WASHINGTON — The war in Gaza is shaking Muslim Americans’ political loyalties ahead of the U.S. presidential election in November.

Disenchanted by President Joe Biden’s embrace of Israel, many Democratic-leaning Muslims who once backed him are now vowing to withdraw their endorsement.

But it’s not just Muslim Democrats abandoning their once-preferred candidate. Some Muslim Republicans are also wavering amidst their own party’s support of Israel.

Mo Nehad, a Pakistani American Republican activist in Fort Bend County, Texas, has seen up close the political effects of the Gaza conflict on Muslim American voting.

In late 2020, Nehad, who is a small-business owner, police officer and military warrant officer, helped found a grassroots group in a bid to engage the local Muslim community with the Republican Party.

Initially focused on opposition to COVID-19 vaccine mandates and mask mandates, the group, called Muslim Americans of Texas, soon found a new cause: a conservative backlash to sex and gender education policies in local schools.

“We were essentially trying to tell the Muslim community, regardless of what has happened in the past overseas, let’s focus on national topics and events,” Nehad said in an interview. “And when you compare what traditionally a Democratic-elected president has done and a Republican-elected president has done [on national issues], a Republican-elected president is much better for the Muslims.”

The advocacy paid off, he said. While the Fort Bend County Muslim community remained solidly Democratic, a small number started crossing party lines, mirroring a pattern seen across the country.

“These are people who go to the same masjid as I do, people who are in the same home-school groups,” he said.

Then the war in Gaza broke out after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, testing the political allegiance of Muslim Democrats and Republicans alike, with both viewing their parties as equally pro-Israel.

Many Muslim Americans who had overwhelmingly voted for Biden in 2020 fumed over the president’s support for an Israeli military campaign that has killed more than 30,000 Palestinians.

Earlier this year, a group of progressive Muslim activists launched a campaign they labeled #AbandonBiden, inducing hundreds of thousands of voters to vote “uncommitted” in key Democratic primaries in Michigan and elsewhere. Members were also threatening not to vote for Biden in November.

Republican-leaning Muslims, fewer in number, have not been as vocal. While many are backing their party, its equally staunch support of Israel has alienated some, according to Muslim activists and experts.

Nehad said that while he intends to vote for former President Donald Trump in November, some Republican Muslims are reconsidering their stance and even “going back” to the Democratic Party, drawn by that party’s stronger criticism of Israeli actions.

“They don’t want to vote for Republican candidates because the Republican candidates do not want to go ahead and openly denounce what Israel is doing,” Nehad said.

Drift to GOP stalls

Youssef Chouhoud, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia, said the war in Gaza appears to have paused if not blunted the recent Muslim drift to the GOP.

Had the war not occurred, he said that as many as 40% of Muslim Americans would have voted for the Republican presidential nominee in November.

“I was fully expecting that,” Chouhoud, who studies Muslim American voting behavior, said.

Now, he said he is not so sure.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if upwards of 40% are voting third party or otherwise testing some vote that is not a two-party vote,” he said.

A recent poll by the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee and The Truth Project showed that only 7% of Arab American voters plan to vote for Biden and 2% for Trump, with Green Party candidate Jill Stein receiving 25%.

How the Muslim vote will influence the outcome of the presidential contest between Biden and Trump remains uncertain.

Numbering about 3.5 million, Muslims make up just 1% of the U.S. population. In tight races in swing states with large Muslim populations, though, their vote could potentially sway the outcome of the election.

But American Muslims are a diverse lot, with interests and priorities often as varied as the general electorate. While anger over the Gaza conflict may have unified the community, it is not the only issue driving their voting decision, said Saher Selod, director of research for the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a Muslim American research group in Dearborn, Michigan.

“We need to know if [some Muslim voters] are centering this issue as a major driving force in terms of how they’re going to vote,” Selod said in an interview. “Other groups, while they might support a cease-fire, have other issues that that they’re going to vote on.”

VOA asked both the Biden and Trump campaigns about their outreach to Muslim Americans and any steps to assuage their concerns over the Gaza war.

In a statement, a Biden campaign spokesperson said, “The President shares the goal of a just and lasting peace in the region. He’s working tirelessly to that end.”

In a separate statement, the campaign’s Michigan director said the Biden team is in contact with Arab American and Muslim groups in Detroit and Dearborn. Both cities have large Muslim populations.

The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment. The campaign has not publicly reached out to the Muslim community on the war in Gaza, but Trump’s son-in-law, Michael Boulos, and a former Trump administration official recently met with a group of Arab Americans and Middle Eastern leaders in Michigan.

Historical patterns

Historically, Muslim American voters have oscillated between the two major political parties. Socially conservative, most voted Republican in the 1980s and 1990s, leading some party activists to hail them as “natural” allies. In 2000, a majority backed Republican George W. Bush.

That changed after the attacks of Sept. 11, as the Bush administration’s increased scrutiny of the community amid its “war on terror” sent Muslims flocking to the Democratic Party. In every presidential election since 2004, Muslims have favored the Democratic nominee.

But with memories of 9/11 fading in recent years, some Muslims began to shift back to the Republican Party, driven by shared conservative values such as opposition to abortion, gay marriage and LGBTQ-inclusive policies in schools.

“This is the social conservatism within this community kind of creeping up to the surface and guiding political decisions in light of a lot of marquee policy debates,” Chouhoud said.

Some polls confirm this recent voting trend.

In October 2020, an Institute for Social Policy and Understanding poll found 30% of Muslims approved of Trump’s job performance, up from 13% in 2018. 

In November 2020, an Associated Press exit poll found that 64% supported Biden and 35% backed Trump.

Other polls showed a more modest increase in Muslim support for Trump.

Muslim support for Republican candidates continued into 2022. During that year’s midterm elections, 28% of Muslims voted Republican, up from 17% during the 2018 midterms, while 70% voted Democratic, down from 81%.

Today, the Muslim voter base is firmly rooted in the Democratic Party, though a significant slice leans Republican.

A recent Pew Research poll found that 66% of Muslim voters are Democrats or lean Democratic, while 32% are Republicans or lean Republican.

Three previous polls conducted by Pew had all shown lower-level numbers of Republican or Republican-leaning Muslim voters, according to Besheer Mohamed, a senior Pew researcher.

“There are certain issues where Muslims tend to align more with the Republican Party, Mohamed said, noting positive views of religion and skepticisms toward LGBTQ issues.  “Then there are other issues where that’s not the case.”

Nehad, once an independent voter, is now a Republican. His political pivot came after he ran unsuccessfully as a Democratic candidate for constable where he said he felt pressured to champion policies that clashed with his religious convictions.

This year, he stood as a Republican candidate for Fort Bend County sheriff.

“Everything the Republican Party stands for, 70% of it aligns with my beliefs and values,” Nehad said, in a drawl honed over more than 25 years of living in the Lone Star state. “But when I compare the same with the Democratic Party, it’s only maybe 20 or 40%, if that.”

Zahoor Gire, another co-founder of the Muslim Americans of Texas, said Muslim Americans “share conservative Republican values” such as strong families, traditional marriage, traditional gender roles and opposition to abortion.

“I had family members of my own that had voted Democratic before and are now voting Republican,” Gire said.

Underscoring the renewed Muslim embrace of the Republican Party, he said a record eight Republican Muslim candidates have run for office in Texas this year.

“So that shows you the willingness of people to embrace this party and then run for office through this party’s platform,” Gire said.

To many Muslim Republicans, Trump is not the anti-Muslim politician as he is seen by others. They’ve defended his so-called “Muslim ban” as a necessary national security measure rather than a religiously motivated injunction.

But the Gaza war has become “the main issue” for Muslims in America, Gire said. And with Trump urging Israel earlier this year to “finish what they started,” his perceived support of Israel at the expense of Palestinians is giving some Muslim Republicans pause.

Asked if he will support Trump in November, Gire said, “We need to see very specifically what his foreign policies will be, what his stance towards Muslim Americans will be.”

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