Victor Ghalib Begg has long been an active Republican. The 60-year-old furniture store owner from Bloomfield Hills campaigned hard for President George W. Bush and former Gov. John Engler, cutting them and other Republicans numerous fat checks over the years.
But as the race for president heats up, he has become disturbed by what he sees as growing anti-Muslim rhetoric from candidates.
“They’re all falling over each other to demonize Muslims and Islam,” Begg said. “They’re trying to appeal to the power of prejudice and hate. … And it’s brainless. Everybody knows we have a problem with terrorism. Let’s focus on how to deal with it, instead of focusing on a faith or a people.”
It’s a view shared by many in Michigan’s sizable Muslim and Arab-American communities. As the Republican candidates campaign in the state in advance of Tuesday’s primary, local Muslims are closely watching the race. But they feel under siege as candidates scramble to bolster their national security credentials with words Muslims say slander their religion.
In a recent TV ad for former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, images of angry Muslim men and women appear on screen with a voice-over warning of “a people perverted.”
Sen. John McCain of Arizona told the Free Press last month that “the challenge of radical Islam” is what drives him to run. And in a campaign video, McCain declares: “The transcendent issue of the 21st Century is the struggle against radical Islamic extremism. “
Begg and others say they have no problems with talk of fighting terrorists, but argue that Republican candidates are consistently equating Islam with terrorism and crossing the line into bigotry. During last Thursday night’s debate in South Carolina, for example, McCain said:
“I’m not interested in trading with Al Qaeda. All they want to trade is burqas,” he quipped, referring to a type of dress some Muslim women wear.
Local Muslims say that criticizing Al Qaeda is legitimate, but wonder why he would make a snide remark. The remark was especially bothersome, some said, considering that McCain’s adopted daughter, Bridget McCain, is from a Muslim country, Bangladesh.
“Bashing Muslims excites certain kinds of bases,” said Osama Siblani, publisher of the Arab-American News in Dearborn.
McCain said Saturday after a rally in Clawson that he respects Islam. “I want to assure the Muslim community in Michigan and around this country that we respect an honorable religion,” he said.
Muslims are especially bothered by Giuliani, who has hired advisers they say are prejudiced against them.
Ex-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney suggested last year he probably would rule out a Muslim cabinet member. And some of the candidates repeatedly have used terms like “Islamo-fascism” during debates, which Muslims say is an absurd phrase that wrongly equates their religion with tyranny.
“Radical Islamic fascists have declared war on our country and our way of life,” former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee says on his Web site. “They have sworn to annihilate each of us who believe in a free society, all in the name of a perversion of religion and an impersonal god.”
The tone this election season is a marked change from eight years ago, when Republican candidate George W. Bush actively courted the Muslim and Arab vote in Michigan.
Siblani, who once backed Bush, remembers watching with excitement when the future president said during a national debate with then-Vice President Al Gore that Arab Americans were being unfairly profiled.
Twenty years ago, some Republicans used TV ads that denigrated African Americans — such as the infamous Willie Horton ad run by former President George Bush.
Now, Muslims say, they are the scapegoats.
“Most of it is based on demagoguery, an easy way to score political points,” said Tarek Baydoun, 23, of Dearborn.
The head of the Michigan Republican Party, Saul Anuzis, says that Muslims — because of their religiosity, family values and belief in small government — are natural fits for his party. He’s concerned that some may be offended by the talk on the campaign trail.
Anuzis defended the major Republican candidates, saying they have drawn distinctions between jihadists and all Muslims. But he acknowledged the concerns of Muslims and immigrants.
“There is an apprehension because of the political rhetoric,” Anuzis said. “And sometimes, being sloppy with the vocabulary … we have to be more careful in how we talk … because the overwhelming majority of Muslims are good people.”