Shahid Shafi identifies as a Republican because of his firm belief in small government, lower taxes and secure borders. But his commitment to core GOP values hasn’t shielded him from ire within his own party.
A group of Tarrant County Republicans will vote Thursday evening on whether to remove Shafi as vice-chairman of the county party after a small faction of members put forth a formal motion to oust him because he’s Muslim.
Those in favor of the motion to recall Shafi, a trauma surgeon and member of the Southlake City Council, have said he doesn’t represent all Tarrant County Republicans. They’ve also said Islamic ideologies run counter to the U.S. Constitution — an assertion many Texas GOP officials have called bigoted and Shafi himself has vehemently denied.
“This is, unfortunately, not the first time that people or my political opponents have tried to use my religion against me to distract the voters,” Shafi, who declined to be interviewed by The Texas Tribune before Thursday’s vote, told The Washington Post. “And unfortunately, I don’t think it will be the last either.”
Dorrie O’Brien, one of the precinct chairs leading the charge to recall Shafi, did not respond to The Tribune’s request for comment. She’s previously said, however, that her support for ousting Shafi stems not from his religion, but whether he supports Islam or is connected “to Islamic terror groups,” according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. In a series of lengthy Facebook posts, O’Brien wrote that she “never doubted” her side has “the votes to rescind Shahid Shafi’s ratification as vice chair.”
“We don’t think he’s suitable as a practicing Muslim to be vice chair because he’d be the representative for ALL Republicans in Tarrant County, and not ALL Republicans in Tarrant County think Islam is safe or acceptable in the U.S., in Tarrant County, and in the TCGOP,” O’Brien wrote on Facebook, adding that “there are big questions surrounding exactly where Dr. Shafi’s loyalties lie, vis a vis Democrat and Republican policies.”
But several prominent Texas Republicans have rallied behind Shafi leading up to Thursday’s vote — a list that includes U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush and former House Speaker Joe Straus. As news of the motion to remove Shafi garnered national attention, the state party’s GOP executive committee passed a non-discrimination resolution that affirms and supports “all Americans’ right to practice their religion … and recognizes the contributions of Republicans of every faith who advance conservative policies and ideals.”
Thursday’s motion “is about religious prejudice,” said Darl Easton, the Tarrant County GOP Chairman who appointed Shafi to his role in July.
“[Shafi’s] very active with the party, but most of the people don’t even care about what he’s done,” Easton said. “Most of them already have a prejudice against Muslims, and a lot of that comes from the attack on 9/11 and the Shariah law they claim all Muslims must obey.”
It’s unclear whether Thursday’s vote will happen in public, behind closed doors or be delayed indefinitely, Easton said. The Star-Telegram reported that, since the movement to remove Shafi has picked up steam, it has expanded to also target some of his defenders, including Easton and a Republican party official who is married to a Muslim.
Shafi, who came to the U.S. in 1990 and became a naturalized citizen in 2009, has repeatedly defended himself against the attacks on his religion. In an open letter, he wrote that he believes “much of the hate against Muslims is driven by a fear of terrorism.”
“Here are the facts. I have never had any association with the Muslim Brotherhood nor [the Council on American-Islamic Relations] nor any terrorist organization,” he wrote. “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 am honored to be an American and a Republican,” he concluded.
Jeremi Suri, a professor of public affairs and history at the University of Texas at Austin, said claims that Shafi’s religion impede his ability to work with the Republican party are “completely unfounded.” He compared the attacks against the surgeon to rhetoric the Ku Klux Klan used in the early 20th century against Catholics and Jews running for political office.
“The Klan argued that if you’re a Catholic, you obviously put the pope before the country so how could you be an American leader? That’s the same argument this Tarrant County group is making,” said Suri.
Though the movement to reconsider Shafi’s appointment was afoot well ahead of last year’s midterm elections, Thursday’s vote comes just months after Tarrant County — considered the most conservative urban county in the country — narrowly flipped in favor of Texas Democrats’ star senatorial candidate, Beto O’Rourke. In Tarrant County and the surrounding Dallas-Fort Worth region, several Texas Senate and House seats went to Democrats, including the district previously held by conservative state Sen. Konni Burton of Colleyville.
Brendan Steinhauser, an Austin-based GOP strategist, worries that Shafi’s ousting would harm the Tarrant County GOP and state party in the 2020 elections.
“These are the kinds of headlines the party doesn’t need right now,” Steinhauser said. “Doubling down on shrinking the tent is a very bad idea. It does make me wonder what’s next. Are they going to say no Catholics can be in a leadership positions in the party or no Jews? I mean, what is the religious standard that they want to impose?”
Easton, meanwhile, said he felt optimistic the vote to recall Shafi would fail, but feared that the push for his removal already has driven a wedge between members of his party.
“As long as someone is a U.S. citizen, has obeyed the laws of the country, paid their taxes and so forth, they have an equal right to be involved in city, county, state or national government,” Easton said. “The accusations they’ve brought against [Shafi] are not sufficient. He has every right to be here.”
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.