By the time Sajid Tarar took the stage to deliver the closing benediction at the Republican National Convention Tuesday night, many delegates and members of the press had already begun filing out of Cleveland’s Quicken Loans arena.
Day two of the RNC had been an eventful one, with Donald Trump’s official nomination for the White House followed by speeches from his children and past political rivals like Ben Carson and Chris Christie.
But the arrival of perhaps the most unlikely speaker on the RNC dais, a 56-year-old Pakistani immigrant and Muslim Trump supporter, did not go unnoticed. According to reporters inside the venue, a single delegate was heard shouting “no Islam” as Tarar, clad in a silvery bow tie, addressed the crowd.
“Let’s pray,” Tarar said when he reached the podium. “Pray for a strong America, for a safe America. And let’s ask God to make us strong to fight terrorism all over the world.”
Other than maybe Mexicans, no group has been subjected to more attacks by the Trump campaign than Muslims. The Republican presidential nominee has accused Muslim-Americans of celebrating 9/11, claimed that “Islam hates America” and proposed a ban on Muslim travel to the U.S. — ramping up the rhetoric after each of the recent domestic and international terror attacks.
With each step closer to the White House, he’s picked up support for his controversial proposals. A recent example: After the terror attack in Nice, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (in a move seen as a last-ditch attempt to be chosen as running mate) proposed that all Americans “of a Muslim background” be required to undergo some sort of religious test, “and if they believe in Sharia, they should be deported.”
Gingrich didn’t get the gig. But days before members of Republican National Committee would officially nominate Trump for the presidency, they approved a new provision to the party platform calling for “special scrutiny” of all non-U.S. citizens seeking to enter the country from “regions associated with Islamic terrorism.”
In response to a request for more information on how Tarar was chosen for the benediction, a spokesperson for the convention’s planning committee referred Yahoo News to Trump’s press secretary, who could not be reached for comment.
It’s not hard to imagine why Tarar — a vocal supporter Trump’s more controversial proposals, including the Muslim travel ban — would be invited.
As Tarar himself explained in an interview with CNN Tuesday night, he had come to the RNC to show the rest of America that all Muslims “are not bad people.”
“We are living here, we are part of American fabric,” he said. “And we will stand behind America. The safety of America is our No. 1 priority as well.”
But a spokesperson for the Council on American Islamic Relations, or CAIR, a prominent Muslim advocacy organization that has consistently denounced Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric, said Tarar does not speak for the majority of the community.
“The majority of American Muslims reject [Trump’s] hostile attitudes toward the Muslim community and his proposals,” said Robert McCaw, CAIR’s government affairs director.
McCaw expressed mixed feelings over Tarar’s appearance at the RNC.
On the one hand, “We’re happy to see the Republican National Convention include a Muslim speaker.”
At the same time, McCaw told Yahoo News he wished they’d picked someone else.
“It could be said the Trump campaign engaged in tokenism,” McCaw added, arguing that Tarar “has no actual position within the Muslim community that gives him leverage, therefore he doesn’t actually represent the views or interests of the Muslim community.”
McCaw described American Muslims for Trump as a “one-off organization that’s engaged in ‘astroturf’ politics.”
“They have no ground presence, no grassroots engagement,” he said, suggesting the group simply exists to give “Trump the coverage he needs to continue making bigoted remarks about the Muslim community.”
It’s unclear how big Tarar’s organization actually is — or whether it’s even much of an organization at all.
Most of the news coverage surrounding his RNC appearance refers to Tarar as the “founder of American Muslims for Trump,” yet a Google search yields little evidence that such a group exists, at least online.
A closed Facebook group called “American Muslims for Trump” boasts two members, neither of which are Tarar. There is also a separate Facebook community page titled “Muslims for Trump,” which has been “liked” by 581 people but names no specific creator.
And the RNC’s official list of speakers makes no mention of Tarar — despite including a lengthy bio and photograph of Pastor Mark Burns, who delivered Monday’s benediction.
The best available source of information on Tarar is a Fusion profile from April, which describes Tarar as “a Pakistani immigrant who started the organization [here referred to as “Muslims for Trump”] to convince his fellow Baltimore-area Muslims to support Donald Trump.”
According to Fusion, Tarar grew up in Islamabad and moved to the U.S. in 1986, eventually becoming a naturalized citizen and a father of four. He received his law degree from the University of Baltimore and now runs the Center for Social Change, a Baltimore-based nonprofit for children and adults with developmental disabilities.
Tarar told Fusion that he was drawn to Trump for many of the same reasons as most of his supporters: his business experience, his willingness to be politically incorrect and the fact that he’s not an establishment insider.
“When Donald Trump has said something about Muslims and Islam, he doesn’t mean American Muslims, he’s talking about terrorists,” Tarar said, affirming his support for a temporary ban on Muslim travel as well as increased surveillance of U.S. mosques.
“If a tip comes from a Muslim-American that something is going on, they should be monitored,” he said.
Beyond a few of Tarar’s friends from the local mosque who were willing to concede that Trump might not be a total monster, however, Fusion could not confirm if Tarar’s group had a membership larger than one.
That’s not to say that Tarar is entirely alone in his support for the Republican nominee. In March, CAIR conducted a survey of Muslim voters after Super Tuesday and found that 11 percent supported Trump.
“I’m sure the Trump campaign or the Republican Party could have found a speaker from a mainstream Muslim organization to address the RNC and iterate how the party can make better inroads in the Muslim community,” McCaw said.
He pointed out that Muslim-Americans and the GOP weren’t always at odds.
According to CAIR, approximately 78 percent of American Muslims voted Republican in 2000. By many accounts, George W. Bush’s narrowly won victory in the 2000 presidential election was made possible in part by the estimated 60,000 Muslim-Americans who voted for him in Florida.
But that was before 9/11.
Since 2004, McCaw said, “there’s been a mass exodus of American Muslims from Republican Party.”
Several factors drove this shift, he said, including the passage of several state Sharia bans proposed by Republican lawmakers, and the 2011 Islamic radicalization hearings led by Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., as examples of the specific actions that have driven Muslim voters from the GOP.
Citing concerns about Sharia, the Republican National Committee adopted an antiforeign law amendment to the party platform in 2012.
“Even within the Republican Party platform they have planks against the Muslim community,” he said.
Today, CAIR estimates that only 15 percent of American Muslims support the Republican party.
“I have not seen any gestures from the national Republican leadership to the mainstream leadership of the American Muslim community,” McCaw said, suggesting that the selection of Tarar as the RNC’s Muslim voice further confirms the party’s lack of interest in repairing its relationship with Muslim voters.
McCaw added that the hostile welcome Tarar received from at least one delegate in Cleveland Tuesday night, “reflects that the Republican Party has become the epicenter of Islamophobia in American politics.”
Tarar did not respond to Yahoo’s request for comment on this story, but in an interview with CNN immediately following his speech Tuesday night, he said he did not hear the delegate shout, “No Islam!”