ABU DHABI / WASHINGTON // Five years ago, Saba Ahmed, a Pakistan-born American Muslim, was running for the US congress as a Democrat. Today, she is a proud supporter of Donald Trump.
“He’s an outsider, he has the leadership experience,” says Saba, 31, a lawyer for the US patent and trademark office who switched to the Republican Party in 2012.
Saba’s decision to vote for Mr Trump seems astonishing. The Republican presidential candidate is infamous for his anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric on the campaign trail, with many accusing him of using these communities as a populist punch bag. In December, he proposed banning Muslims from entering the US altogether.
Yet Saba is among a surprising number of American Muslims who say they will back the billionaire tycoon in next month’s presidential elections. In a poll of almost 2,000 registered Muslim voters carried out in March by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (Cair), 11 per cent said they supported Mr Trump, while data collected by the polling and research company Gallup throughout July and August showed that 9 per cent of American Muslims had a favourable view of the candidate.
The Cair poll showed that when it came to the most important issue of concern for Muslim voters, Islamophobia ranked the highest for Muslim Democrats (27 per cent) followed by the economy (19 per cent).
For Muslim Republicans, however, the economy ranked highest (38 per cent) followed by Islamophobia (14 per cent).
These statistics ring true for Saba, who says Mr Trump’s “economic policies and how he’s going to be turning around Washington DC”, are what most concern her.
Saba, who lives just outside the capital, switched from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party after realising during her congressional campaign that she could not defend herself as “pro-choice” on the issue of abortion and that “a lot of liberal values conflicted with Islamic values”.
She admits that a lot of people are surprised by her decision to support Mr Trump given his controversial comments regarding Muslims. But she has no concerns.
“I know [a ban on Muslims is] very much illegal and unconstitutional. I know it’ll never be enacted. And furthermore, even Donald Trump has backed out of it,” says Saba.
In July, Mr Trump appeared to tone down his position, saying the US must “immediately suspend immigration from any nation that has been compromised by terrorism” until proven vetting mechanisms have been put in place. However, he later said he saw this as an “expansion” not a “rollback” of his original proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the country.
Another American Muslim who is vocal about his support for Mr Trump is Sajid Tarar, 56, who came to the US in 1986 as a law student and now lives in Baltimore. Like Saba, he was born in Pakistan and appears to epitomise the American dream, with three children at esteemed universities and a fourth child who he proudly says is the seventh best squash player in the US in the under-13 category.
Mr Trump’s “outsider” status also appeals to Sajid, who describes himself as “part of the angry Americans, those who are very disappointed with the political structure of the US, with the state of democracy in the country right now”.
He sees Mr Trump, with his disdain for political correctness and self-proclaimed US$10 billion (Dh36.7bn) plus fortune, as the answer to a democracy that has “become a rich man’s club” and to a “lawless society” where people “have no respect for police”.
Sajid, who says he has supported some Democratic candidates in the past but leaned towards the Republican Party for most of his American life, is particularly concerned at what he sees as a lack of foreign policy under president Barack Obama.
“I want a strong leader who can restore American respect all over the world,” he says. “Our allies are scared, people are laughing at us.”
Sajid also seems unconcerned by Mr Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric. He, too, says that banning one religion from the US is against the constitution and believes that what Mr Trump really meant by his proposed ban on Muslims was the necessity for a “detailed vetting process ... Since he is not a politician, he says something and then [comes] up with an explanation later.”
Many critics of Mr Trump say his anti-Muslim rhetoric is fuelling Islamophobia in the US. They point to a sharp rise last year in hate crimes against Muslims – as found by researchers at the Centre for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University – as well as a string of violent attacks in recent months, including the shooting deaths of an imam and his assistant in New York in August.
Saba recognises that hate crimes against Muslims have increased during the election campaign but puts it primarily down to the inaction of the Muslim community.
“If it weren’t for us not being involved in the Republican Party, I don’t think Islamophobic rhetoric would fly,” she says. “We need to step up our efforts in terms of condemning it and also get more involved. We can’t just be on the receiving end of things and react to every bad thing that happens to our community. We have to be proactive in educating people about Islam.”
Saba, who says she was not immediately welcomed by the Republican Party and describes her involvement as an “uphill climb”, seems determined to practise what she preaches.
Late last year, after tiring of the way Islam was being linked to terrorism in the Republican presidential primary debates, she set up the Republican Muslim Coalition, an organisation that aims “primarily to educate Americans about Islam and Muslims”, she says.
As part of her efforts, Saba also met Mr Trump and his running mate Mike Pence at the Republican National Convention in July. And she frequently appears on US news channels to defend both her religion and the Republican presidential candidate — most often on Fox News and sometimes wearing an American flag hijab.
Sajid seems to have had a better experience in the Republican Party than Saba and says that he has always felt very welcome.
But, although he says the Republican Party has opened itself up to immigrants over the last 15 or 20 years and is no longer an “old white man’s party”, he admits that it has not done a good job of marketing or campaigning when it comes to ethnic minorities, especially Muslims.
It is true that Muslim voters were turned off by the Republican Party even before Mr Trump and his proposed bans came along. A much-cited 2011 survey carried out by the Pew Research Centre found that 70 per cent of American Muslims were either Democrats or leaned towards the Democratic Party. In addition nearly half of American Muslims said they felt that the Republican Party was unfriendly towards them, while just 7 per cent felt the same about the Democratic Party.
But this was not always the case. Another Cair poll from 2000 found that in the presidential election of that year, 72 per cent of American Muslims voted for George W Bush.
Although that result has since been disputed, another poll carried out a year later by polling firm Zogby International found that 42 per cent of Muslims voted for Mr Bush versus 31 per cent for that year’s Democratic candidate Al Gore. Either way, Mr Bush appeared to have been more popular with Muslim voters.
So what went wrong for the Republican Party? Saba believes – as appears to be the general consensus – that 9/11 was the turning point.
“Our community felt a lot of backlash and got isolated [after 9/11] and that’s why people went either towards Democrats or just stayed out of politics altogether,” she says. “Democrats were much more open and welcoming towards Muslim voters and donors, whereas Republicans just shut us out.”
Sajid, like Saba, seems to be on a mission to change all this. He runs a Muslims for Trump Facebook page and is an adviser to the National Diversity Coalition for Trump, which is working to mobilise votes for the Republican candidate. He really entered the Republican – and American – consciousness in July, however, when he appeared on stage at the end of the second day of the Republican National Convention to give the closing prayer.
“I went on the stage to tell one thing,” explains Sajid. “All Muslims are not bad and there are some Muslims, those who are in love with this country, and I’m one of them.”
“And the second thing … is to tell the other Muslim Americans how to love America, how to become a role model for the young American Muslims. And to tell them the jihadi philosophy, this desperation, this sickness, is not the solution.
“This is my country,” he adds. “This is my kids’ country and I love this country more than my life and God bless America.”