(RNS) — Dr. Shahid Shafi, a trauma surgeon who is Muslim, declared victory over bigotry and a win for religious freedom after fellow Republicans in Texas’ most conservative urban county voted 139-49 with 10 abstentions to retain him in a key leadership position.
The much-anticipated vote Thursday night (Jan. 10) by the Tarrant County GOP came during a two-hour, closed-door meeting by precinct chairs at a church in the Fort Worth suburb of Richland Hills.
“Tonight, the torch of liberty burns brighter. Today, my faith in our party and our country has been reaffirmed,” said Shafi, who will remain one of the county party’s two regional vice chairs, in a statement on Facebook. “My fellow Republicans have demonstrated that we remain the party of Lincoln and Reagan, which is open to all Americans, regardless of their religion, caste, creed, color, ethnicity or country of origin.”
For months, a political civil war had raged within the Tarrant County GOP, pitting Republicans who welcomed Shafi and the diversity he brought to the local party against those who characterized any follower of Islam as a soldier in a “stealth jihad.”
Even before Shafi was appointed to his post in July, Dorrie O’Brien, a precinct chair who cast the original lone vote against him, had warned of the supposed dangers of Islam. She argued that the faith 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 one post in November. “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.”
O'Brien's opposition, supported by a vocal minority in the county, forced the party to schedule last night's special vote to retain or dismiss Shafi.
The deluge of national media attention that followed prompted the state-level party hierarchy and high-profile leaders such as U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, to come to Shafi’s defense.
“Religious freedom is at the core of who we are as a nation and state, and attacks on Dr. Shafi because of his faith are contrary to this guiding principle,” Abbott said on the eve of the county party’s vote.
In recent weeks, Republican activists who opposed Shafi had expanded their list of targets to include officials such as Lisa Grimaldi Abdulkareem, a nondenominational Christian who is married to a Muslim.
“I am thrilled to see the party come together and make it clear that we believe in religious freedom,” Abdulkareem, the Tarrant County GOP’s vice chair for precinct recruitment and volunteers, told Religion News Service after Thursday night’s vote. “I’m ready to move on and work on real issues.”
Shafi, a two-term city councilman in the Dallas-Fort Worth suburb of Southlake, said the dispute had been difficult on him and his family.
“It would have been easier to quit, but I stayed on to fight because I believe the issue was far larger than retaining the title of vice chair,” Shafi said. “We were fighting for religious freedom, a founding principle of our nation.
“With today’s vote, we have sent a clear message to the entire nation that we continue to believe that all men are created equal,” he added. “With today’s vote, we have taken a stand against bigotry … against religious discrimination, and to protect our Constitution and the freedoms offered by our country.”