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Why some Muslim voters are betting on Donald Trump

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump gives thumbs up while introducing his wife Melania on the first day of the Republican National Convention on July 18, 2016, at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.
Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump gives thumbs up while introducing his wife Melania on the first day of the Republican National Convention on July 18, 2016, at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The person scheduled to give the closing benediction at tonight's Republican National Convention is a Muslim immigrant from Pakistan. Yes, seriously.

His name is Sajid Tarar, and he's the founder of an organization called "American Muslims for Trump."

Given Donald Trump's controversial stance on Muslims, in particular his call to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the US, this might be more than a bit surprising to hear.

Yet while it makes sense for the GOP to want to have a token Muslim to parade out as proof that their deeply racist and Islamophobic policies are anything but, it makes less sense why said token Muslim would support Trump in the first place.

But it turns out that Tarar is not alone. In March, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights and advocacy group, surveyed 1,850 registered Muslim voters. And they found that 11 percent supported Trump. Indeed, Trump was by far the most popular of the five Republican candidates who were still in the race at the time:

Why are Muslim GOP voters supporting Trump?

Yes, you read that right: Trump was the most popular GOP candidate — despite the fact that he was the only candidate who had gone as far as calling for a temporary ban on all Muslims entering the US.

Trump's success, in general, has seemingly defied all logic. He's an almost cartoonishly offensive billionaire and reality TV star with orange skin and funny hair and zero political experience. And baffled political analysts and media pundits have been scrambling to explain his popularity.

One of the most frequently heard explanations is that his willingness to spout sexist, racist, bigoted views that are not "politically correct" appeals to a huge swath of white people who are angry over their perceived loss of the dominant position in American society.

Put simply, Trump is popular because he's racist and angry and so are a lot of Americans.

Except this answer doesn't explain why Muslims who vote Republican would overwhelmingly support him over any other GOP candidate. Marco Rubio was the next-highest GOP candidate, with 4 percent support among Muslim voters polled. Other GOP candidates who were far less extreme in their anti-Muslim views than Trump — John Kasich, for example — barely received any support from Muslims (just 1 percent).

It's the economy, stupid

One reason Muslim Republicans are supporting Trump might be, in the famous words of Bill Clinton, "the economy, stupid."

You see, that same CAIR poll also found that the number one issue Muslim Republicans are concerned about this election is the economy. That's more than Islamophobia, civil liberties, foreign policy, or anything else:

Thirty-eight percent of Muslim Republicans polled listed the economy as "the most important issue" to them in the 2016 presidential election. Islamophobia was a distant second, with only 14 percent.

But Muslim Democrats, by comparison, overwhelmingly put Islamophobia on top:

For Muslims who care about the economy over anything else, Trump's financial success and perceived business acumen may be very attractive. He is something the other GOP candidates are not: a rich, successful billionaire businessman.

Mohamed Elibiary is a homeland security expert who has advised the US government on counterterrorism and countering violent extremism issues. He's also a proud Texas Muslim Republican who is active in the GOP. He told me that Muslim Republicans tend to be "of established working age, say, 25 to 55 years old" and that "[t]hat demographic tends to be focused on career, kids, and fiscal reality, so its focus is naturally on the economy more than anything else."

In addition, Elibiary said that when this demographic "is past their college years and more established in their career, they tend to understand that there are economic stagnation subcurrents to social cohesion issues like the Islamophobia in the political sphere we see today."

In other words, Muslim Republicans see economic factors as one of the underlying drivers of problems like Islamophobia.

Less beholden to special interests?

Trump's wealth may also be attractive to Muslim Republicans for another reason: It could mean he doesn't need to kowtow to the big financial donors who have traditionally funded Republican candidates.

"[T]here are other genuine supporters of Trump that I've received flyers from, including in my hometown of Dallas, Texas, who support Trump because they see him as somebody who's beholden to no foreign/Islamophobic special interest camp [and] that [he] will likely do business with Muslims once in office," Elibiary told me.

It would seem that some Muslims, just like some non-Muslim analysts and pundits, believe Trump's anti-Islam rhetoric is just that — rhetoric — and that once in office he'll behave like a pragmatic businessman and restore economic prosperity to America.

Indeed, Americans for Trump's Tarar, himself a businessman, said in a CNN interview that he believes "Only a smaller government, pro-business policy and the fiscal policy of Trump can bail the country out of the current economic mess."

Tarar also seems to think Trump's rhetoric doesn't actually apply to American Muslims at all, telling Fusion's Casey Tolan: "When Donald Trump has said something about Muslims and Islam, he doesn’t mean American Muslims, he’s talking about terrorists."

Betting that Trump's Islamophobic rhetoric isn't real is one hell of a risky wager, especially for Muslims. But apparently The Donald's wealth and success are persuasive enough to convince at least some Muslims to take that bet.

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