Why is Jimmy Carter speaking at Muslim convention?

Top Bush and Obama figures have also addressed the Islamic Society of North America. But former President Carter attracts criticism because he has called for the US to recognize Hamas, which the State Department labels a terrorist group.

Tara Todras-Whitehill/AP/File
Former President Carter delivers a speech during a meeting held by the Israeli Council of Foreign Relations in Jerusalem, April 21, 2008. Mr. Carter said that Hamas is prepared to accept the right of Israel to 'live as a neighbor next door in peace,' remarks that prompted controversy then and now.

Jimmy Carter is scheduled to be the keynote speaker this weekend at the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA).

To many Americans, that doesn’t warrant more than a shrug of the shoulders, but the planned Saturday appearance is also drawing criticism from some conservatives who say the event looks to be another example of the former president implicitly undercutting US foreign policy – in this case, opposition to Islamic terrorism.

Mr. Carter has long drawn rebukes in conservative circles for his views on Middle East policy, and as it turns out, the timing of this event comes as concern about militant Islam has flared due to bloodshed perpetrated by the group known as the Islamic State (IS), and because of heightened violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Carter raised eyebrows recently by calling Hamas a legitimate Palestinian political group that Israel and the United States should recognize. Hamas is designated by the US State Department as a terrorist organization, and the group's founding charter calls for the destruction of Israel.

But it’s important to note upfront that ISNA is not Hamas. It’s one of the most prominent umbrella groups representing American Muslims, the vast majority of whom are law-abiding citizens. And for nations like the US and other Western democracies, one of the approaches to countering Islamic terrorism is to support moderate or mainstream Muslim groups.

ISNA and US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton were each among the many groups and individuals participating in a 2011 US-Islamic World Forum sponsored by the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Past speakers at ISNA annual conventions have included prominent non-Muslims including Bush administration diplomat Karen Hughes, evangelical Christian pastor Rick Warren, Jewish rabbis who emphasize interfaith understanding, and Valerie Jarrett, a top adviser to President Obama. Mr. Obama delivered a video message to last year’s ISNA convention.

Gov. Rick Snyder (R) of Michigan will also appear at this year’s convention, which is being held at Detroit’s Cobo Center.

Carter, for his part, is aiming his remarks at how to reduce violence, not promote it. The convention’s Saturday schedule lists him as speaking “on the historic need for religious communities to mobilize against discrimination and violence that is directed toward girls and women throughout the world.”

Muslim leaders at the convention will be invited to sign a “Declaration for Peaceful Communities” to join Carter’s global interfaith movement for greater human rights.

If all that seems to make Carter’s role this weekend innocuous, his critics don’t see it that way at all.

“Jimmy Carter to Headline Fundraiser for Hamas Front Group,” is the headline of a Wednesday post on the conservative news website Breitbart.com.

The article says the US Justice Department “officially designated ISNA as an unindicted co-conspirator as part of its successful 2007 trial of those accused of coordinating fundraising efforts for Hamas in the United States through the Dallas-based Holy Land Foundation.” ISNA has said it doesn’t deserve the unindicted co-conspirator designation, while the group’s critics note that a federal judge disagreed with that request to have that label dropped.

The Breitbart article says evidence was presented at the Holy Land Foundation trial of funds passing through ISNA en route to Hamas.

Carter himself, meanwhile, has continued to stoke resentment from many conservatives and supporters of Israel for his views on Middle East policy.

"Jimmy Carter has now become an all-out cheerleader for Hamas," Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz said in a Newsmax interview earlier this month. Citing Carter’s call for the US and Europe to recognize Hamas, Professor Dershowitz said, “It's against the law in the United States, even if you're a former president, it's against the law to provide material support to a listed terrorist organization, and Jimmy Carter's coming awfully close to that line."

While some Americans admire Carter for standing up to a politically powerful pro-Israel lobby in the US, his positions have helped make the former peanut farmer and Navy officer a pariah for others.

In one unscientific poll of right-wing bloggers in 2010, he topped a list of “worst figures in American history.”

To the degree that the political optics of this weekend’s appearance are bad for the former president, they could also have ripple effects for his grandson, Jason Carter, who is running as a Democrat in Georgia's 2014 governor's race.

“You can almost hear the sighs escaping from Jason Carter’s campaign headquarters,” a political blog at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution said this week.

In opinion polls, Americans show much more favorable views of Israel than of the Palestinians.

Many Muslims worldwide, for their part, voice concern about extremists within Islam, according to an extensive poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The survey found that a large majority of global Muslims view attacks on civilians, such as suicide bombings, as unacceptable.

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