HARRISBURG — If Dr. Mehmet Oz is elected to the U.S. Senate this fall, he will become the first Muslim to ever serve in the chamber. It’s something he hardly brings up on the campaign trail, his Democratic opponent doesn’t, and it’s hardly a topic of conversation in Pennsylvania’s Muslim community.
Even if Muslims know that Oz—the famed heart surgeon best known as host of the daytime TV show “The Dr. Oz Show”—is a fellow Muslim, many may not identify with him culturally or politically.
And anyway, Muslims aren’t monolithic and won’t necessarily vote for a candidate just because they share a religion, Muslims across the state say — he’ll need to win them over on the issues, like all voters.
Oz, whose parents emigrated from Turkey, calls himself a “secular Muslim” and says the spiritual side of Islam resonates with him more than the religious right.
He is also part of the Republican Party, which is a political minority among Muslims and is supported by former President Donald Trump, who earned the enmity of some Muslims for banning travelers from five predominantly Muslim countries to the US in 2017.
For a Republican Party more used to electing white Christians, Oz’s religion is an odd companion. Some Muslims say they have experienced hostility from the party in the past, and Muslim candidates themselves have faced attacks from Republican opponents.
In a brief interview, Oz said it’s good for the leadership of the United States to show that it can elect Muslims, and that it’s good for Muslims to see one of their own elected to the US Senate.
Such success would reinforce the message that “if you work hard in America, we appreciate you regardless of your heritage,” Oz said.
In the Nov. 8 election, Oz won May’s seven-way GOP primary in a race so close it prompted a statewide recount, and he now faces Democrat John Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, in the Nov. 8 election. Races in the state’s presidential battleground could help determine partisan control of the Senate next year.
On the campaign trail, Oz is sticking to national Republican theses, such as trying to link rising inflation and gun violence to President Joe Biden and his fellow Democrats.
Oz rarely discusses his religion, and Fetterman didn’t bring it up, instead focusing on trying to paint Oz as a super-rich, untouchable carpetbagger from New Jersey.
If Muslims don’t know Oz is one of them, “it’s really because of him,” said Alghasimu Bach, a Philadelphian and Sierra Leonean immigrant. “He didn’t talk about his faith. We didn’t hear him.”
Imam Abdul Aziz Suraka of the Muslim Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh said most mosque members are likely aware of Oz’s faith, but don’t seem more enthusiastic about Oz than any other candidate.
Imam Abdullah Pocius, who heads a mosque in Philadelphia, said he doubted most Muslim voters knew Oz identified as Muslim.
“The average American Muslim doesn’t know anything about him except that he’s a TV doctor,” Potius said.
Oz was born in the United States to Turkish parents, married an American woman who is a Christian, and raised his children as Christians.
In a 2013 interview with PBS’ Faces of America, Oz opened up about his faith, saying that as a child he became interested in Sufism, a mystical form of Islam that emphasizes man’s direct connection to God.
Oz called it “spiritual.”
However, Sufism is generally viewed negatively by orthodox Muslims, who emphasize strict adherence to a set of religious laws, said Khalid A. Blankinship, a Muslim and professor of religion at Temple University in Philadelphia.
Also, Muslims in the United States are diverse — they include American converts and immigrants from Asia, Africa and Europe — and many may see Oz’s Turkish heritage as more meaningful to him than Islam, Blankinship said.
When it comes to voting, party loyalty will take precedence over religion for the vast majority of Muslims, Blankinship said.
“Most people wouldn’t think to support him just because he’s Muslim,” Blankinship said. “And they will look at what he says, what his policies are, what his position will be.”
Suraka said he is trying to teach Muslims to be principled in voting and to avoid supporting candidates “just because they speak well to the Muslim community” or address them as fellow Muslims.
Still, it’s significant — and remarkable — that a major political party nominated a Muslim for a Senate seat, Muslims say.
But the revitalization of Pennsylvania’s Muslim community may have only a small impact on the election.
Muslims make up an estimated 1% to 2% of the state’s voters, and in 2017 the Pew Research Center estimated that two-thirds of Muslim Americans identify as or lean Democrat.
This could further isolate Oz from many Muslim voters.
“It’s difficult because most Muslims are registered Democrats,” said Wael Alzayat, CEO of Emgage, a national Muslim political rights organization. “While being a Muslim is nice and good, it’s not enough, and in some cases it doesn’t matter what faith you are, if you’re not on the right side of the issues.”
Salima Suswell, executive director of Pennsylvania-based Emgage, said she learned Oz was Muslim shortly after he started his campaign.
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But Suswell said his religious beliefs did not influence her decision in the election and that the issues of Muslim concern were not limited to “stereotypical ‘Muslim issues’.”
“We know that just because someone claims to be part of our faith community doesn’t mean they represent our values,” she said.
Questions aside, the problem is that Oz has not spoken out against Trump as a source of Islamophobia and hatred, Alzayat said.
Dr. Nadeem Iqbal, a radiologist from Pittsburgh who was originally born in Pakistan, said he might be tempted to vote for a Muslim candidate.
But Iqbal questioned whether and how Oz professes a religion, and he can’t agree on Oz’s connection to Trump, who he sees as racist, anti-Muslim and an enabler of the extremist and racist sides of America.
“And personally, I’m not going to vote for anybody that Donald Trump supports,” Iqbal said.
Associated Press writer Claudia Lauer in Philadelphia contributed to this report.