FORT WORTH, Texas (RNS) — Lisa Grimaldi Abdulkareem describes herself as a conservative Republican who believes in freedom and prosperity.
“Less bureaucracy, lower taxes and stronger national security — it is simple for me,” said Abdulkareem, the Tarrant County GOP’s vice chair for precinct recruitment and volunteers.
However, some Republican activists in the Lone Star State’s most conservative urban county want Abdulkareem removed from the party's leadership.
The reason: She’s married to a Muslim.
Abdulkareem, a nondenominational Christian, has been caught up in a political civil war that has raged in the Tarrant County GOP for months, pitting Republicans who see the need for diversity in the party against those who see any follower of Islam as a soldier in a “stealth jihad.”
The skirmish first erupted in July, when the county's Republican chairman, Darl Easton, named Dr. Shahid Shafi, a two-term city councilman in the Dallas-Fort Worth suburb of Southlake, as one of the party's two regional vice chairs. Shafi is also a trauma surgeon who is Muslim.
Abdulkareem drew fire for supporting Shafi's appointment. “I spoke up publicly for Dr. Shafi and was immediately targeted because of my husband’s religious affiliation,” said Abdulkareem. Her husband, Hadi, is a naturalized U.S. citizen who served as a translator for U.S. Marines in his native Iraq from 2006 to 2009.
“They also say I am a Democrat," said Abdulkareem, "although I have never voted as a Democrat or for one.”
Dorrie O’Brien, a Republican precinct chairwoman in Grand Prairie, leads a group of activists who have pushed for Shafi to be removed based on his religious affiliation.
O'Brien made news in 2011 when she criticized Bob Roberts, pastor of NorthWood Church, an evangelical megachurch in Keller, another Fort Worth suburb, for inviting Muslims to a "Building Bridges with Fellow Texans" event sponsored by the church. O'Brien called the idea of Christians and Muslims becoming friends or having fun together "repulsive and impossible."
Seven years later, Roberts is among those defending Shafi's right to serve as a Tarrant County GOP vice chair.
"I oppose those opposing Dr. Shafi because they do so on the basis of him being a Muslim," Roberts told Religion News Service. "This is America — religious freedom matters regardless of the religion."
In recent weeks, O'Brien's group has moved to oust others, including Abdulkareem and Easton, who have espoused the Muslim party members' cause, according to emails anonymously delivered to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
On Facebook, O’Brien has repeatedly warned of the supposed dangers of Islam, which she argues is “spread now far more by lies, deception and concocted perception than it is by physical jihad.”
“This is where we are in Tarrant County today,” O’Brien wrote in a recent post. “Divided by those who won’t see the stealth jihad and by those who do. Those who’ve drunk the Islamic Kool-Aid and those who haven’t.”
Many of the county GOP’s precinct chairs have been invited to a Dec. 29 training meeting with former FBI agent John Guandolo, who is known for his anti-Muslim positions, to discuss whether the U.S. Constitution and Islamic law, called Shariah, are compatible, according to other emails obtained by the Star-Telegram.
“Given Guandolo’s history of anti-Muslim bigotry, this training will inevitably incite hatred of Muslims and Islam,” Ekram Haque, acting executive director of the Dallas-Fort Worth chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said in a statement.
Shafi, who emigrated from Pakistan in 1990 to train as a surgeon and is now a U.S. citizen, said he won’t allow “this small group of closed-minded people to damage our party that I’ve supported and served for several years.”
“The call to remove me from the party of Lincoln and Reagan because of my religion is wrong for several reasons,” Shafi said in a Facebook post in which he denied any association with the Muslim Brotherhood, CAIR or any terrorist organization.
O’Brien and others raised their concerns about Islam at a meeting last month of the Tarrant County GOP executive committee. A vote on Shafi’s status is scheduled for Jan. 10.
“The very fact that this is in the news at all is embarrassing for the county Republican Party,” said Matthew Wilson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “I would be stunned if the party collectively actually chooses to remove these people, but the fact that they even have to have a hearing about it … doesn’t do the party any good.
“What’s not clear is how much grassroots support they have behind them," added Wilson, who studies the voting patterns of religious people.
The anti-Islam sentiment — which some say has been fueled by President Trump's exclusionary rhetoric about immigrants from Muslim-majority nations — has historical echoes, Wilson said.
“Once upon a time, there were people who would argue that Catholicism was incompatible with American values,” he said, “and because Catholics had allegiance to Rome, that meant you couldn’t be a faithful Catholic and a good American at the same time.”
Now, Texas has a conservative Republican governor — Greg Abbott — who is Catholic. “And who I’m quite sure wants nothing to do with this ordeal,” the SMU professor said of the Tarrant County dispute.
Republicans across the state have spoken out against Tarrant County's campaign to remove Shafi.
“I urge the Tarrant County GOP to stop this attempt to remove a hardworking county party official based on religious beliefs,” Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, a grandson of the late President George H.W. Bush, said in a tweet. “We must move towards a more inclusive Republican Party and stop tearing down our own if we are to keep Texas red.”
In a similar tweet, Texas House Speaker Joe Straus called the effort to oust Shafi because of his religious faith “disgraceful and un-American” and said “Republicans in Tarrant County should defeat it handily.” Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz added his own tweet, saying "Discrimination against Dr. Shafi b/c he’s Muslim is wrong."
Discrimination against Dr. Shafi b/c he’s Muslim is wrong. The Constitution prohibits any religious test for public office & the First Amendment protects religious liberty for every faith. The Party of Lincoln should welcome everybody & celebrate Liberty. https://t.co/Z16lst3SJN
— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) December 7, 2018
Earlier this month, the Texas GOP executive committee passed a formal resolution supporting Shafi, affirming “every American’s right to practice their religion” and recognizing “the contributions of Republicans of every faith who advance conservative policies and ideals.”
Bud Kennedy, a Star-Telegram news columnist and longtime observer of Tarrant County politics, said he expects Shafi to prevail in a close vote, though Kennedy suggested that any action taken at the state level supporting Shafi could further inflame the critics.
“There is this entrenched opposition that feels like nobody understands what they want, and everybody is trying to guilt them into voting the way the party at large wants them to vote,” Kennedy said.
In November's midterm elections, Republicans prevailed in Texas' statewide races, including Cruz's narrow victory over his Democratic opponent, Beto O’Rourke. But in Tarrant County, O'Rourke edged Cruz by a few thousand votes.
Tarrant County Republicans are worried, said Kennedy: “If they lose control of Tarrant County, they lose control of Texas, and they lose the electoral votes. And they have a real bunker mentality that it’s Tarrant County Republicans against the world.”
As Abdulkareem sees it, Easton made a “brilliant” move by appointing Shafi and Chris Garcia, a Hispanic businessman, as vice chairs this past summer.
“This shows the diversity in our party and (is) something that is imperative for Republicans to do moving forward,” she said.
She praises Shafi as someone who works tirelessly for the Republican Party because he believes in the values it espouses — and who never even asks to be noticed or thanked for his hard work.
“He does it because he feels in his heart it’s important to keep the Republican values at the front,” Abdulkareem said. “Our party should not exclude other religions or races but embrace everyone whose core values align with our platform.
“Nowhere in our platform does it state you must be Christian to participate,” she said. “As a Christian, I was always taught to love everyone as Jesus loved us. We all fail at this task, but we should strive to work hard at it so that when we see him on that day that he knows we truly in our heart strived to live in his image.”