For Muslims, a Mixture of White House Signals

The New York Times, Apr. 27, 2003

WASHINGTON, April 27 — When President Bush travels to Dearborn, Mich., on Monday to speak to Iraqi exiles and other Arab-Americans, he will trail behind him considerable uncertainty about his administration’s intentions toward Islam.

Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, Mr. Bush has consistently said that Islam is a religion of peace and warned against anti-Muslim prejudice. Yet he also recently nominated to a government institute a scholar, Daniel Pipes, who has enraged many American Muslims by suggesting that mosques are breeding grounds for militants and that Muslims in government and military positions should be given special attention as security risks.

Mr. Bush reached out to Muslims in the 2000 presidential campaign, viewing them as a potentially significant voting bloc that tends to be conservative on social issues. But he has also embraced evangelical Christian leaders who have cast Islam as evil and has adopted much of the foreign policy agenda of neoconservative thinkers who view Islamic fundamentalism as perhaps the gravest threat to national security.

Some political analysts and scholars said the inconsistent signals coming from the White House reflected a tension between two factors. On one side, they said, is Mr. Bush’s instinct that his party should stand for tolerance and inclusion, for both moral and electoral reasons. On the other, they said, is the political reality that he cannot afford to alienate — and may not want to alienate — Christian conservatives, who make up much of his base of support, or the neoconservative foreign policy hawks whose influence on his administration has been profound.

“President Bush has clearly tried to make a distinction between Islam the religion and the actions of Muslim extremists,” said John L. Esposito, a professor of religion and international affairs at Georgetown University. “But there’s a dissonance between what the president says and what his domestic and international policies have been.”

Mr. Esposito said that while “the president most probably might feel uncomfortable with some of the statements that have been made” about Islam by leaders of the Christian right and neoconservatives, “this is his constituency.”

Mr. Bush’s aides said there was no struggle in his mind about how to approach Islam.

Mr. Bush has consistently “set a tone for the country and the party” by emphasizing his respect for Islam and urging other political figures to speak out against anti-Muslim prejudice, said Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman. “This is something near to his heart,” Mr. Fleischer said. “As a man of faith, he has a profound respect for other people’s faiths. He says it in public. He says it in private.”

Those Republicans who disagree with the president “are a few lonely souls, out on the wings, singing out of tune,” he said.

Mr. Bush disagrees with Mr. Pipes about whether Islam is a peaceful religion, Mr. Fleischer said, adding that Mr. Pipes’s nomination to the United States Institute of Peace, a government-sponsored foreign policy research center, was justified by his research on the Soviet Union and other foreign policy issues.

Mr. Bush’s views on Islam will only be more scrutinized in coming months. He is confronting anti-Americanism from some Shiite groups in Iraq, complicating his efforts to create a stable democracy there that does not become another Iran. He is about to plunge back into peacemaking between Israel and Palestine, the issue that has long defined the political debate over American relations with the Arab world. At home, his administration’s requirement for immigrants to register with the government has focused new attention, especially among Arabs and Muslims, on civil liberties and racial profiling.

The White House’s record defies easy categorization. Muslim groups give Mr. Bush credit for routinely referring to mosques along with churches and synagogues when he talks about places of worship, an acknowledgment that they say matters to them. At the same time, the administration has drawn fire in the past year or two for other word choices that have offended Muslims, including Mr. Bush’s use of the word “crusade” at one point to describe the fight against terrorism and the Pentagon’s initial selection of Infinite Justice as a name for its operation in Afghanistan.

Despite protests from Muslim groups, the Defense Department invited the Rev. Franklin Graham, who called Islam a “very wicked and evil” religion after the Sept. 11 attacks, to hold a Good Friday service at the Pentagon this month.

“One day you get a signal from the administration that Islam is a religion of peace and of tolerance to the Muslim community,” said Omar Ahmad, chairman of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, an advocacy group. “More of the time you get the other signal — the silence of the administration over comments made by evangelical Christians.”

The most prominent Republican advocate for reaching out to Muslims on political grounds has been Grover G. Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, a conservative advocacy group.

Mr. Norquist helped found an organization in Washington called the Islamic Institute to promote the idea that Muslims are natural conservatives on social and economic issues.

Mr. Norquist helped convince the Bush campaign to make a play for Muslim voters in 2000, and there is some evidence the effort was successful, especially in Florida, where every vote turned out to be crucial. Mr. Norquist helped arrange for representatives of some Muslim groups to visit the White House, a practice that subsequently exposed him to intense criticism from other conservatives. They said Mr. Norquist was, perhaps unwittingly, promoting the views of radical, violent Muslim groups.

In one example of how the differing viewpoints about Islam have split Republicans, Mr. Norquist is now embroiled in a feud with Frank J. Gaffney Jr., who was a Pentagon official under President Ronald Reagan and is now among the most prominent neoconservative critics of Islamic extremism.

Saying that Mr. Norquist had helped win access to the White House for Muslim groups and individuals who are sympathetic to or supportive of terrorist organizations, Mr. Gaffney said Mr. Norquist’s actions were a threat to Mr. Bush’s presidency, the conservative movement and national security.

Mr. Norquist said that some conservatives were failing to heed the political lessons of past instances when Republicans have appeared hostile to fast-growing ethnic and religious groups, including the support by Pete Wilson, when he was governor of California, for a 1994 ballot proposition that would have limited access by illegal immigrants to government services. Mr. Wilson’s stance is seen by many analysts as having set back efforts by Republicans to win over Hispanic voters.

“There are some individuals who speak to and threaten the American Muslim community in the same way that Pete Wilson was viewed as abusive to the Hispanic community, and Pete Wilson did a great deal of damage,” Mr. Norquist said. “That said, Bush is the leader of the Republican Party, and he dwarfs these pipsqueaks. So they are an irritant and not a threat.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday April 28, 2003.
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