Can Rick Perry maintain his good ties with Muslims as a GOP candidate?

As governor of Texas, Rick Perry has a long record of warm relations with Muslims. Could that be a liability in a GOP presidential field in which several candidates question US Muslims' loyalty?

By , Correspondent

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    GOP presidential candidate Texas Governor Rick Perry greets patrons at the Hamburg Inn during a campaign stop in Iowa City, Iowa, on Aug. 15.
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In a GOP field crowded with presidential hopefuls questioning Muslims’ loyalty and promising to crack down on Muslim religious sharia law in America, Texas Gov. Rick Perry enters the race with a distinguishing calling card: a historically good relationship with Muslims in his state.

Whether Governor Perry, as a presidential candidate, will continue courting Muslims – and whether that is a liability for Perry in the current Islam-leery climate – remains to be seen.

An evangelical Christian and self-described social conservative who recently led a Christian prayer rally in Texas, Perry has had a surprisingly warm relationship with Muslims as governor, says Mohamed Elbiary, founder of the Freedom and Justice Foundation, a Muslim public policy organization in Texas.

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“We’ve seen him for 20 years at state level, as lieutenant governor and state governor,” Mr. Elbiary says. “Throughout that whole history, he’s never taken an anti-Muslim or anti-Islam position. He’s a live-and-let-live type of Texan, and relations have been good.”

In fact, Perry’s relations with Ismailis, a Shia sect of Islam whose adherents number between 30,000 and 40,000 in Texas, have been particularly positive, says Mahmoud Eboo, President of the Ismaili Council for the USA.

"I believe that Governor Perry’s leadership philosophy has been to serve Texans of all races and religions and his relationship with the Muslim community generally and the Ismaili community in particular has been cordial and respectful," Mr. Eboo says in an email.

In 2008, Perry helped expand the Muslim Histories and Culture Project, a teacher-training program spearheaded by Texas Ismailis that introduces Islamic history and culture curricula into Texas schools.

"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," Perry said at the signing ceremony.

In contrast, upon entering the race, most of Perry’s contenders immediately set about distancing themselves from Islam and Muslims.

  • GOP hopeful and former Godfather Pizza CEO Herman Cain has famously said he will not have Muslims in his cabinet if he is elected because he questions their loyalty, though he has since amended his stance by calling for a “loyalty oath” from any Muslim appointees.
  • Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum has called sharia law an “existential threat to America.”
  • Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has proposed a federal anti-sharia law. "I am convinced that if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America, by the time [my grandchildren] are my age they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists,” Gingrich said to thousands of evangelical churchgoers during a March address at Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas.
  • In response to a debate question about French Muslims during a congressional campaign in 2005, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, the winner of this weekend’s straw poll in Iowa, said: "Not all cultures are equal. Not all values are equal."
  • Former Minnesota governor (and now former candidate) Tim Pawlenty touted his cancellation of a Minnesota agency's sharia-compliant mortgage program designed to help Muslim homebuyers.
  • Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said in 2007 that he would not consider Muslims for cabinet posts. Romney said that “based on the numbers of American Muslims [as a percentage] in our population, I cannot see that a cabinet position would be justified." Romney later disputed the accuracy of that quote.

“This is all part of a post-9/11 phenomenon,” says John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron in Ohio. “There’s been a lot more focus put on Islam.” It’s not all bad, he said, “but the negative side is heightened scrutiny of Muslims and Islam.”

Many of these candidates have previously had good relations with Muslims before the climate turned against Islam. Mr. Gingrich cultivated Muslim donors and helped Muslim congressional staffers get prayer space on Capitol Hill.

Noting the change, Mustafaa Carroll, executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations in Houston, calls the candidates’ recent questioning of Muslims and Islam a “chilling” trend designed to galvanize support among the conservative base of the Republican Party.

“I think what is happening is they’re using this anti-sharia law stuff as a red herring to get everybody fired up,” Mr. Carroll says. “In order to show how patriotic you are, [you have to demonstrate] how negative you can be about Muslims.

“People are saying things they can’t say about anybody else in society,” he added, comparing some of the anti-Muslim rhetoric to “nasty, ugly things” political candidates said about African Americans during the Civil Rights era.

If Perry were to reverse course himself, he would be walking away from a long record of good relations with Muslims. As governor he signed off on several Muslim-friendly pieces of legislation, including a consumer protection law ensuring the accurate labeling of food products as halal, or conforming to Muslim dietary restrictions.

And for years, Perry has been close friends with the head of the Ismaili sect, Aga Khan, whom he met in Paris in 2000. Since then, Perry has attended a number of Ismaili events in Texas, brokered a few agreements between the state and Ismailis (including the legislation introducing Islamic curricula into Texas schools), and even laid the first brick at the groundbreaking ceremony for an Ismaili worship center in Plano in 2005.

Perry’s relatively good relations with Muslims have already sparked distrust among some conservative bloggers.

“Scratch him off my presidential list," wrote RoadTest on the conservative site FreeRepublic.com. "We have already seen what a Muslim enabler in the White House can do."

In a nominating race where every candidate is vying for the Christian conservative vote, a critical part of the GOP’s base, Perry will likely be criticized for his relationship with the Muslim community in Texas, says Professor Green.

“I wouldn’t be at all surprised if in the Republican primaries the whole issues of appropriate relationships with Islam comes up,” he says. “Other candidates or faith-based interest groups would criticize the governor for that. There are groups that are very concerned about these issues.”

Although it was planned long before Perry was considering running for president, his Christian prayer rally was just the sort of event that would reassure religious conservatives about Perry’s evangelical credentials, added Green. The event, “The Response: A Call to Prayer for a Nation in Crisis,” saw between 15,000 and 22,000 worshipers, including several controversial religious leaders, gather in Houston’s Reliant Stadium for a seven-hour-long Christian prayer rally with a decidedly conservative Christian bent.

Muslim Americans say they are looking to Perry to set a more inclusive tone in the nominating contest.

“The American people are looking for someone who can solidify and bring people together,” says Carroll. “To continue to polarize the nation is not good for America.... We don’t want a leader ... who polarizes and uses fear-mongering to garner political favor and votes.”

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