Tarrant County’s GOP got it half right Thursday night.
In a closed door session, the party’s precinct chairs voted 139-49 to reject an attempt to oust one of its vice chairmen, Shahid Shafi, because he is Muslim.
“Religious liberty won tonight,” Darl Easton, the Republican Party’s county chairman, said after the vote. “And while that makes a great day for the Republican Party of Tarrant County, that victory also serves notice that we have much work to do unifying our party.”
Well yes. And no.
Formerly one of the GOP’s most reliable strongholds, Tarrant County narrowly voted for Democrat Beto O’Rourke over Ted Cruz in November. But rather than confront its shrinking base, the party actually took several months to reject the bigoted attempt to remove Shafi, and the vote suggests that although the bigots constitute a minority, the party still has what we might call a Steve King problem.
Because, make no mistake, this was an ugly affair. And it’s not really over. On Thursday, 49 precinct chairs voted to oust an official because of his religion.
By any standard. Dr. Shafi is an American success story. He came to the United States in 1990, trained as a surgeon, became a naturalized citizen in 2009, and has been elected to local office. In November he issued a lengthy statement on Facebook.
I took the oath of US citizenship in 2009. Since then, I have done my best to serve our country and our party. When I decided to run for the City Council in Southlake, many people did not believe that a Muslim had a chance of winning an election in post-9/11 America. I disagreed with them because I believe that in this country, what matters is who you are as an individual — not where you came from. My faith in America was affirmed and I have served on the Southlake City Council since 2014. I have served in this role not as a Muslim but as an American.
When the push to oust him began, Shafi was forced to answer what he called “unfounded allegations, lies, and innuendo designed to prey upon the fears of good people.”
Here are the facts. I have never had any association with the Muslim Brotherhood nor CAIR nor any terrorist organization. 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 support our Second Amendment rights unconditionally, and I believe in the sanctity of life from conception onwards. I believe in small government, lower taxes, individual responsibility, religious freedom, school choice, energy independence, rule of law, and secure borders. For five years in a row, as a City Councilman, I have voted to reduce property taxes in Southlake. I also support Israel’s right to exist.
But the push to oust Shafi was never about his actual positions on issues. The campaign to oust him began in August with a post on the “Protect Texas” Facebook page, denouncing him as “a practicing, Mosque-attending muslim who claims not to follow sharia law or know what it is.” “As a practicing muslim that is an overt falsehood.” wrote GOP activist Sara Legvold. “Sharia law is anathema to our Constitution because Islam recognizes no other law but shariah. As the most conservative county in the nation, this is a demoralizing blow to the conservative rank and file of the Republican Party across the nation and in Texas.” Levgold warned against what she saw as the Islamization of the GOP.
Those of us who follow this islamisation (sic) issue closely are very concerned at this infiltration of the nation’s most conservative county and the ramifications to our continuing to remain a red State. The conservative base of the Republican Party has always been the conscience and moral compass of our Party and the fact that alleged conservatives are enabling this is disconcerting and must surely alarm us. …The Big Tent with “diversity” and “inclusion” as its cornerstones will continue chipping away at the morale of the rank and file Republicans who vehemently oppose this push.
As the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported, others also chimed in. “Please explain to me … why we need a Muslim in the SREC in Tarrant County! There are no Conservative Muslims or Moderate ones!” a woman named Vicky Underhill posted on the “Republican Women of Arlington” Facebook page.
It never got any better. When other Tarrant GOP officials stepped forward to defend Shafi, the anti-Shafi activists began to call for their removal as well. When Texas’s Republican governor, Greg Abbott came to Shafi’s defense, Protect Texas lashed out. “Governor Abbott came out in support of the Islamization of our Republican Party of Texas today. How’s that for shariah compliance?”
And they doubled down on the ugly.
The “Protect Texas” page provides a glimpse into what the GOP faces. It’s a cesspool of anti-Muslim memes and white supremacist links. In July, for instance, the page linked to a story headlined “Hungary Fuels White Race Revival,” which it described as a “Very good piece on Hungary and the demographic fight against the Great Replacement. Bookmark this excellent website and give it all the support you can!” The link took readers to a site that championed not just white nationalism, but toyed with Holocaust denial, and was replete with propaganda touting Hungary’s authoritarian leader, Viktor Orban.
Throughout the campaign to oust Dr. Shafi, Protect Texas sought to link him to alleged acts of Islamic violence around the world. Just this week it linked to a story about the beating of a German politician, commenting: “This is where you are leading Texas by your enabling and silence. Vote to remove Shahid Shafi from Vice Chair position in our County Party!” The next day, the page linked to a YouTube video of a Somali immigrant, with the comment, “The gratitude is overwhelming! DEPORT HIS SEDITIOUS BLACK ASS!!!!”
So the headlines today emphasize the vote to retain Dr. Shafi. And that is a good thing.
But perhaps it was the wrong thing to vote on. Reaffirming religious liberty ought to be a baseline minimum because we are long past debating whether there should be religious tests for office, or whether one’s religion should be seen as a disqualifying factor. (This applies, by the way, to membership in the Knights of Columbus as well, but that’s another column.)
Rather than voting on ousting Shafi, the Tarrant GOP should have been voting on whether to clean out its own nest of bigots, because that is the purge the party needs right now.
There is, of course, precedent for this. In the 1960s, William F. Buckley Jr. effectively excommunicated the John Birch Society, the KKK, and other extremists from the conservative movement. That move was a decisive turning point for modern conservativism, although in retrospect it now seems more of a temporary holding action since, as Matthew Continetti noted, the “nasty mouth-breathers Buckley expelled from conservatism have returned.”
Which, of course brings us to Congressman Steve King, who has removed any lingering doubts by wondering aloud to the New York Times, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” King has since tried to walk that back, but he’s been telling us who he is for some time now.
So what do we do with overt bigots like King and the mouth-breathers of Tarrant County? Issue strongly worded press releases? Take votes? Furrow brows?
Or finally decide what the GOP is… and more important what it is not. Membership in a political party is not an entitlement and political parties have the right, actually the obligation, to draw lines and set standards.
This brings us back to Tarrant County. Rather than voting whether or not to oust Dr. Shafi, the party should now vote on the question of whether or not bigotry should be disqualifying. Instead of voting on Dr. Shafi, how about votes on expelling the Protect Texas crowd from the party? And, nationally, the GOP needs to decide whether it wants to be a party that includes Steve King.
Today the party finds itself in the position of someone who has eaten some very bad fish. Sometimes, the only real option involves purging. It won’t be pretty, but let’s get on with it.