Fevered Pitch

by Franklin Foer | November 12, 2001

ON THE AFTERNOON of September 26, George W. Bush gathered 15 prominent Muslim- and Arab-Americans at the White House. With cameras rolling, the president proclaimed that “the teachings of Islam are teachings of peace and good.” It was a critically important moment, a statement to the world that America’s Muslim leaders unambiguously reject the terror committed in Islam’s name.

Unfortunately, many of the leaders present hadn’t unambiguously rejected it. To the president’s left sat Dr. Yahya Basha, president of the American Muslim Council, an organization whose leaders have repeatedly called Hamas “freedom fighters.” Also in attendance was Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, who on the afternoon of September 11 told a Los Angeles public radio audience that “we should put the State of Israel on the suspect list.” And sitting right next to President Bush was Muzammil Siddiqi, president of the Islamic Society of North America, who last fall told a Washington crowd chanting pro-Hezbollah slogans, “America has to learn if you remain on the side of injustice, the wrath of God will come.” Days later, after a conservative activist confronted Karl Rove with dossiers about some of Bush’s new friends, Rove replied, according to the activist, “I wish I had known before the event took place.

If the administration was caught unaware, it may be because they placed their trust in one of the right’s most influential activists: Grover Norquist. As president of Americans for Tax Reform, Norquist is best known for his tireless crusades against big government. But one of Norquist’s lesser-known projects over the last few years has been bringing American Muslims into the Republican Party. And, as he usually does, Norquist has succeeded. According to several sources, Norquist helped orchestrate various post-September 11 events that brought together Muslim leaders and administration officials. “He worked with Muslim leaders to engineer [Bush]’s prominent visit to the Mosque,” says the Arab-American pollster John Zogby, referring to the president’s September 17 trip to the Islamic Center of Washington. Says Zogby, who counts Norquist among his clients, “Absolutely, he’s central to the White House outreach.” Indeed, when Jewish activists and terrorism experts complained about the Muslim invitees to Adam Goldman, who works in the White House public liaison’s office, Goldman replied that Norquist had vouched for them. (Goldman denies this, but two separate sources say they heard him say it.) “Just like [administration officials] ask my advice on inviting religious figures to the White House,” says Paul Weyrich, another top conservative activist, “they rely on Grover’s help [with Muslims].

Norquist denies being involved in “micromanaging the specifics” of White House meetings, but admits “I have been a long time advocate of outreach to the Muslim community.” In fact, the record suggests that he has spent quite a lot of time promoting people openly sympathetic to Islamist terrorists. And it’s starting to cause him problems. Weyrich, echoing other movement conservatives, says he is “not pleased” with Norquist’s activity. According to one intelligence official who recently left the government, a number of counterterrorism agents at the FBI and CIA are “pissed as hell about the situation [in the White House] and pissed as hell about Grover.” They should be. While nobody suggests that Norquist himself is soft on terrorism, his lobbying has helped provide radical Islamic groups—and their causes—a degree of legitimacy and access they assuredly do not deserve.

Norquist is one of the undisputed masters of Republican coalition building. And so it is no surprise that he has turned his attention to America’s fast-growing Muslim population, which by some accounts now stands at seven million strong. (Although two other recent reports suggest it is less than three million.) “He’s worked with [Rabbi Daniel] Lapin to bring Jews into the fold,” says one Norquist associate. “That was an uphill effort. So he figured that he could turn Muslims into the obvious counterweight to the relationship between the Jews and Dems.” In the last few years, Norquist has pursued a Republican-Muslim alliance with a two-track approach. With conservatives, he has emphasized that Muslims are a good demographic fit for the GOP: well-off and socially conservative. “American Muslims look like members of the Christian Coalition,” he wrote in The American Spectator this summer. To Muslims, he has promised a sympathetic hearing for their causes. He has pushed Republican leaders to support a prohibition on the government’s use of “secret evidence” in the deportation of suspected terrorists—an issue that jibes with Norquist’s own anti-government agenda. And he has intimated that Muslim support for Republicans could change U.S. policy toward the Middle East. Appearing on a panel at a 1999 meeting of the American Muslim Alliance, alongside activists who complained about the “Zionist lobby” and Jewish “monopolizing” of Jerusalem, Norquist announced that “[t]oo many American politicians have been able to take their shots at Muslims and at Muslims countries.

NORQUIST HAS NOT undertaken this crusade alone. In the mid-1990s, he enlisted a partner, Khaled Saffuri, then working as a lobbyist and deputy director for the American Muslim Council (AMC). After receiving a master’s in management science, Saffuri came to Washington in 1987 and worked his way up through the city’s Arab-Muslim political apparatus, starting with a stint at the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. In 1998 he left the AMC to help Norquist found the Islamic Institute, an advocacy organization dedicated to promoting a conservative agenda that would appeal to Muslims. Saffuri served as executive director and Norquist as chairman of the board.

The Institute operated out of the headquarters of Americans for Tax Reform, from which it borrowed not just a fax machine and conference room, but an agenda. Soon the Institute was shilling for all of Norquist’s pet issues—a moratorium on Internet taxation, fast-track trade negotiation authority, and personal savings accounts. It even published a paper on the Koran’s compatibility with capitalism. “People should remember that Mohammed and his wife were businessmen,” Norquist notes. With the help of Saffuri, who brought ties to a vast network of activists, the Islamic Institute became a nerve center for Muslim lobbying in Washington. As Norquist puts it, “They gather at the Islamic Institute to plan and debrief, when they have meetings [with administration officials].

Through the Islamic Institute, Norquist appears to have developed close relationships with a number of Muslim leaders. When I recently spoke to the Muslim Public Affairs Council’s Salam Al-Marayati, the man who fingered Israel as a potential sponsor of the World Trade Center attacks, he recited Norquist’s phone number from memory. When University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian e-mailed The Wall Street Journal in response to an op-ed that tied him to Islamic Jihad, he CC’d Norquist. Last year at its annual dinner, the AMC presented Norquist with an award for his service. As John Zogby told me, “[H]e’s played the role of interlocutor. With all respect, many of the leaders are immigrants and don’t have years and years of experience. Grover has filled that void.

And he has done so to their mutual political benefit. During the 2000 campaign, Norquist urged Karl Rove to focus on the Muslim vote—pointing to, among other things, the thousands of Muslims in the key state of Michigan. By all appearances, the Bush campaign heeded Norquist’s advice. In an admirable departure from the usual Republican script, Bush frequently integrated mosques into his platitudes about churches and synagogues. In the second presidential debate, Bush vowed to repeal the use of secret evidence, just as Norquist had promised. Bush even named Saffuri as the campaign’s National Advisor on Arab and Muslim Affairs.

When Bush won, Norquist credited the Muslim strategy. “Bush’s talk about outreach and inclusion had extraordinary results—the Muslim community went 2-1 for Bill Clinton in 1996 and almost 8-1 for Bush in 2000,” he told The Washington Times. (That statistic is almost certainly untrue, and Bush actually lost Michigan, the state where Muslims are most heavily concentrated.) Or, as Norquist put it in the Spectator, “George W. Bush was elected President of the United States of America because of the Muslim vote.

Norquist quickly set about turning that supposed electoral influence into legislative influence. One day after Bush’s inauguration, he and Saffuri arranged for Muslim leaders to meet Newt Gingrich and Congressman Tom Davis, head of the National Republican Congressional Committee. Soon Saffuri began regularly appearing at the White House, accompanying imams and heads of Islamic organizations to discuss the faith-based initiative and concerns about law enforcement persecution of Muslims. Suhail Khan, an administration adviser who helps plan Muslim outreach, once served on the Islamic Institute’s board. And at one of his regular Wednesday meetings, according to two witnesses, Norquist announced that he had lobbied to get Khan his White House post. On the afternoon of September 11, a group of Muslim leaders happened to have plans to meet the president in the West Wing to discuss their grievances with racial profiling and secret evidence. When they couldn’t enter the building, along with almost everyone else, they headed a few blocks uptown and reconvened—in the conference room of Norquist’s office.

BUT THE EVENTS of September 11 have cast some of Norquist’s relationships in a less flattering light. Consider first the history and recent statements of the American Muslim Council, the organization that presented Norquist with an achievement award, and whose officials attend Norquist-arranged meetings with the Republican hierarchy. In the 1990s it co-sponsored two conferences with the United Association for Studies and Research, which, according to The New York Times, a convicted Hamas operative named Mohammed Abdel-Hamid Salah in 1993 called “the political command” of Hamas in the United States. At a Washington rally last year, Abdurahman Alamoudi, Saffuri’s boss at the AMC, declared, “I have been labeled by the media in New York to be a supporter of Hamas. Anybody support Hamas here?...Hear that, Bill Clinton? We are all supporters of Hamas. I wished they added that I am also a supporter of Hezbollah.” In press releases and forums, the AMC has defended the terrorist-harboring Sudanese government against charges that it massively violates human rights and condones slavery. As late as June of this year, the AMC put out a press release entitled “Slavery in Sudan is a Sham.

The record of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)—which, like the AMC, sends members to meetings organized by Norquist and Saffuri—is no more encouraging. When interviewed by Salon’s Jake Tapper on September 26, CAIR Communication Director Ibrahim Hooper refused to condemn Osama bin Laden. CAIR founder Nihad Awad, who appeared with Bush at the Washington Islamic Center, has argued that “[t]here is ample evidence indicating that both the Mossad and the Egyptian Intelligence played a role in the [1993 World Trade Center] explosion.” And Siraj Wahaj, who has served as a CAIR board member, has been described by federal prosecutor Mary Jo White as a possible conspirator in the ‘93 bombing. As Harvard professor of Islamic studies Ali Asani has complained, “There is general concern among Muslim intellectuals about how not only CAIR but some of these other organizations are claiming to speak in the name of the Muslim community, and how they’re coming to be recognized by the government as spokespeople for the Muslim community in the U.S.”

AND NORQUIST HASN’T only developed close ties to American groups that apologize for terror. He has also flacked for at least one Middle Eastern autocracy: Qatar. Eager to improve relations with the United States, Qatar worked with Norquist and Saffuri to help portray itself as a liberal outpost in the Islamic world. In April, Saffuri sponsored the “First Annual Conference on Free Trade and Democracy” in the Qatari capital of Doha, for which the Islamic Institute received over $150,000 in payments from the Qatar Embassy’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Account. (Saffuri says these were reimbursements for the travel expenses of congressional delegates.) A lobbyist at Norquist’s firm, Janus-Merritt, has solicited pro-Qatari op-eds from at least one conservative pundit. When the emir of Qatar came to Washington, Saffuri hosted a Capitol Hill luncheon in his honor. And just three weeks after September 11, Norquist wrote an op-ed in The Washington Times in which he claimed that “Qatar has taken great strides to enshrine values of universal suffrage, a free press, and human rights.” He continued, “[S]he really means it on being a reliable ally.

Qatar may not be Iraq, but Norquist’s arguments are still laughable. Freedom House, which monitors religious liberty, rates Qatar “not free.” Among countries in the Middle East—a region hardly known for its liberalism—Qatar finished in the bottom half of a Heritage Foundation “Index of Economic Freedom.” Two days after Norquist’s op-ed, The Washington Post reported on Qatar’s refusal to support a widening of the war on terrorism to include Islamic Jihad, Hamas, or Hezbollah. And, just two weeks later, the foreign minister of Qatar—our “reliable ally”—announced that “[t]he attacks against Afghanistan are unacceptable and we have condemned them. It is our clear position.

NORQUIST NEW ASSOCIATIONS—particularly his links to groups like CAIR and the AMC—have not gone unnoticed in conservative ranks. Paul Weyrich says, “I have on at least one occasion [confronted him] and he assured me that he knew what he was doing and that I shouldn’t have any concerns.” Another conservative says he told Norquist about the two organizations’ statements on terrorism, but it didn’t make an impression. “We can’t knock it off; we want them on our own team,” Norquist replied.

Norquist’s relationships have even pitted him against the GOP leadership. After the Republican convention last year, he set up a lunch at the Capitol Hill Club for Republican Party chairman Jim Nicholson to plot strategy with Muslim leaders. But in the week before the event, angry Jewish groups provided the RNC with a set of damning quotes from representatives of CAIR, the AMC, and some of the other invited guests. When I asked Cliff May, who was the Republican National Committee’s communications director at the time, he confirmed the story. “I was approached and apprised of their backgrounds and told the chairman there’s reason to be concerned.” The event took place—Nicholson didn’t feel he could cancel it—but not as originally planned. As one RNC source explains it, Nicholson gave a “generic five-minute talk about lower taxes and less government and said thank you for your support and got the hell out.

Since September, not surprisingly, conservatives once willing to overlook Norquist’s alliances have more aggressively aired their grievances. Consider William Murray, head of the Religious Freedom Coalition. He had considered Norquist a comrade, but now makes no secret of his displeasure. “Grover has a very liberated view of Islamic nations,” says Murray, somewhat hyperbolically. “So they behead people in the public square. He thinks that’s their business. Hey, it’s no big deal to have people beheaded for religious crimes.” Weyrich, too, has made his unhappiness a matter of public record: “I’m afraid Grover’s woefully naive.” Even Norquist’s weekly confab has become the scene of internecine fighting. At a session earlier this month, Frank Gaffney questioned the presence of terrorist sympathizers at the White House. Norquist exploded, accusing Gaffney of smearing Muslims. Later he choked up as he addressed the meeting and asked Gaffney to stand up and join him in condemning anti-Muslim bigotry. One conservative who witnessed Norquist’s tirade says, “His response is powered in part by a sense that this whole edifice he’s created is in danger of coming unraveled because of [these groups’] stated and abiding positions.

When I visited Norquist, he was in a similarly embattled frame of mind. He asked me to turn off my tape recorder. Any quote I wanted to use, he told me, would require his approval. There were none of his usual passionate ideological perorations. He just sat in his chair, seething. “There are some people who spit on Muslims and wouldn’t like to see them have any role in American politics,” he told me in a near scream. Grover Norquist’s pursuit of the fabled Republican-Muslim alliance, it seems, will continue for a long time.

 

Correction

A November 12 piece, “Fevered Pitch,” by Franklin Foer, and a December 24 Notebook item, “Flopaganda,” both incorrectly attributed a statement to the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ executive director Nihad Awad. The statement, about the involvement of Mossad and Egyptian intelligence in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, appeared in an unsigned editorial in the March 31, 1994, issue of the Muslim World Monitor, where Awad was the contributing editor.

We regret the error.

 

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