Muslim Republican Saba Ahmed works to build bridges

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WASHINGTON – While waiting her turn to appear on a Fox News show last month, Saba Ahmed, a Pakistani-American and a Muslim, couldn’t bear listening to the anti-Islam rhetoric from the guest who went on before her. So she replaced a purple hijab, or head scarf, she wore with one styled on the American flag. She then stepped onto “The Kelly File” set to discuss anti-Muslim sentiment among her countrymen, swathed in red, white and blue.

Her wardrobe choice caught the attention of a wider audience – a positive thing for Ahmed, 30, a Washington resident and the president of a coalition that aims to educate Americans about Islam and offer a voice to Muslims who are also Republicans.

“We don’t feel Muslims should all be targeted because of the acts of a few,” Ahmed said in an interview Monday. Her work is difficult, she said, and complicated by the anti-Muslim language used by some leading Republican presidential candidates.

In late November, Donald Trump made headlines for suggesting – and then disclaiming the idea – that Muslims in the U.S. should be added to a federal identification database and that some mosques should be closed. Meanwhile, rival Ben Carson said in September that he didn’t believe a Muslim could be qualified to serve as commander-in-chief.

The rhetoric can be daunting, Ahmed said.

“In 2016, we’re wanting to bring Muslim voters back to the Republican party,” she said. “But some candidates are making offensive comments that are turning Muslims off from the Republican party.”

Most Americans – 70 percent – believe Muslims face discrimination in the U.S., according to a 2015 Public Religion Research Institute poll. The survey also showed that more than half – 56 percent – of Americans agree that the values of Islam are at odds with American values and way of life, while 41 percent disagree. In 2011, Americans were evenly divided on the question, at 47 percent and 48 percent, respectively.

Ahmed said that despite his “absurd and offensive” comments, Trump could find support among Muslim voters if he focused on his business success and economic vision.

Saba Ahmed

Saba Ahmed

Born in Pakistan but raised in Portland, Oregon, with her three siblings, Ahmed said she started the coalition last year to counter the continuous targeting of mosques around the country. In greater Boston, that sort of activity resurfaced last month when graffiti was spray painted on the outside walls of a mosque in Burlington.

Ahmed has evolved politically, after growing up as a Democrat in a mostly Democratic state. She became disillusioned with Democrats after an unsuccessful run for Congress in 2011.

“I realized that I didn’t align with a lot of the Democratic values,” she said, recalling her experience as a candidate for public office. “A lot of it was because of my faith … I was very conflicted about it.”

She has drawn on her faith to form her family values, including a “pro-life” stance against abortion. Business, trade and national defense are influential issues among Muslims, she said, even though many American Muslims isolated themselves from politics after 9/11. Although many Muslims voted for President George W. Bush in 2000, Ahmed said that following the terrorist attacks the next year, some turned to the Democrats, if they voted at all.

Today, she said, uninformed views of Muslims shaped by mainstream media outlets frame the biggest issue her coalition faces.

“Islam has been defined as terrorists by media for a long time,” she said. “A lot of Americans haven’t actually met an actual Muslim. Most who would get to know one would know we’re just normal people.”

Some observers have decried the Muslim community’s muted response to terrorist acts. Ahmed disagrees with that assessment.

“Every single American-Muslim coalition I know has condemned terrorism, but it’s not being highlighted in the media as much as they should be,” Ahmed said. But, she added, “why should we have to condemn every wrong thing?”

As she builds her coalition, Ahmed remains optimistic about the future. “Hopefully we can get to the point where Muslims can be a normal part of American society,” she said.

Contact Kara Bettis at [email protected] or on Twitter @karabettis.