This battle over sex education isn’t being led by white conservatives—but by Muslim parents
School boards have become lightning rods for controversy in the United States. Arguments about the teaching of race, sexuality and gender have become so heated that in the fall of 2021 the Justice Department released a public statement on how it would deal with threats of violence against school officials. When congressional Republicans responded that the Biden administration was unfairly targeting parents concerned about their children’s education, it seemed that we were witnessing yet another example of Democrats and Republicans occupying different worlds. The reality is more complicated.
Montgomery County, Md., where I live, is one of the richest and most progressive areas in the nation, so it may seem an odd place for a debate over sex education in schools. But in this case the local opposition to a sex-ed curriculum is being led not by white conservatives, but by Muslim parents. These parents say that some of the books aimed at children—like a book for pre-kindergarten students about a dog that attends a Gay Pride parade, which highlights words like “leather” and “underwear”—have inappropriate sexual content that is insensitive to religious belief.
Democrats like Rho Khanna, a congressman from California, have unconvincingly blamed the protests in Montgomery County on Republicans. And Kristen Mink, a county councilwoman, had to apologize after she said the parents were on the same side as “white supremacists and outright bigots.” The reality is that many Muslim parents simply do not want their children to receive their education about sex in public school, especially if it has L.G.B.T. content. They do not need the prompting of the Republican Party to voice their objections.
The reality is that many Muslim parents simply do not want their children to receive their education about sex in public school, especially if it has L.G.B.T. content.
The largest Muslim civil rights group in the United States, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, strongly supports the parents. Any association with white supremacy is dubious, given that most protestors seem to be Black or brown. (Along with Muslims, Ethiopian Orthodox Christians are prominent among the protesters.)
This phenomenon can be seen on both sides of the Atlantic. In 2019, British Muslims protested in Birmingham for more than two months against the school’s curriculum on same-sex relations. Labour Party M.P.s Roger Godsiff, Liam Byrne and Shabana Mahmood expressed sympathy or support for the parents. In Hamtramck, Mich., the only Muslim-majority city in the United States, the all-Muslim city council voted unanimously to ban the flying of pride flags on city property. Mayor Amer Ghalib told The Guardian in June that L.G.B.T. supporters were “forcing their agendas on others.”
The Democratic Party is facing a conundrum. Two groups it thought it had locked up, Muslims and the L.G.B.T. community, may have some conflicting visions for the nation.
In Hamtramck, Mich., the only Muslim-majority city in the United States, the all-Muslim city council voted unanimously to ban the flying of pride flags on city property.
But the Democrats’ hegemony over Muslim voters is relatively recent. Not long ago, Democratic presidential nominees were wary of outreach to the Arab and Muslim communities, fearing that it could hurt their support among Jewish voters. In 1984, for example, former Vice President Walter Mondale refused a $5,000 contribution from an Arab American group, and four years later Gov. Michael Dukakis rejected the endorsement of the Arab American Institute.
By the 1990s, the wariness went in both directions, with some Muslim Americans uncomfortable with the Democrats because of their stands on so-called social issues. In 1996, the author and poet Abidullah Ghazi, writing in the Muslim American magazine The Minaret, criticized President Bill Clinton for his support of abortion and claimed that Mr. Clinton’s “permissive attitude regarding homosexuality also leaves Muslims cold.”
In 2000, George W. Bush made outreach to Muslim Americans a key part of his campaign; the next year, Tom Davis, head of the National Republican Congressional Committee made a point of saying that his party was always looking for Muslim candidates. (The only four Muslims elected to Congress so far are Democrats, but in 2022 Dr. Mehmet Oz won a Republican primary in Pennsylvania, making him the first Muslim nominee for the U.S. Senate from either party.) Mr. Bush’s social conservatism and his calls for a less interventionist foreign policy struck a chord with Muslim voters. While exact estimates vary, he seems to have handily won the Muslim vote over Vice President Al Gore.
This Muslim-G.O.P. alliance collapsed in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. President Bush went out of his way to tell the public that Islam was a religion of peace, but other Republicans were less accepting. The Iraq War, the Patriot Act and Mr. Bush’s close partnership with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon helped to poison the relationship between the Muslims and the Republican Party. In 2004, polling data suggested that John Kerry overwhelmingly won the Muslim vote. And in 2008, the Democratic nominee, Barack Obama, who for four years lived in Indonesia, demonstrated a strong appeal among U.S. Muslims—no doubt helped by far-right conspiracy-mongering and blatant Islamophobia. This alliance remained together for the next three presidential elections.
Exit polls suggested that Donald Trump did slightly better among U.S. Muslims in 2020 than he did in 2016, ticking up to 35 percent of an estimated 1.1 million Muslim voters.
But things are slowly changing again, with exit polls suggesting that Donald Trump did slightly better among Muslim voters in 2020 than he did in 2016 (ticking up to 35 percent of an estimated 1.1 million Muslim voters). The Obama coalition may have been more of a backlash to the G.O.P. than a true realigning of the Muslim vote, and opposition to a common foe can only last for so long. If Democrats remain committed to their increasingly absolutist social liberalism, they risk estranging socially conservative minority voters—not only Muslims but also religious Black and Latino voters.
Writing for the HuffPost in 2017, the Muslim scholar and civil rights leader Imam Omar Suleiman observed that within progressive circles, “it often seems like the ‘religious left’ is only welcomed if it uncritically embraces secular positions.” He wrote, “Liberals have to decide if they’re willing to embrace Muslims and other believers that are not interested in revising their holy texts.”
The 2024 election is going to be close regardless of the nominees. If the party is unable to respond to the concerns of voters like Muslim parents in Montgomery County, the G.O.P. has an opening. School protests are not going away, and if the Democrats keep ignoring the root cause, a rude awakening could await them next November.