When a group in Tarrant County, Texas, tried to oust a local Republican party official solely because he was Muslim, Republicans in Texas stood alongside him to defend the principles of equality and religious freedom.
“The real power of America is the power of its ideas and ideals,” Dr. Shahid Shafi explains, “Knowing that we are not perfect, but we continue to strive for that perfection.”
Dr. Shafi, born in India and raised in Pakistan, is a trauma surgeon, a naturalized American citizen, and a Muslim. Growing up under a brutal military dictatorship in Pakistan where free speech was forbidden and habeus corpus ignored, he says, “I grew up with America as the land of opportunity, a cradle of knowledge and education, a haven for free speech and democracy, and a beacon of hope for those oppressed across the world. I came to America for all these reasons.”
After becoming a citizen in 2009, Dr. Shafi served his community first as a volunteer on local boards and committees, and then by running for councilman for the City of Southlake, Texas. Along each step of his journey, although he was welcomed by many, he also encountered those who felt distrust and animosity toward all Muslims.
In July of 2018, Dr. Shafi’s experience with religious discrimination was amplified when he was appointed vice chair of the Tarrant County Republican Party.
When Chairman Darl Easton first approached Dr. Shafi about accepting the position, they had several conversations about the possible pushback they might face because of Dr. Shafi’s faith. Easton, a retired Air Force pilot, was undeterred. To him, Dr. Shafi was the right person for the job and that was all that mattered. Tarrant County Republicans seemed to concur—out of all the votes cast to approve Dr. Shafi’s appointment, only one opposed.
However, soon after the July vote, these fears were realized: that lone dissenting voter, a Tarrant County precinct chair, put forth a motion to remove Dr. Shafi as vice chair.
She outlined her reasoning in one of many public Facebook posts:
We don’t think he’s suitable as a practicing Muslim to be vice chair because he’d be the representative for ALL Republicans in Tarrant County, and not ALL Republicans in Tarrant County think Islam is safe or acceptable in the U.S. . . . and there are big questions surrounding exactly where Dr. Shafi’s loyalties lie, vis a vis Democrat and Republican policies.
Dr. Shafi’s reaction to this was stoic but unwavering. Nearly a decade of experience in local Texas politics had taught him that an overwhelming majority believed in freedom of religion and would strive to live up to the ideals of America’s founding principles.
At first, Chairman Easton and the Republican leadership of both Tarrant County and the State of Texas, dealt with the situation as an internal party issue, and, at its core, one of religious freedom. They gave Dr. Shafi their complete support.
But as the Facebook posts began going viral, agitation to oust Dr. Shafi based on his religion grew. By November 2018, the national news had picked up the story. At this point, Dr. Shafi felt the time was right to speak up. He released a statement in which he described the movement to remove him as one designed to foment fear and distrust, generated by a group of small-minded, uninformed people. He spoke of his belief in the decency of Texans, noting that they had elected him twice to his council position in Southlake.
He expanded on his statement in a video interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on December 12, 2018:
“I’m a Muslim and I’m an American, and I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive . . . Religious discrimination is wrong on so many levels. . . [This] is not about me retaining the position of vice chair of the Tarrant County Republican Party. It is not even about me as a person. A higher principal is at stake here. The reason I’m standing and fighting is for that principal of equality and for non-discrimination based on religion.”
Dr. Shafi was invited to the December meeting of the Texas State Republican Party in Austin to speak with the executive committee there. He prepared by making a list of all the accusations against him and wrote a response to each one. The document was ten single-spaced pages. But, throughout the day and a half meeting, he never once was asked to defend himself.
Instead, party officials from all across the state stood up for Dr. Shafi. The actions of the fringe group were seen as a fundamental attack on the core values protected by the Constitution. A part of the discussion also revolved around how one member was able to put forth a motion so at odds with the Constitution’s edict on religious freedom. However, since the party rules did not explicitly prohibit such a motion, it had to be permitted to proceed. (Dr. Shafi notes that the State Republican Party is working on amending their by-laws to prevent such a thing from happening again.)
Though they couldn’t stop the discriminatory vote from taking place, the executive committee passed a resolution strongly supporting Dr. Shafi saying, in part, that he “demonstrates through deed and voice his dedication and servant leadership to Republicans in this community and beyond.”
For Dr. Shafi, this response “was just absolutely heartwarming. It reaffirmed my faith in our country and our party. It was really a testament that we continue to believe in our founding principles, in our Constitution, and that everything that we actually say are not empty words.”
As the January 2019 vote on the motion approached, Republicans from Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives Joe Straus, to Texas Governor Greg Abbott, spoke out in support of Dr. Shafi. To Republican representatives across the state, the efforts to cast out a party official because of his faith were “disgraceful and un-American.” Freedom of religion, these politicians all noted, is a bedrock belief upon which this nation was founded.
On January 10, 2019, the vote took place as required. Dr. Shafi went, accompanied by his wife, his mother-in-law and his three children. They made their way through the throng of cameras, media, and police outside, into the packed committee room, where the majority of Tarrant County Republicans stood against fear and hatred. The final vote was 139–49 in favor of Dr. Shafi retaining his vice-chairmanship.
Many of Dr. Shafi’s supporters were frustrated he did not have unanimous support. But he takes the long view of a scientist, acknowledging that America’s progress isn’t linear, but proceeds in fits and starts. The leadership demonstrated by the party, and the support Dr. Shafi received, ensured another step toward a more perfect union.
Dr. Shafi’s humility and trust in his fellow Republicans comes from his deep belief in the founding principles of America. He never thought the issue was about him, or even about his religion. He was simply standing up for America’s core values of equality, liberty, and justice for all.
“To me, the story was how much support I got from every corner of the Republican Party and every corner of society,” Dr. Shafi said later. “I’m not an activist . . . An issue was thrust upon me, and I did the best that I could. That’s pretty much it.”