Is This Muslim Republican Mr. Right or the Big Cheese?

Page 6 of 10

Unlike his sisters, Ali did poorly in elementary school, and his mother suspected that he had a learning disability. He had trouble reading at first, and he and Seeme now sponsor a program to provide newspapers to Pueblo elementary students. The papers arrive with a little booklet that includes a photo of the mother and son.

"I didn't make it easy for him. I lectured him. I spanked him. I knew he had the potential to make it," Seeme says.

In spite of Ali's poor grades, he followed his sisters to Groton, a prestigious Massachusetts boarding school with a tuition rate comparable to private universities. And his mother continued to keep a close eye on his progress, lambasting him when he graduated last in his class. "She said, 'It might not embarrass you that you get bad grades, but it embarrasses me,'" Ali remembers.

Ali was also diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder during his senior year. By the time he enrolled at Occidental College in Los Angeles, he had learned to pick up audio books and spend extra time with his professors. He created his own major there, combining environmental science, film, and teaching. As an undergraduate, he taught for a year and a half in an impoverished Los Angeles school, an experience he likes to trumpet on the campaign trail.

Shortly after September 11, Ali was contacted by a TV booking agent looking for Muslim students to appear on ABC's Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher. Ali agreed, thus beginning his brief career in political commentary.

The two-part show played out as a shouting match between Maher and his visitors, with the host needling the four young Muslims on stage when they blamed the United States for interfering in Middle Eastern politics and worsening their countries' woes. The other guests grew defensive, but not Ali, exclaiming instead that the United States should do even more and "embrace" the people of the Arab world.

On the second episode, Ali wore a black-and-grey suit with his hair in spikes, and when Maher introduced him, he said "Yeah!" and made the "rock on" sign with both hands. "Obviously an American," said Maher. "And proud!" replied Ali.

"Let me ask you this question," Maher asked early on in the show. "Say things were reversed. Say the Muslims were ascendant now. Say they had the power to do whatever they wanted, because certainly America has that power. If we wanted to drop a bomb on every Muslim and kill them all, we could do that. What would the world be like if right now the Muslims were in charge?"

"There is a difference between Prophet Muhammad, who was a peaceful businessman, and Osama bin Laden, who was some bloodsucking jerk," answered Ali. "Now, if we had a world that was ruled by men like Prophet Muhammad, who were good, capitalist men, who believed in charity and believed in business, this would be a great world."

In 2004, Seeme and Ali started Muslims for Bush, and the TV calls kept coming. "He wanted to show his Americanism and his willingness to be involved in the political process," says Carole Chouinard, an agent who booked Ali on CNBC's The Dennis Miller Show during the 2004 election. "He is canny enough to see a situation that he could use for genuine purposes. It's like he thought, 'I can get some mileage from this.'" While Ali says he was applauded for backing Bush on television, he also drew criticism from American Muslims, 93 percent of whom voted for John Kerry in 2004.

That same year, Ali's older sister, Asma, came out with her second book, Why I Am a Muslim. In the book, Asma, who refers to herself as the "Muslim Feminist Cowgirl," draws parallels between the principles of Islam and the founding ideals of the United States, and claims that the Hasans are direct descendants of Genghis Khan. A lawyer, Asma also faced criticism for her book and her support of Bush. She recently filed suit against a vocal critic who made sexual comments about her in his own writing.

Despite their frequent references to Islam, the Hasans aren't outwardly religious. Ali calls himself a Sufi but acknowledges the inherent dilemma in running for office, since Sufis are expected to abandon all worldly desires and focus on a life of prayer. Ali doesn't pray the requisite five times per day, and he recently celebrated Christmas with his family in their Las Vegas home. "Jesus is our favorite prophet, and he is a prophet in Islam," he says.

In graduate school, Ali weighed in on another issue affecting Muslims when he partnered with Seeme to create Rabia, a film about a female suicide bomber. Rabia is loosely based on the life of Wafa Idris, a Palestinian who separated from her husband after she couldn't bear him children. In the film, scenes of Rabia preparing to blow herself up on an Israeli beach are spliced with flashbacks from her childhood and troubled adult life. Seeme produced the film, and the family spent between $20,000 and $30,000 on it. For one market scene, Seeme bought $1,000 worth of fruit from the local Costco. Ali later gave it away to the crew.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Naomi Zeveloff