A test case for American democracy

Shafi dismissed all the doubts about his democratic credentials and American loyalties.
Sunday 20/01/2019
Shahid Shafi speaks before members of the State Republican Executive Committee, last December. (AP)
Shahid Shafi speaks before members of the State Republican Executive Committee, last December. (AP)

After months of contentious debate, the Tarrant County Republican Party, in the US state of Texas, dismissed a formal motion that would have removed Shahid Shafi from his position as its vice-chairman because he is a Muslim.

The motion to oust him failed on a 139-49 vote. It was a test case of religious tolerance because the only grievance against the American doctor, who was born in India and raised in Pakistan, was his faith.

Dorrie O’Brien, precinct chairwoman and one of the leading proponents for removing Shafi, summed up her qualms about him: “We don’t think he’s suitable as a practising Muslim to be vice-chair because he’d be the representative for ALL Republicans in Tarrant County and not ALL Republicans in Tarrant County think Islam is safe or acceptable in the US, in Tarrant County and in the TCGOP.”

Some party members expressed concerns that Shafi’s serving with the Republicans could have an adverse effect on fundraising. William Busby, a former member of the Tarrant County GOP, said “several big donors” were waiting to see the outcome of the vote before pledging support.

Shafi dismissed all the doubts about his democratic credentials and American loyalties.

“Here are the facts: I have never had any association with the Muslim Brotherhood nor [the Council on American-Islamic Relations] nor any terrorist organisation,” he wrote. “I believe that the laws of our nation are our Constitution and the laws passed by our elected legislatures — I have never promoted any form of sharia law. I fully support and believe in American laws for American courts.”

“I am honoured to be an American and a Republican,” he concluded. His critics were not convinced.

Despite its outcome, such a vote was a surprising occurrence in the US political system, which is traditionally a reflection of the melting pot that constitutes American society.

It is ironic that such an exercise would take place in the very month that the first two Muslim women were sworn-in as members of the US Congress.

Luckily, the objections to Shafi’s religion do not represent a trend in US politics. Candidates of Arab descent and the Muslim faith continue to compete for public office without hindrance due to their ethnicity or religion.

The failure of the Texas GOP’s motion and the general outcry it provoked in religious communities in the United States are reassuring as to the resilience of the American democratic system’s checks and balances.

However, the vote on Shafi’s eligibility to serve in political office is disturbing nonetheless as a reflection of global trends in which bigotry and the fear of different ethnic and religious groups are emerging as the new normal.

All political parties are entitled to vet candidates for senior positions. Security checks are often part of the process of appointing political officials. Nobody in the United States or elsewhere should be put in a situation in which his national loyalties and personal integrity hang in the balance just because of his or her faith.

Shafi was not alone in his fight. Texas Governor Greg Abbott said in a statement before the vote: “The promise of freedom of religion is guaranteed by the First Amendment in the Constitution; and Article 1, Section 4 of the Texas Constitution states that no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust in this state.” The governor was supported in his stance by Texas US Senator Ted Cruz and George P. Bush, state land commissioner and grandson of late US President George H.W. Bush.

Discrimination against nationals of Arab descent or Muslim faith in the West can only fuel the rhetoric of extremists of all shades who would like to divide the world into Muslim versus non-Muslim. That would be handing extremists a victory they do not deserve.