As the Republican presidential campaign takes shape, the race has been noted so far for its decidedly hostile tone toward Islam. Some candidates have criticized the perceived influence of Islamic culture on American laws and customs; others have proposed restrictions on Muslim participation in politics. As we’ve reported, much of that sentiment is rooted in the rhetoric of the so-called “counter-Jihad” movement, which seems particularly obsessed with the alleged encroachment of Shariah law on American life. The shift in Republican attitudes toward Islam is especially surprising given that former President George W. Bush made a concerted effort to cultivate warm relations with the Muslim community.
Not all Republicans, however, have embraced the anti-Islam rhetoric that has colored the GOP primary. Last week, for example, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, seen as a leading contender for president in either 2012 or 2016, offered a forceful and widely praised defense of a Muslim judge, Sohail Mohammed, whom he had appointed to a state judicial post. “The folks who criticize my appointment of Sohail Mohammed are ignorant,” Christie said. “They’re criticizing him because he’s a Muslim-American.” Of the anti-Shariah movement, Christie added: “This Shariah law business is crap. It’s just crazy. And I’m tired of dealing with the crazies.”
Now there may be another prominent Republican politician entering the national fray who has close ties to the Muslim-American community in his state: Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who declared his intention to run for president this weekend. Perry has instantly become a front-runner for the GOP nomination, along with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. He’s a swaggering, self-identified Southern evangelical conservative who has held “prayer rallies” in his state and urged all Americans to pray to Jesus Christ. And yet, as Salon has reported, Perry has also cultivated an intimate friendship with the Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of a sect of Shia Muslims known as the Ismailis. The relationship has produced not only mutual praise but a pair of Islam-friendly programs in Texas, such as an initiative to train high school teachers in Muslim history and culture.
The executive director of the Council on Islamic American Relations in Houston told the Houston Chronicle recently that Perry has, in fact, won the favor of many conservative Muslims: “The Muslim community has a significant number of political conservatives, and they do support Perry,” Mustafaa Carroll told the paper. Another Muslim activist said that while some states were criminalizing the use of Shariah law in American courts, Perry had largely ignored the issue: “He just never came down on it,” Mohamed Elibiary told the Chronicle.
That, of course, could change if evangelical leaders and right-wing activists pick up on Perry’s ties with the Muslim-American community in an effort to discredit him among Tea Party supporters and Christian conservatives. Before he dropped out, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, for example, had disowned a program his state established while he was governor that allowed Muslim-Americans to obtain mortgages while adhering to the Shariah prohibition against interest payments. Other GOP candidates, however, have avoided taking a harsh stance toward Muslims or Shariah law. When asked at the first Republican presidential debate about the place of Islam in American life and politics, for example, Romney, a Mormon, said, “People of all faiths are welcome in this country. Our nation was founded on a principle of religious tolerance.”