ELKRIDGE, Md.—A group called “Muslims for Trump”? It almost sounds like a joke.
But Sajid Tarar, a Pakistani immigrant who started the organization to convince his fellow Baltimore-area Muslims to support Donald Trump, is very serious. He argues that the presidential candidate who has proposed banning Muslim immigrants and surveilling or closing U.S. mosques is actually the best choice for his community.
“As Muslims, we have a hope that Trump can guide America toward the right direction,” Tarar, 56, told me earlier this month. “He’s rewriting history.”
While it’s definitely an unconventional opinion among Muslims, he isn’t alone. In a poll of Muslim voters conducted by the Council of American-Islamic Relations last month, 11% of respondents said they supported Trump. Tarar is one colorful example of this baffling and largely ignored voting bloc.
In an interview in his nondescript office park, Tarar—who’s tall and bald and wore a full suit and yellow bow tie—said he saw no contradiction in Muslims backing Trump. “The Quran says you need to be loyal to the country where you live,” he said. “We have to do every possible thing to make our country safe.”
Tarar grew up in Islamabad, Pakistan, and went to school in Lahore, where he studied political science and devoured books about American history and culture. He came to the U.S. in 1986, studying first at American University in D.C. and then getting his law degree at the University of Baltimore. He became a naturalized citizen and had four kids here. Now he’s the CEO of the Center for Social Change, a nonprofit that provides care for elderly and developmentally disabled people in the Baltimore region.
In the past, Tarar has voted for both Republicans and Democrats, and he’s been cozy with the political establishment: On the wall of his office is a photo of him shaking hands with Dick Cheney. He’s even considered running for office himself. But Tarar said he became so fed up with President Obama and the federal government that Trump’s message started making sense to him.
In a lot of ways, he sounds exactly like your typical Trump supporter: He calls Obama a socialist, thinks building a border wall is “crucial,” and bemoans political correctness and the Black Lives Matter movement. He likes that Trump is funding his own campaign, is an entrepreneur, and is sticking it to the political insiders.
What about Trump’s anti-Muslim positions, I asked.
Banning Muslims? There should be a “ban or stop for some period of time,” he said. (He has no family left in Pakistan, but claims he wouldn’t change his mind even if he did.)
Surveilling mosques? “If a tip comes from a Muslim American that something is going on, they should be monitored.”
Isn’t Trump’s language encouraging Islamophobia? “When Donald Trump has said something about Muslims and Islam, he doesn’t mean American Muslims, he’s talking about terrorists.”
According to Tarar, there’s a substantial group of Muslims who agree with him. Dozens of people came to a pro-Trump event he helped organize in Baltimore last month (which was co-hosted with a separate “Sikhs for Trump” group.) A representative of the campaign gave a speech.
Going forward, Tarar wants to take his group national, starting Muslims for Trump chapters around the country. He’s also hoping to host a big campaign rally in Baltimore that Trump attends in person—the Maryland primary is April 26, so Trump will be coming to the area in the next few weeks.
To convince me that there were, in fact, other “Muslims for Trump,” Tarar drove me to visit Friday prayers at his local mosque. The Raza e Mustafa Islamic Center, which is attended mostly by Pakistanis in the area, is a low-hanging building tucked into a wooded pocket of the Baltimore-D.C. sprawl, with a bubbling stream flowing nearby. About 100 people, mostly men, kneeled on the carpeted floor inside, while 200 shoes were scattered outside on a patio. Tarar shook hands and chatted in Punjabi with fellow worshippers as the sound of Arabic prayer songs filtered out the door.
After Tarar gave what may have been the only campaign pitch Trump has ever received in Punjabi, he cajoled a few of his friends to talk on camera about the Donald. While they didn’t seem as enthusiastic about the campaign as Tarar—none said specifically that they would vote for Trump—they agreed that the Republican frontrunner wasn’t anti-Muslim.
“The people who are doing wrong things like terrorism activities, he’s talking about that. Not about Muslims,” said Mehmud Saleem, who wore a long yellow tunic. “Being Muslim, we condemn terrorism as well.”
Mohammad Seyal, who had a curly beard, a white turban, and a Baltimore accent, agreed: “I don’t think that Donald Trump is a bad person… A lot of the things that he says, they’re not connected to the people here.”
And when I asked him about Trump’s suggestion of surveilling mosques, he spread his arms wide. “It’s all open,” Seyal said. “Come check us out. You see something, tell us anything… If Donald Trump wants to come visit our mosque, he’s welcome.”
Not everyone is so supportive. Tarar said he’s received criticism from some in the Muslim community who accuse him of backing a bigot. When I asked one younger man walking out of the mosque what he thought of the reality TV star, he replied, “F Trump.”
It’s certainly hard to look past some of the cognitive dissonance in the “Muslims for Trump” argument. Tarar said he studied constitutional rights and bemoaned the Pakistani government’s violations of its own constitution. But he freely admitted that limiting immigration by religion would be a violation of the First Amendment, not to mention condoning torture. And he seemed to not understand the idea that Trump’s rhetoric could be fanning the flames of Islamophobia.
The notion that Trump hasn’t badmouthed the Muslim community is objectively false. In addition to his policies that specifically target Muslims, the bombastic candidate has suggested that 27% of the 1.6 billion Muslims around the world are “very militant.”
It’s not that Tarar doesn’t believe in his religion. “Islam is a beautiful religion, a religion of peace,” he said. Muslims in the U.S., he added proudly, are “part of the main American fabric, and we are not going anywhere.”
So why is he so eager to apologize for Trump’s rhetoric?
In American politics, we like to use identity as shorthand: it’s easy to conceptualize the “Muslim vote” as a monolithic bloc. But as Tarar makes clear, voters are far more complicated than any single identity. He’s Muslim, but he’s also conservative and pissed off at the establishment and worried about terrorism.
“This is my country and this is my kids’ country. That is my number one priority, the safety of America,” Tarar said. “Donald Trump agrees with that.”
Then he put on his navy blue “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” hat and flashed a smile for the camera.
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.