Posted by on August 19, 2011 in Blog

By Frank Matt


In late July, Herman Cain delivered what seemed to be a refreshingly sincere apology to American Muslims for his series of Islamophobic statements. As we detailed in last week's countdown, the backlash from his supporters was both intense and immediate. The August 11th Republican debate in Iowa shattered our hopes that Cain would hold this new ground. Cain backpedaled on his apology, claiming that he merely apologized to those who misunderstood his remarks. He also doubled down on his misguided anti-sharia law statements. Whether or not Herman Cain actually wished to make a sincere effort to change his Islamophobic views, it is now clear that his supporters won't let him.

Likewise, before his exit from the Presidential field, Tim Pawlenty was forced to run away from the previously warm relations with Minnesota's Muslim American community that he actively cultivated as governor. In 2004, Governor Pawlenty urged the Minnesota Housing Financing Agency to partner with local groups and businesses in an effort to increase minority homeownership in the state. Minnesota's minority homeownership rate of 42 percent was at that time slightly behind the national average, and part of the reason was that Minnesota's relatively large Muslim population was unable to purchase homes, as their faith forbids the taking of interest-bearing loans. Thus, Pawlenty was a major supporter of a plan to develop Sharia-compliant mortgages that would allow Muslims to enter the market, albeit at a higher overall cost. At the time the effort was a significant contributor to his image as a "Sam's Club Republican," concerned with helping "regular people."

That which was once an asset to Pawlenty's image became one of his greatest political liabilities, as well as the subject of frequent attacks from Rick Santorum and other Republican contenders. The Sharia-compliant mortgages program never took off, mostly because of the Minnesotan financial company's inability to make them affordable. Tim Pawlenty started denying that he ever supporting this plan, and even went so far as to claim that he actually killed this plan in order to protect our American laws from sinister Sharia infiltration. Not only was this a regrettable distancing from an admirable aspect of Pawlenty's record, but it’s also a flagrant falsehood.

The vitriol Cain faced for his heartfelt apology, as well as the attacks Pawlenty faced about his mortgage plan, raise important questions about the Republican field and the political climate they face. Is it possible for a Republican with warm relations with American Muslims to win the nomination? Will any and all overtures toward better relations with the Muslim American community basically amount to political suicide? The experiences of Herman Cain and Tim Pawlenty would lead us to believe that Republican field will be continually forced to run away from any evidence of religious tolerance and understanding with regards to American Muslims. The true test is yet to come, however, as Rick Perry has now entered the fray.

Rick Perry has cultivated a warmer relationship with the Muslim American community than any other candidate currently in the field. Perry maintains a close personal friendship with the Aga Khan as well as wealthy members of the Ismaili community in Texas. This friendship has spawned a series of initiatives to cooperate with Muslim Americans on educational issues. A recent Salon article details these programs and the often negative reactions they have garnered in Texas. Perry has been actively involved in programs that include a far-reaching effort to educate Texan schoolchildren about Islam and partnerships with Muslim American organizations for cooperation in the "fields of education, health sciences, natural disaster preparedness and recovery, culture and the environment." Perry also brokered a 2008 partnership between the University of Texas and Aga Khan University in Pakistan to train American high school teachers on Muslim history and culture. At the signing ceremony, Perry said "I have supported this program from the very beginning, because we must bridge the gap of understanding between East and West if we ever hope to experience a future of peace and prosperity. "This sort of rhetoric and action, fostering cooperation and understanding with the Muslim American community, is certainly a far cry from what we've seen from the rest of the Presidential field.

Governor Perry's preparations for his national campaign, however, have led many members of the Arab American and American Muslim communities to question whether the Rick Perry they've known as Governor will be the same Rick Perry that seeks the Presidency. In the lead-up to his entrance into the race, Perry began forging political alliances with precisely the sort of people who would ask him to distance himself from his past actions and statements on Muslim Americans. One of Perry's chief new allies in his foray onto the national scene is the American Family Association and their chief policy spokesperson Bryan Fischer. Fischer says that all Muslims should be barred from becoming naturalized citizens and claims that "Muslims have no first amendment rights."

Collaborating with individuals who espouse hate speech is anathema to the cooperation and understanding that Governor Perry once claimed to support. In fact, remaining consistent with his past statements and actions would require nothing short of a full condemnation of Bryan Fischer's statements. Perry's new allegiance with the American Family Association also guarantees that the pressure to outwardly take a harder line against American Muslims will be strong from those closest to his campaign from this point forward. Rick Perry has been described by past confidants as possessing a ruthless "whatever it takes to win" approach to campaigning. This approach unfortunately comes with a propensity for hypocrisy, and suggests that Perry might be willing to further betray his relationship with the American Muslim community under pressure.

Rick Perry has not yet gone as far as Pawlenty and Cain to actively and outwardly distance himself from his record on relations with Muslim Americans; however, he is showing the early signs of conforming to the same disturbing trend of Islamophobic pandering that Cain and Pawlenty have established.

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