Dr. Oz and the battle over the future of Islam in the GOP
There’s no more recognizable icon of Muslim-American’s political rise than Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar. The two Muslim congresswomen from the Midwest, both part of “The Squad” after their election in 2018, have become the face of the Democratic Party’s left-wing. They’ve become objects of adoration from the Left and hatred from the Right, and gripped the attention of the nation’s political reporters.
But the fastest-rising Muslim star in American politics may come from an unlikely place: the Republican Party’s right wing. Mehmet Cengiz Oz, the TV physician better-known as “Dr. Oz,” is running to become Pennsylvania’s Republican Senate candidate. The son of Turkish immigrants has fully embraced the politics of former President Donald Trump, including the claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, and Trump has returned the favor by endorsing Oz.
It was a remarkable endorsement from a former president who campaigned on “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” And it’s not without its detractors. The Pennsylvania primary has become a proxy battle over the future of the Republican relationship to Islam.
In private, rival Republican candidate David McCormick reportedly attacked Oz’s religion. And in public, Trump’s former secretary of state Mike Pompeo has gone after Oz for his connections to Turkey, warning of a potential “national security” issue.
Meanwhile, conservative activist Kathy Barnette has emerged as a dark horse candidate. And after she was revealed to have a history of homophobic and Islamophobic comments, Trump called Barnette an unviable candidate whose past has “not been properly explained or vetted.”
A lot has changed in Republican politics for Trump to endorse a Muslim candidate and denounce his Islamophobic rivals. The “War on Terror” seems to finally be fading from public consciousness, and hawkish Middle East policy — which was joined at the hip with anti-Islam sentiment — no longer dominates Republican politics. At the same time, many see an opening with conservatives among ethnic minorities, especially Latino- and Asian-Americans.
Ismail Royer, director of the Islam and Religious Freedom Action Team for the Religious Freedom Institute, has written that conservative Muslims and evangelical Christians could make common cause on social issues. Royer said in a text message that he was rooting for Oz to win.
But the shifting Republican coalition has also created openings to revive anti-Muslim politics. The growing national conservative movement — which largely lined up behind Trump’s priorities — tends to be skeptical about “globalist” military adventures and the old-style neoconservative movement. At the same time, War on Terror hawks like Daniel Pipes have gotten a reception at national conservative events by playing to nativist fears about mass Muslim immigration.
It’s a dilemma for conservative Muslims, according to the Muslim writer Umar Lee. On one hand, the Left wants to treat Islam as “a secular and ethnic identity” and discard “anything interfering with a progressive worldview,” Lee told Responsible Statecraft in a text message.
But, Lee says, many Muslims are “turned off” by the perception that the Republican Party is hostile to Islam.
Enter Dr. Oz, who was uniquely poised to become the first Muslim Trumpist champion.
The son of a doctor and pharmacist who moved from Turkey to Ohio in the 1950s, Oz followed in his family’s footsteps, becoming a successful heart surgeon at Columbia University in the 1980s. Even as he rose to prominence in mainstream medical institutions, he maintained an interest in alternative medicine, which he later attributed to his family’s traditional Muslim background.
That interest helped Oz carve out a unique niche in the world of New York’s elite. He courted both fame and notoriety by dabbling in “energy medicine” and homeopathy. Oprah promoted him as “America’s Doctor” in the early 2000s and helped him found a TV show. Fans declared their “worship” for Oz, and even as colleagues petitioned to have him thrown out of the university for what they called “quack treatments.”
In 2016, another TV star named Donald Trump leveraged his fame to become Republican nominee for president, then win the election. And in 2020, the coronavirus pandemic ravaged the world. As the medical establishment fumbled the response, Trump and other Republican politicians threw their lot in with doctors hawking alternative treatments. Oz was one of them.
Oz jumped into politics by announcing his Senate candidacy in late 2021. He did so without publicly distancing himself from Islam, as other prominent national conservatives from a Muslim background — like Breitbart editor Raheem Kassam and Stop the Steal organizer Ali Alexander — have done. However, Oz did emphasize that his wife is Christian and his children were raised Christian.
Lee noted that “to be a pious Muslim, would put one out of step with both parties. This isn’t an era when you can be a conservative Democrat or Moderate Republican. You gotta go hard one way or the other to succeed and that isn’t gonna appeal to or attract pious Muslims.”
He added that politically-active Muslim-Americans “who aren’t religious and very far from pious” are still “definitely needed. Not everyone is a Sheikh.”
If Oz represents the perfect Muslim Trumpist, then Pompeo is the avatar of the anti-Muslim reaction. Pompeo has kept a foot in both establishment conservatism and edgier strains of populism. As a member of Congress, he aligned with anti-Islam firebrands and argued that Muslims who “deeply believe” in their religion are a “threat to America.” As Trump’s foreign policy chief, he pushed hawkish policies in the Middle East, with an almost monomaniacal focus on Iran.
McCormick is more clearly aligned with the Republican establishment. He fought in the Gulf War before serving in the Bush administration. His wife Dina Powell worked on Middle East issues in both the Trump and Bush administrations. McCormick’s campaign is backed by several finance titans with deep roots in Republican politics.
In Trump’s words, McCormick is “absolutely the candidate of special interests and globalists and the Washington establishment.”
Publicly, McCormick and Pompeo have focused on Oz’s concrete ties to Turkey.
Oz has Turkish citizenship, voted in Turkish elections in 2018, and served in the Turkish military in the 1980s under Turkey’s mandatory draft. At a May 7 press conference organized by the McCormick campaign, Pompeo argued that Pennsylvania should instead be represented by a “patriotic American conservative.” Oz’s campaign has shot back that the attacks are “xenophobic,” and Oz has promised to renounce his second citizenship if elected.
Privately, McCormick went after Oz on religious grounds, according to the New York Times. During a meeting with Trump, McCormick and Powell showed the former president a photo of Oz “alongside others wearing Muslim head coverings” and called Oz’s religion “a political liability in parts of Pennsylvania,” several anonymous sources told the paper.
However, there’s one area where neither the establishment-aligned McCormick and the Trump-backed Oz differ, as far as Muslim-Americans are concerned: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Muslim-Americans overwhelmingly sympathize with Palestinians, as a Muslim-majority people struggling for an independent state in the Holy Land, polling shows. (“Palestine is one of the few things most Muslims agree on,” Lee said.) But pro-Israel policies are a mainstay of both the Democratic and Republican establishments, and polls show that the Republican voter base is quite sympathetic to the Israeli cause, more so than Democratic voters.
In a policy memo obtained by Jewish Insider, Oz took the establishment Republican position on the conflict. He endorsed U.S. military aid to Israel, backed the ongoing block on U.S. economic aid to the Palestinian Authority, denounced the pro-Palestinian boycott movement, endorsed the Trump administration’s pressure campaign against Iran, and praised Israel as “a vibrant democracy in the world’s most troubled region.”
Oz’s public support for Israel goes back years. In 2013, he visited the country on a trip paid for by pro-Israel donor and Republican kingmaker Sheldon Adelson. During the trip, Oz met with and even danced with Israeli nationalist settlers in the Palestinian territories.
Those stances make sense in a Turkish political context. Oz has praised the Kemalist ideology that dominated Turkey during the Cold War, when the Turkish republic was a close anticommunist ally of both the United States and Israel. (Today, Turkey is governed by a religious-leaning party that promotes anti-Israel rhetoric.) And Oz’s military service took place during an antigovernment Kurdish insurgency with close ties to Palestinian guerrillas.
During his 2013 trip, Oz told the hawkish cleric Rabbi Shmuley Boteach that he speaks “for many in Turkey who treasure our long friendship with Israel and remain optimistic that there is a path for reconciliation.”
That organic connection to Israel eliminates a major reservation that Republican donors and voters — both strongly pro-Israel — may have with a Muslim candidate.
A Trump-loving, pro-Israel, TV doctor whose children were raised Christian is as non-threatening as a Republican Muslim candidate could be. On Tuesday, it will be seen whether that is enough. Barnette has called both Oz and McCormick “globalists.” She is currently polling neck-and-neck with Oz.