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Muslim Republicans At Odds With Their Party In Tenn.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The Republican Party's relationship with Muslim Americans has become increasingly uneasy. That's been highlighted in the campaigns and comments of presidential contenders Ben Carson and Donald Trump. And nowhere is the tension more apparent than in Tennessee, where a solidly conservative electorate is coming face-to-face with a rapidly growing Muslim community. Chas Sisk, with member station WPLN in Nashville, reports.

CHAS SISK, BYLINE: Like a lot of people in fastest-growing Nashville, Mwafaq Aljabbary's story actually begins elsewhere, in his case as a student on the cold winter plains of Nebraska.

MWAFAQ ALJABBARY: She kept telling me, this cold air is for bears; it's not for humans (laughter). So that's why we moved to Nashville.

SISK: She was Aljabbary's wife, a fellow Iraqi Kurd who'd first come to Nashville as a resettled refugee in the late 1990s. So Aljabbary took a job with the state and got involved in his local mosque. That led to helping people get their citizenship, registering them to vote and last year, at age 53, a decision to run for the state legislature as a Republican.

ALJABBARY: My core values, social values, that really matches with paying your taxes. Work for your money. And there's the social values that we have as a Muslim.

SISK: But the race didn't go well. Aljabbary finished last, with fewer than a thousand votes. Conservatives suggested he might be a secret jihadist. Other Kurds were no less skeptical.

ALJABBARY: Lots of people look and say, look what they're saying at us. But unfortunately, Republican Party right now has been hijacked.

SISK: Ben Carson might have set off a political firestorm with his statement that a devout Muslim doesn't belong in the Oval Office. But the Nashville area's 30,000 Muslims frequently hear such sentiments. Tennessee State Representative Judd Matheny has been one of their fiercest foes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JUDD MATHENY: It has to be dealt with.

(APPLAUSE)

SISK: Last month, at an event just outside Nashville for another GOP presidential contender, Ted Cruz, Matheny complained Tennessee is being overrun by jihadists. He cited the recent attack against military service members in Chattanooga.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATHENY: We know there's a lot of good Muslims out there. But they're not controlling some of their population. And this country's very concerned about it. And they're going to elect leaders that are going to do something about it.

SISK: It's an often-voiced opinion among Tennessee Republicans. Last week, conservative pastors rallied at the state Capitol. One of their main goals is to strip a unit on Islamic history out of Tennessee's middle school curriculum. They say it indoctrinates schoolchildren in the tenets of Islam.

MOHAMED-SHUKRI HASSAN: Sometimes the kind of rhetoric that come out of Republican Party in general is just an American.

SISK: Mohamed-Shukri Hassan is a 29-year-old refugee from Somalia. He too is involved in politics but usually works with Democrats.

HASSAN: Our community's not that solid embedded in one party. But we know our interests. We know who our friends are. We know who speaks up for us. The way the parties speak about people is very important.

SISK: Back on the other side of the partisan divide, Aljabbary continues to work for Republican campaigns despite his bad experience as a candidate. He hopes to keep it up long enough for his kids to get involved.

ALJABBARY: And I told them, you reach 18, I'll help you run for City Council, you know. This is my dream.

SISK: But, Aljabbary admits, they're unlikely to do it as Republicans.

Do they consider themselves Republican?

ALJABBARY: I don't think so. Maybe, maybe.

SISK: For NPR News, I'm Chas Sisk in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.