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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Oz could be the first Muslim U.S. Senator, but some Muslim Americans are ambivalent

Pennsylvania Republican U.S. Senate candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz speaks at a rally held by former President Donald Trump in Wilkes-Barre, Penn. on Sept. 3, 2022.

By Liam Stack

In just a few days, Pennsylvania could elect Dr. Mehmet Oz to the Senate, which would make him the nation’s first Muslim senator.

With an eye on that history, Muslims in the state have invited him to events at mosques. They have waited for him to talk about how his life has been influenced by his faith, which he once told an interviewer hewed to the mystical Sufi Islam of the whirling dervishes. They have wondered if he would note the significance of the election of a Muslim to such a high national office.

But he has not done any of those things.

As Oz clashes with Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the Democratic candidate, in a close race that could decide control of the Senate, he is approaching his Muslim background with what appears to be great ambivalence — and some Muslim Americans have similarly conflicted feelings.

Oz’s personal and political identities make him an unlikely fit for the role of a history-making, barrier-breaking Muslim public figure.

He identifies himself as a secular Muslim, raised his four children in his wife’s Christian faith and rarely discusses his religious beliefs in public. Unlike most American Muslims, he is a Republican. And some of his rare comments about Islam — including a warning about Shariah law in the United States, which no group has ever proposed — have been viewed by fellow Muslims as Islamophobic signaling.

Above all, though, the alienation many Muslims feel from Oz stems from his vocal backing from former President Donald Trump, who once said he would “strongly consider” closing mosques in the United States, told an interviewer that “I think Islam hates us” and, as president, banned travel to the United States from several predominantly Muslim countries.

In other words, the first Muslim senator might be a man who owes his political rise to a figure who spread Islamophobia more widely than any other recent American leader.

“It’s going to be very difficult to wrap my head around that one,” said Abdul Maghees Chaudhri, the vice president of the Islamic Society of Chester County, a mosque in suburban Philadelphia.

Oz, who for years was best known as a television self-help personality, has described a spiritual life shaped by the conflicting views of his pious father and his secular mother, who reflected divisions within their native Turkey. His campaign did not respond to requests for an interview.

“I have struggled a lot with my Muslim identity, in part because, within my family, there were two very different perspectives on it,” he said in a 2009 interview with Henry Louis Gates Jr. on the PBS television show “Faces of America.”

In the end, he told Gates, he embraced his mother’s secularism and felt drawn to Sufism, a movement found in both Sunni and Shiite Islam that emphasizes each person’s individual search for the divine over dogma or rigidity.

When one is caught up in the “legal aspects of religion,” he said, “it frustrates me to no end.”

Muslims around the world interpret their faith in a wide variety of ways, and Oz’s approach is one shared by many others. For many American Muslims, their concern is not over theological differences with Oz or his religious observance, but over his unwillingness to publicly embrace them while at the same time aligning with politicians who have been hostile toward their community.

Dalia Mogahed, the director of research for the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, said it felt as if Oz had “disowned” his background.

“I think it’s something, for the most part, that he has de-emphasized and walked away from,” she said. “For the community to claim him or take any pride in his accomplishments, I don’t think makes sense.”

Only 10% of American Muslims identify as Republicans, according to a study by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding this year. Forty-six percent of Muslims identify as Democrats and 40% as independent, the highest percentage of independents of any faith group. Oz is believed to be the first Muslim nominee for Senate from a major party.

Mogahed said that American Muslims were likely to be independents because many did not feel they fit into either political party.

Many oppose Democratic positions on issues like same-sex marriage and taxation, she said. But a survey of American Muslims by the institute in 2022 also showed that a majority supported abortion rights and gun-control laws and said they agreed with the principles of critical race theory.

American Muslims have also been deeply alienated from the Republican Party since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which led to years of racial profiling and government surveillance, enabled by the Patriot Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush, a Republican. That estrangement became profound during the Trump administration.

There has been no excitement in the community over Oz the way there was when Keith Ellison, a Democrat, became the first Muslim elected to Congress in 2007, Mogahed said. Ellison visited mosques across the country, was sworn into office on the Quran and served as an eloquent spokesperson for American Muslims, Mogahed said.

Oz’s most substantive public remarks about his religious background appear to have come from his 2009 interview with Gates.

In the interview, Oz described growing up in a divided home, with “one parent on one side of the religious wall, one parent on the other.”

His mother’s family was aligned with the secular teachings of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded modern Turkey after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1922. Oz said those in his mother’s family “are religious people, but in privacy.”

“They never flaunt it; they never talk about it,” he said. “It’s frankly none of your business, in their opinion, that they happen to be Muslim.”

But for his father’s side of the family, Islam was “their core essence — it is what defined who they were; it is what gave them their morality,” he said.

“They would never feel comfortable separating away their view towards the law from the view towards religion,” he said. “They just seemed so obviously and beautifully and elegantly integrated. Why would you try to carve them apart?”

As an adult, Oz said, he was drawn to Sufism, which emphasizes a personal connection with God.

The idea that Oz may be too Muslim is not one shared by many Muslim Pennsylvanians.

Chris Caras, the imam of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, was a fan of Oz’s television show and followed him on Facebook for years, turning to him for weight loss tips and advice about alternative medicine.

But Caras said Oz’s embrace of Trump had left him “profoundly” disappointed.

“All I saw were what seemed to my eyes to be him eating pork and drinking beer and wine in rural areas,” Caras said. “After months of these pictures without a single person of color, I finally unfollowed him after many years.”

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