While today will surely be known more for the end of the Perry campaign then for the last comments of its erstwhile candidate, it’s worth noting that the Texas Governor’s last major public appearance swung his positions towards the camp of former Speaker Newt Gingrich in ways more than a simple endorsement.
Indeed, this week, as Perry’s campaign foundered and fizzled, the Texan embraced a brand of Islamophobia championed by the Gingrich camp for many months now. The move represents a shift in Republican thinking, an unabashed embracing of a brand of anti-Islam rhetoric that is common among the far right leaders of Europe, and one that has become increasingly prevalent in American political discourse since the so-called “ground-zero mosque” controversy.
Lately the former Speaker has made sport of the idea of challenging supporters of Sharia law in America, telling supporters just the other day he could only support a Muslim-American running for President if that man (or woman) were to renounce Sharia law. “I think it would depend entirely on whether they would commit in public to give up Sharia,” Gingrich said, in his most recent anti-Islam salvo. He also called following Sharia law a “mortal threat.”
Perry’s Islamophobia was more coded, but no less blatant. At Monday night’s debate, moderator and Fox News host Bret Baier asked Perry about democracy in Turkey, problems with women’s rights, the current conservative “Islamist” government, and worsening relations with Israel. Should, he asked, Turkey should be thrown out of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)? The governor replied:
Obviously when you have a country that is being ruled by what many would perceive to be Islamic terrorists, when you start seeing that type of activity against their own citizens, then … not only is it time for us to have a conversation about whether or not they belong to be in NATO but it’s time for the United States, when we look at their foreign aid, to go to zero with it.
Islamic terrorists? Seemed extreme even in the moment. But the governor stood by his remarks as the week progressed.
Perry’s insistence that Turkey’s government has been overrun by Islamic terrorists might not immediately seem to be a part of the Islamophobic political playbook. And yet, the move to expel Turkey from NATO, and to label the Muslim nation as radical or anti-American, picked up steam this past fall (As Ali Gharib reported last September for ThinkProgress) when a cadre of right-wing, Muslim-fearing commentators, from Daniel Pipes to Pamela Geller began pointing at Turkey’s brand of Islam and Turkey’s Muslim presence in the West as a threat. Pipes explained that along with Iran a “rogue Turkey is the region’s biggest threat” and Geller opined that Istanbul was “dreaming of Ottoman domination and Turkish imperialism,” a thinly veiled call to arms for those who believe that Europe faces a “second” Turkish siege, a reference to the Ottomans who came to Vienna in the 17th century.
Branding Turkey in this way is a means of dismissing and demonizing Islam on the one hand, and bashing our own foreign policy, which is very much connected to a friendly relationship to Turkey. That relationship, for certain conservatives, has become strained more because Turkey’s relationship to Israel has soured than because Turkey is in some way a “terrorist” state, but it is easier, rhetorically, to lean on the latter than the former.
The peculiar thing is that Rick Perry wasn’t always considered to hail from the Islamophobic side of the Republican Party. His relationship to Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the Ismailis, and his connection to Muslim conservatives in Texas has long been touted as proof of his ecumenical ways.
Of course, garden variety Islamophobia, as dangerous and appalling as it may be, does not always undermine American foreign policy. This, gaffe, on the other hand, might have, were Perry’s campaign not already on the rocks.
Even so, the Turkish Foreign Ministry expressed its displeasure in a statement: “It is expected of people aiming for a responsible position like the United States presidency to know more about the world and to be careful about what they say … Turkey became a member of NATO when the governor was 2 years old. Turkey is an important member who has contributed immensely to the Transatlantic Organization’s struggle and shall remain as one.”
And, at a State department briefing, spokesman Marc Toner dismissed the governor’s statement on “Islamic terrorists” in Turkey’s government “We absolutely and fundamentally disagree with that assertion. You know, Turkey, as I said, is a — is a strong partner in the region. We’ve seen it make a very courageous stand against what’s going on in Syria, for example. It continues to play a very positive and constructive role in the region. And it is often cited — an example of a so-called Islamic democracy in action.” He added, “Turkey is one of the oldest members of NATO and it’s been a stalwart member of NATO and a strong ally to the United States. And, you know, we stand by our relationship.”
Indeed the State Department’s Turkey website page, last updated in December, notes that Turkey, part of NATP since 1952 “serves as the organization’s vital eastern anchor, as it controls the straits leading from the Black Sea to the Aegean and shares a border with Syria, Iraq, and Iran.” Beyond that, “NATO’s Air Component Command Headquarters is located in Izmir and NATO’s Rapid Deployable Corps-Turkey is headquartered in Istanbul.” The country also contributed in Afghanistan, with, currently, about 1700 troops there, another 400, right now, on the ground in Kosovo.
At the left leaning Center for American Progress, Senior Fellow on the Center’s Security Team Michael Werz weighed in, noting “to suggest that a fairly traditional conservative party consists of “Islamic terrorists” is entirely irresponsible and undermines crucial security interests that we have in the region. If one looks at the reactions in Turkey and among other NATO allies that range from anger to sheer disbelief, one can easily tell that Governor Perry has done the United States a great disservice with his comment.”
Fortunately he’s no longer in the race. But the sentiment still poisons.
Sarah Wildman is a columnist for the International Herald Tribune, a regular contributor to the New York Times, Slate and the Guardian, and a contributing editor at the Forward. Follow her on Twitter: @sarahawildman