Muslims for Trump, though few, see past rhetoric, bluster

DETROIT (AP) — As a Donald Trump supporter, Nedal Tamer feels he's in the minority among Muslim-Americans, comfortable with his choice yet somewhat confounded that he doesn't have more company.

Small numbers of Muslims find comfort, not concern, in Trump's strong stance on immigrants. They see it as proof that the Republican presidential front-runner could better contain extremists than other candidates.

"People have the wrong idea, even Arabs and Muslims," said Tamer, 40, who works in real estate and construction and lives in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, which is known for its large Arab and Muslim population. "I like the fact that he's a little nuts. He's got the good heart, he cares about America."

The discomfort that many Muslims have with the outspoken billionaire businessman comes from his suggestion that Muslims be banned from entering the United States. Trump also has said the U.S. should stop the flow of refugees from countries where the Islamic State group has a significant presence. For some, it's hardest to reconcile Trump's statement that "Islam hates the West."

The Associated Press spoke to a number of Muslims who back Trump, some of whom declined to be interviewed.

Tamer was born in Lebanon and immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1990s from the United Arab Emirates. He said Trump is speaking about extremists, such as the Islamic State group and those it inspires, not all followers of the religion.

"Many times, Trump has said, 'Not all Muslims' — he's not talking about all Muslims," said Tamer, a Republican. "He says there are certain people. ... We've seen what's happening. I don't think anybody would agree with what ISIS is doing," Tamer said, using an acronym for the extremist group. "He says, 'We have to stop ISIS now, immediately.'"

In heavily Arab and Muslim Dearborn, many support Democrat Bernie Sanders, and people in those communities helped turn the tide toward him last month in the state's primary. Sally Howell, an associate professor at University of Michigan-Dearborn and author of several books on Arabs and Muslims in Detroit, described them as a small demographic overall but certainly a factor in Sanders' Michigan victory over rival Hillary Clinton. It helped that he came to Dearborn to court them.

"It's not all about the Middle East (issues) — it was young people, people who care about bread-and-butter issues: the economy, health insurance, quality of schools and policing," she said. "They were the swing vote in Michigan. Any group can claim that, but I think Arabs and Muslims considered themselves to have really made the difference."

That's not stopping some Muslims from organizing on behalf of the GOP and, by extension, Trump. Last fall, Saba Ahmed founded the Republican Muslim Coalition in the nation's capital and seeks to establish a presence nationwide.

"We will be supporting whoever the Republican nominee ends up being. And we are hopeful of Trump's business background, and that he would be able to use that to turn the economy around," she said.

Ahmed, a lawyer, said she has a lot of Muslim friends who are Democrats. But in her view, "Islamic values align with Republican values," and her list includes opposing abortion and backing traditional marriage. She acknowledges that coalition members are "very much concerned" by some of Trump's "very absurd comments," but counters that some of what he says is "overblown."

"Trump knows he can't win the general election with that type of hatred and those types of comments," she said. "So going forward, things will look different."

Some Arabs and Muslims not in the Trump camp have expressed tentative support for his comments related to the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He has said he would attempt to be "neutral," though he recently told a gathering of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that he is "a lifelong supporter and true friend of Israel."

Osama Siblani, publisher of the influential Arab American News, said Trump's supporters — Muslim or otherwise — believe he is an "independent thinker" who "will do the right thing at the end of the day." Siblani added that Trump has business enterprises all over the world, including in Arab Gulf nations, which supporters believe should mute concerns over Islamophobia.

Still, Trump is neither Siblani's personal preference nor his paper's. The Dearborn-based publication, which supported George W. Bush in 2000, has endorsed Sanders.

"I believe Trump is playing on ignorance and cashing in on fear," Siblani said.

Both Ahmed and Tamer said their pro-Republican or pro-Trump positions have led to disagreements and even arguments with other Muslims, but Ahmed said that merely speaks to wide diversity among followers of Islam.

"We can have differences of opinion in the upcoming election, but it's important for all Muslims to get involved," she said. "We are the 1 percent that can shift the outcome of the presidential election. We need more engagement."