The GOP Crusade Against Biden’s Top Muslim Nominee Says It All
There’s a reason that Jewish groups and leaders familiar with smears about “dual loyalty” are standing behind Dilawar Syed.
The GOP’s tent that’s got plenty of room for violent insurrectionists, white supremacists, killers, conspiracists and a congressman accused of sex trafficking isn’t big enough to welcome successful brown-skinned Muslims and immigrants.
For the past five months Republican senators on the Small Business Committee have refused to advance the nomination of Dilawar Syed for the No. 2 post in the Small Business Administration, which would make him the highest-ranking Muslim in the Biden Administration.
When I read about these attacks against Syed, I was a bit surprised—not by the GOP’s rampant anti-Muslim bigotry, mind you, which rings loud and clear in each and every ugly Islamophobic attack against Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, but instead by the choice of their latest target. Syed is an immigrant from Pakistan who graduated from Donald Trump’s alma mater, Wharton, took risks, worked hard, and became a successful entrepreneur and job creator, driving inclusive entrepreneurship in under-served regions.
I’ve known Syed for over a decade since we first met at an OPEN Silicon Valley conference when I lived in the Bay Area, where he was active in helping Pakistani American entrepreneurs and mentoring young professionals. On paper, he should be a poster boy for the GOP’s narrative of exceptionalism, where anyone can come here, build themselves up from nothing, and achieve “the American Dream.”
In our conversations, he always described himself as a secular Muslim, who nonetheless strongly identifies with the community. He was always engaged with Asian American and Pakistani American groups, entrepreneurship and civic advocacy rather than overthrowing U.S. democracy and putting a burqa on the Statue of Liberty. The most controversial statement I ever heard him make was an ignorant and misguided comment about a specific Pakistani dish. Other than that, he might be one of the most chill, anodyne, and boring Pakistani uncles around, and I say that as a huge compliment.
But the GOP is determined to prevent Democrats from establishing a quorum to move Syed’s nomination forward and let him get to work helping businesses in rural communities and the Rust Belt. They’re even ignoring the conservative U.S Chamber of Commerce’s endorsement of him.
White House Deputy Press Secretary Chris Meagher told me that instead of advancing the “well-qualified” Syed, Republicans instead “are not showing up to the committee, shutting it down from doing their important work in the middle of a pandemic as small businesses are hurting.” What salacious and sordid details did Republicans uncover about Syed that prompted and sustained their continued boycott? According to a June email circulated by an aide to Republican Senator Jim Risch, Syed’s sins include being born in Pakistan and a board member of Emgage USA, a centrist nonprofit organization that promotes Muslim American civic engagement, leadership development and voter registration. Republican senators are accusing the organization of being “anti-Israel” and taking “very partisan positions” against the Israeli government.
When I read the accusations, I laughed out loud. Clearly, these Republicans do not hang out with Muslims, except when they meet their Muslim Uber driver as they go to the hospital to get checked out by their Muslim nurses and doctors. Within Muslim American communities, Emgage has been loudly criticized by activists and leaders for being “pro Israel Muslims,” and accused of “selling out” because a few of its board members and supporters have worked and engaged with proudly Zionist organizations and Jewish faith leaders.
These GOP senators belong to a party that’s so concerned with antisemitism that its members include Reps. Paul Gosar, who believes in the antisemitic “replacement theory” and supports white supremacists like Holocaust-denier Nick Fuentes, and Marjorie Taylor Greene, who suspects a Jewish “space laser” might be causing all these forest fires. But Syed is where they draw the line.
In July, these GOP senators demanded a second hearing to ensure Syed’s nomination “would not jeopardize small businesses with close ties to Israeli companies or small businesses owned by Jewish Americans.” (They seem perfectly fine promoting conspiracies that inspire terrorists like Robert Bowers who kill and jeopardize Jewish lives, but I digress.) Responding to Sen. Marco Rubio’s question about BDS, the boycott, diversion and sanctions campaign against Israel for its occupation of Palestinian territories, Syed said, “I do not support BDS. Throughout my career, I have supported engagement with Israeli business.”
Whereas Republicans are “concerned” about Syed, major Jewish-American organizations and leaders are actively supporting his nomination. They are calling out the GOP’s shameful and cynical attempt to use them as props. A letter was recently drafted and signed by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 220 national organizations committed to protecting civil liberties and human rights, that supports Syed and asks the Senate to confirm his nomination. Signatories included Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, an organization which knows a thing or two about antisemitism.
Greenblatt told me, “It has been painful to see the attacks on Mr. Syed’s candidacy because of his association with Emgage… we need him confirmed and we need the Senate to embrace the leadership of people of all faiths, including American Muslims, in public service than giving in to bias or bad-faith smear campaigns.”
The American Jewish Committee issued a statement saying the accusations “based on his national origin or involvement in a Muslim advocacy organization are so base and unAmerican that AJC is compelled to speak out.”
Jerilyn Gelt, the former president of the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council who accompanied Syed on a study tour to Israel in 2013, said Syed “is an ally to the Jewish community in the U.S. and opposes antisemitism in all of its forms,” calling it “shameful” to see antisemitism and Israel “weaponized for partisan gain.” She also articulated the GOP’s main problem with his nomination: Syed is “clearly being attacked because he’s a Muslim.”
It’s no surprise that Jewish American leaders are speaking up for Syed because they recognize the dangerous “dual loyalty” smear that has been historically levied against them.
“It’s the same playbook,” Rabbi Jason Kimelman-Block, the Washington director of Bend the Arc, a progessive Jewish American organization, told me, adding that he is personally insulted that GOP senators are claiming to wage this character assassination against Syed to somehow protect the Jewish community. Sen. Josh Hawley in particular earns his ire, because he’s a “man who used classic antisemitic tropes about a ‘cosmopolitan elite’ that is engaged in a plot to control the economy and weaken America. The shamelessness knows no bounds.”
This GOP “shamelessness” has a long, successful history. For the past 20 years, especially after the 9-11 terror attacks, whenever a Muslim American rises in political prominence they are immediately bombarded by the Islamophobia network, a tightly coordinated coterie of right-wing actors who unleash a calculated smear campaign which uses guilt by association, conspiracy theories, and examples of pro-Palestinian advocacy to tarnish Muslims as secret members and sympathizers of the radical Muslim Brotherhood. “Muslim” itself was a used a pejorative or a political plague to be avoided. This was most evident in the “birther conspiracy” against President Obama, alleging that he’s a secret Muslim born in Kenya and thus somehow inherently hostile and anti-American. In 2010, right before the midterms, the anti-sharia threat was manufactured and disseminated across America resulting in anti-Sharia bans and protests against mosques, and that same playbook is being used to attack CRT across the nation.
In 2012 and again in 2016, Republican Congressmen and their propagandists in right-wing media falsely accused Hilary Clinton’s aide Huma Abedin of having “ties with the Muslim Brotherhood” simply because she was Muslim. Reema Dodin, the White House deputy legislative affairs director and one of the most respected and beloved people across both aisles in Congress, was initially attacked for being a Muslim and Palestinian woman.
Even being a life-long Republican isn’t enough to save Muslims from conservative attacks. Suhail Khan, a self-described “life-long Reagan conservative” and senior political appointee with the Bush administration, was accused by notorious hatemonger Frank Gaffney of being a secret member of the radical Muslim brotherhood. Gaffney even turned on conservative anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, proving that you don’t even have to be Muslim to be considered a Muslim threat. Norquist was part of the “stealth jihad” because he married a Muslim Palestinian woman. Being married to a Muslim apparently makes you radical through osmosis.
The cynical, shameless fight over Syed’s nomination now is a reflection of how the Republican party and the conservative movement sees millions of their fellow Americans as suspects and villains instead of citizens worthy of the same rights, opportunities and freedoms. Two decades after 9/11, it’s still Groundhog Day for Muslim Americans.
If Syed is finally confirmed and becomes the highest-ranking Muslim in the Biden administration in spite of the GOP’s ugly and shameful attacks on him due to his faith and ethnicity, that will be a powerful and hopeful sign that enough Americans are willing to vouch for Muslims and immigrants and value them as co-equal protagonists in our continued fight for a free and representative democracy.