with the only exception being race," she said. "Identifying as white was the only predictive demographic variable."

The spring survey found 50% of Muslims who identified as white supported Trump, much like the general population. Among Arabs, Asians and Latinos identifying as Muslims that percentage dropped into the 20s and among Black Muslims the teens.

Much like the general population, Trump-supporting Muslims cited the economy as a top issue. They also were more likely to oppose building coalitions with Black Lives Matter, and instead they expressed support for building coalitions with religious conservatives working on religious liberty issues.

"The other thing that I think surprised us the most was that Muslim Trump supporters, as well as Trump supporters in the general public, were more likely to express anti-Muslim sentiment," she said.

There were debunked tropes that Muslims are more violent, or less civilized.

It's not a surprise that Muslims didn't vote as a single bloc. This is one of the most racially and ethnically diverse faith groups in the country. Some are single-issue voters; some are partisan to one party or the other.

"To most Americans and really most people of conscience, it would sound absurd for anyone who identifies with the Muslim faith to vote for Trump, given what he has done and said over the last four years and really throughout his history," said Wa'el Alzayat, CEO of Emgage, a political advocacy organization that aims to engage Muslims in the political process.

"But when you understand that the Muslim community is not a monolith and that it includes those who – for example – may have supported Trump's economic policies, or policies on taxes and may have supported his perceived position on certain foreign policy issues ... it's not as surprising."

Now polling around Muslims is sparse, and Alzayat warned that the numbers may be off. His organization plans to do more polling to understand how American Muslims really voted.

He stressed that American Muslims were key to Biden's support in Florida and his wins in Pennsylvania and Michigan, where large populations of Muslims live. But it's clear Trump did get some Muslim support.

Alzayat attributed part of that to a negative campaign about Biden from social media personalities popular within some American Muslim communities.

"In the lead-up to the election, you really saw what we assessed to be a pretty intensive campaign to dissuade voters or at least remove their enthusiasm from voting for Biden without really much commentary on Trump's policies," Alzayat said.

He pointed to attacks that claimed Biden would support the oppression of Muslims in India or Kashmir, and these would spread on texting apps or social media. His own organization was attacked for endorsing Biden.

Meanwhile those same personalities, he said, were "remaining silent about Trump's pernicious, Islamophobic, racist policy of the last four years. And our assessment is that that really had the intended effect of either convincing some voters to vote for Trump or to convince them to stay at home."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The majority of American Muslims voted for Joe Biden, but there was a notable increase in support among Muslims for a president that many view as anti-Muslim. NPR's Leila Fadel reports.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: This year President Trump, who ran on this campaign promise in 2015...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.

FADEL: ...Got more, not less, support from American Muslims. The AP early exit polls showed that 35% of Muslim voters went with Trump. That's up from 2016. Polls and surveys from back then showed it was between 8 to 17%. Dalia Mogahed, the director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, says she's not surprised based on a preelection poll ISPU did in the spring.

DALIA MOGAHED: Just from 2019 to 2020, the percentage of Muslims who increased their approval rating of the president had gone up significantly.

FADEL: And it wasn't income or education that predicted Muslim support. It was race.

MOGAHED: Identifying as white was the only predictive demographic variable.

FADEL: Fifty percent expressed support for Trump. Other trends among Trump-supporting Muslims that mirrored the general population - economy as a No. 1 issue, opposition to coalitions with Black Lives Matter and support for building coalitions with religious conservatives working on religious liberty issues.

MOGAHED: The other thing that I think surprised us the most was that Muslim Trump supporters, as well as Trump supporters in the general public, were more likely to express anti-Muslim sentiment.

FADEL: Bigoted, debunked tropes that Muslims are less civilized or more violent. Many assumed that Trump's anti-Muslim rhetoric and policies that were perceived as anti-Muslim, like the travel ban on mostly Muslim-majority countries, would chip away at support. About a quarter of Muslims typically lean Republican. But the support grew slightly for a variety of reasons, from single-issue voters to plain old political partisanship. Take Shahid Shafi. He's a surgeon in Southlake, Texas, and was the vice chair of the Tarrant County Republican Party until last year.

SHAHID SHAFI: I came of age in Pakistan under a brutal military dictatorship. And growing up in that environment, I saw the overreach of the government, how it can invade and take over every part of a person's life.

FADEL: From educational opportunities to even who you marry.

SHAFI: So what attracted me to the Republican Party was the concept of small government, lower taxes, fiscal responsibility, individual opportunities.

FADEL: Shafi wouldn't say who he chose for president. That's private. What he did say is, don't make assumptions. American Muslims...

SHAFI: Come with different values, and they vote for different reasons. And their reasons may not be any different than any other American's. You know, many people vote based on bread and butter, kitchen table issues.

FADEL: Emgage, a Muslim political advocacy organization, worked to turn out the vote. And Muslims were important to Biden's win in key states like Michigan. Wa'el Alzayat, the CEO, says, though, this year he saw a lot of misleading claims from social media personalities popular in some American Muslim communities.

WA'EL ALZAYAT: In the lead up to the election, you really saw a pretty intensive campaign to dissuade voters or at least remove their enthusiasm from voting for Biden without really much commentary on Trump's policies.

FADEL: Things like comparing Biden to a ham sandwich that a starving Muslim has to eat.

ALZAYAT: If you're trying to get a voter excited during a pandemic, you probably don't want to tell them that, well, it is like eating a ham sandwich if you're a Muslim. And rather than going hungry, go eat your ham sandwich. Well, I don't know about you, but I would rather starve.

FADEL: Alzayat says this kind of stuff was shared widely on texting apps like WhatsApp, another claim that a Biden-Harris administration would support the oppression of Muslims in India or Kashmir. Meanwhile, the same personalities were...

ALZAYAT: Remaining silent about Trump's pernicious, Islamophobic, racist policy of the last four years. And our assessment is that that really had the intended effect of either convincing some voters to vote for Trump or to convince them to stay at home.

FADEL: Alzayat warns, though, that polling on Muslims is pretty limited, and his organization plans to do more to understand how American Muslims really voted. Leila Fadel, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAPHNI'S "LIFE'S WHAT YOU MAKE IT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.