Oz Sultan is a rarity, a Muslim-American in Harlem who is also a committed Republican activist. While 78 percent of American Muslims voted for Republican George W. Bush in 2000, today, just 11 percent of American Muslims say they “lean toward the GOP,” according to the Pew Research Center.
“Many Muslims hold traditional and family values — it’s just been difficult finding their place in a post-9/11 world,” said Sultan, who is a new contributor to Bold. “The past 15 years have seen Republicans go through some hard choices with civil and personal liberty issues,” he said. “I think we’ve finally cleared that hurdle and new GOP recruiting should focus on high net worth groups, shifting urban voter bases and address secular America, which leans conservative and comprises over 30 Million voters. The Republican party of 2025 is going to have far more Gen X, Millennial and Gen Z participation of a diverse breadth of Americans than we’ve seen before.”
Sultan grew up in western Pennsylvania, a place he describes as equally split between blue collar and white collar. His father’s family is Saudi and is mother’s family is Mughlai (people who are the remnants of the Moghul empire, which once encompassed Afghanistan, Pakistan and India), and they came together through an arranged proxy marriage. There wasn’t much of a Muslim community in Pittsburgh in the 1970s when he was born, so Sultan’s parents put him in a Yeshiva for two years. Interfaith education started early at the Sultan household.
“My upbringing in Islam was similar to most Sunni Muslim Americans,” he said. “Islam is a practical religion and we were raised to understand the world through a lens that praised God and learned the rights and wrongs that every Abrahamic faith teaches you. I did do a fair amount of study on how religious study and interpretation, but with several hundred years’ worth of liturgical knowledge, it’s easy to become well versed yet have a lifetime’s worth of knowledge to grow into.”
Sultan said his family lived through a number of Democratic administrations that almost bankrupted the state. By the time he was a teenager, he was strongly vested in the Republican Party. He’s worked and volunteered on campaigns for former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, 1996 Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole, and Presidents George H.W. and George W. Bush. Sultan was also involved with early TCOT on Twitter.
Sultan helped handle the public-relations storm around what became known as the “Ground Zero Mosque,” which Sultan said was a misnomer from activist Pamela Geller. The facility, Park51, was designed to be a Muslim-led version of the JCC or YMCA and provide interfaith engagement space for the Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities that were growing and needed space for daycare and afterschool programs.
“What happened after the project was launched was an absolute divine comedy of errors,” Sultan said. “What’s odd about [Geller] attacking that project is that she ignored two small mosques opening within five blocks of that site at 45 Park Place, and chose to keep using the project as a platform to paint American Muslims as the red threat,” referring to Communist subversives in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.
“It felt more like [former Ku Klux Klan member and later Supreme Court Justice] Hugo Black talking about Catholics in 1920s than reality,” Sultan said. “And perhaps that’s a good way of understanding the challenge of American Muslims, we’re in the same position as Catholics in the early 1910s and ’20s.”
“It’s going to take some time for America at large to get to know us and that we’re just as American as they are, except that we come with rice dishes, kebabs and that white sauce you want more of at four in the morning,” he said.
Sultan said the experience helped toughen him for the duties of running a national campaign, noting that he personally received an average of 200 death threats a day at the height of the controversy. The work, he added, “taught me that while America may not be ready for American Muslims on the primetime stage — there is a great opportunity to educate and build bridges.”
Sultan works to prevent religious radicalization online by raising funds and collaborating with nonprofit organizations to tap into scholarship and activism developed in the past 10 years to prevent digital indoctrination.
“We’re looking at solving the issue of recruitment in a world where a 15-year-old Protestant girl from Montana is as susceptible a candidate for recruitment as a young Muslim American kid who grew up with only a cursory knowledge of Islam,” he said.
“Knowledge is power, and what most terrorist groups prey on is Gen-Z kids and Millennials without a strong identity who are looking for something edgy. ISIS especially preys on these sorts of folks and the danger is not only that they’re getting recruited — it’s follow on,” he explained. “If the recruitment is successful, their social media accounts are typically seized and become drone accounts that are used for further recruitment.”
Thankful the threat of online radicalization isn’t as great in the United States as in Europe, Sultan says it’s still a formidable challenge to build a framework that works to stop radicalization online. Toward that end, his team is always looking for sponsors and partners here and abroad.
“There’s a lot of talk, but successful disruption will require larger social media companies partnering with folks like us and working with organizations that can engage Muslim communities honestly, without the stigma that [Countering Violent Extremism] programs have received in the past,” he said.
Sultan says another challenge is building bridges between Republicans and Muslims. But that’s become more difficult in light of inflammatory comments by GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump.
“The Donald is a consummate showman,” he said. “As New Yorkers, we’ve spent the past two decades spin from position to position to justify whatever he’s shilling at that moment in time. His run is capitalizing on a large segment of disenfranchised blue collar Americans who don’t necessarily see great options for them financially in a [Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership] world where Hispanics and Muslims are the media’s new bogeyman to drive pageviews.”
Sultan said Trump and other hardline GOP messages that demonize Muslims only fuels ISIS and other extremist groups.
“What Trump and many candidates need to realize is that feeding into their media hypestream gives them ammunition to use against us,” he said. “Their stated end goal is to create a war between the west and ‘All Muslims everywhere.’ They’re philosophically closer to the Vietcong than any other recent enemy — and if they’re prepared to wage war on us with guerilla attacks aimed at dividing us as Americans — we need to be looking at strategies and rhetoric that combat that rather than fuel it.”
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Carrie Sheffield is the founder of Bold. She is passionate about storytelling to empower and connect others.
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