Synopsis: The Changing Politics of American Islam: Before 2000, American Muslims were a reliable source of conservative support. Some argue that radicals, such as Florida-based Sami Al-Arian, even played a key role in winning George Bush the closely fought 2000 presidential election. But in the wake of 9/11, with federal law enforcement cracking down on Islamist terror finance, many of the Islamist groups who controlled American Muslim community politics shifted to the Left, which was eager to embrace these new allies, even if it meant working with extremists. This collaboration proved so successful and useful, that, over the years, some Islamist activists even appeared to embrace progressivist ideas quite genuinely.
Over the past twenty years, much has been written about the ostensible Islamist alliance with the "Left." Terms such as the "Red-Green Alliance" have been used – by both Muslims and non-Muslims, rabble-rousers and serious academics – to refer to Left-wing attempts to solicit Muslim support, as well as Islamist efforts to hijack progressivist causes.
Before 9/11, however, and especially during the run-up to the presidential elections in 2000, Muslim Americans were a key demographic for the Republican Party.
Writing in the Washington Post, Rany Jazayerli notes that American Muslims served as a "reliable pillar of support" for decades. Jazayerli claims Muslims were attracted to the GOP by Christian influence on "social issues" such as gay marriage and abortion. "Muslim support for the Republican Party did not waver in the face of its gradual Christianization," Jazayerli writes, "On the contrary, Muslims saw common ground."
Spotting opportunity, in 2000, George Bush explicitly sought out Muslim leaders. He was urged on, David A. Graham writes, by "Grover Norquist, the anti-tax crusader, who argued that because Muslims are a socially conservative, family-oriented, business-friendly group they are a natural GOP constituency."
This strategy proved particularly important in Florida, a state which won George Bush the presidency by a mere 537 votes.
However, as with so much political outreach to Western Islam, imprudent politicians and their campaign managers ended up choosing Islamist partners. After all, it was the Islamists, as innately political actors, who appeared best prepared to provide political support, notwithstanding their actual mandate from ordinary American Muslims.
In Florida, the Bush campaign sought out the help of Sami Al-Arian, a prominent professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa and a leading Islamist activist in the state. Al-Arian served as a keen supporter of the Bush campaign, meeting with the then-Texas governor and his wife on several occasions, and campaigning for the Republicans in mosques across Florida.
Just a few years later, in 2003, Sami Al-Arian was charged with conspiring to provide funds to Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a designated Palestinian terrorist organization. It emerged he had been under federal surveillance for a decade. He pleaded guilty in 2006, and was deported. Since then, he has lived in Türkiye, with the support of the Erdoğan regime, from where he continues to manage and lead Islamist efforts in the West.
Grover Norquist, meanwhile, was closely involved in Islamist circles himself, working with not just Al-Arian but also the Muslim Brotherhood-linked SAAR network, a collection of Virginia businesses and nonprofits that federal investigators later targeted in a huge terror finance investigation. Norquist was also close to Abdurahman Alamoudi, an Al Qaeda fundraiser jailed in 2004 for conspiring with the Libyan regime to assassinate the Saudi Crown Prince.
After the election, but before their arrests, President Bush welcomed both Alamoudi and Al-Arian to the White House.
A survey carried out by the Council of American-Islamic Relations claimed that as many as 70% of American Muslims voted Republican in that 2000 election. The Islamists sought to take advantage: both to enjoy the rewards of friends in high office later, as well as to help cement their growing control of American Muslim institutions.
And indeed, the Islamists, and Al-Arian, may have been indispensable. In that crucial state of Florida, it is reported that as many as 90% of Florida Muslims voted Republican in 2000. According to newspapers in the state, Al-Arian "boasted publicly that Muslims in Florida may have tipped the close presidential election to Bush."
The Rise of Islamist Progressivism
Following the 9/11 attacks, the Islamist approach towards national politics started to change as the nation began better to grasp the pervasive threat posed by Islamism in the United States.
Along with the arrests of American Islamist leaders, prosecutors shut down dozens of Islamist charities, uncovering multiple networks providing financial and logistical support to terrorist groups across the globe. This peaked in 2007, when the Holy Land Foundation trial demonstrated that America's largest Muslim humanitarian aid charity was in fact the flagship institution of a major terror finance operation.
Federal prosecutors listed a huge number of prominent American Muslim organizations, and their leaders and activists, as "unindicted co-conspirators." The public face of American Islam, it turned out, was a key component of a small but powerful Middle Eastern Islamist network that advanced extremism at home, and funded terror overseas.
In the decade following 9/11, as conservative alarm at the Islamist menace grew, American Islamism's leading institutions increasingly turned to the Left. They did so in the face of continued federal law enforcement investigations into their activities, Republican denunciations of their activities in Congress, and a growing Leftist willingness to accept the notion of an "Islamophobia" crisis.
The first key sign of this future axis was most apparent in 2003, when a mix of Leftist and Islamist organizations organized enormous protests against the invasion of Iraq.
It remains difficult to measure the exact extent to which Islamist influence guided all these changes within the Left. Notwithstanding, Islamists certainly benefited from the election of the Obama administration in 2008.
Federal prosecutions of Islamist charities mostly stopped; investigations into Islamist networks such as the SAAR network were shut down; and Islamists once again found themselves invited to participate in efforts to guide federal policy (even, amazingly, in the design of counter-extremism programs).
Internationally, liberal voices in the Middle East expressed alarm that the Obama administration was working with Islamist groups such as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood – which, at the time, maintained close ties with a number of American Islamist organizations.
Islamist groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) appeared to conclude that the Left and its protest movements afforded powerful opportunities to the Islamist agenda. Leftist politics provided Islamist groups with media attention, political influence and enough legitimacy to claim leadership over American Islam.
Liberal alliances also served to refute claims that American Islamists were working towards a theocracy. As the Cato Institute's Mustafa Akyol has subsequently argued, America's Muslim community does not advocate "creeping sharia" but "creeping liberalism."
Under the Trump administration, some American Islamist groups moved even further to the Left, embracing progressivist and openly socialist campaigns and candidates.
As the Middle East Forum noted in 2019:
Prominent Muslim voices lead Women's Marches in cities across America and argue for "intersectional feminism." Groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) – just 10 years ago named by federal prosecutors as part of an enormous terror finance network – now spend a great deal of time publishing social media items about Black Lives Matter while also campaigning for "social justice," prison reform and higher minimum wages. Leading Muslim clerics are to be found praising Malcolm X as "our prince," and protesting Trump's immigration plans at the southern border. And a few Muslim campaigners even express solidarity with transgender and "queer" activists, and publicly dream, as the prominent Islamist-linked activist Linda Sarsour puts it, of "a world free of anti-black racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, antisemitism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, ageism, sexism, and misogyny."
Such efforts have not been limited just to Islamist networks such as the Muslim Brotherhood. A new generation of "modernist" Salafis has come to the fore, especially as the power of the Muslim Brotherhood has waned in recent years, with the collapse of some of its branches in the Middle East.
These modernists, just a few years ago urging sharia-based punishments, can now be found protesting federal immigration policies as part of interfaith coalitions, or even justifying alliances with "LGBT" movements.
Islamist academic Jonathan Brown, for instance, argues that "Muslims in the U.S. should affirm and advocate" for various "LGBTQ rights" because "Muslims in the U.S. and LGBTQ groups seek protection for the same rights and, ironically, arguably have a common vision for the country's future." This same Brown previously justified slavery and rape within Islam. (Interesting, Brown is the son-in-law of Sami Al-Arian.)
It is difficult to stress quite how significant and extraordinary this ideological shift within Western Islamism has been. Most of these Salafi imams and activists' own teachers, just twenty years ago, considered involvement with Western politics in any form to be a dangerous, sinful deviancy.
And indeed, there are many within Islamist circles who are unhappy with these changes and new political ideas, many of which appear patently at odds with traditional Islamic values, and certainly with any Islamist agenda.
Sam Westrop is the director of Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.