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Rick Perry Is Not the ’5th Column Candidate’

One method of political warfare involves stoking a controversy and building a wedge between a constituency and an otherwise-favored candidate.

by
David Reaboi

Bio

August 19, 2011 - 1:02 pm

For the modern left, the concept of political warfare abroad engenders a kind of squeamishness, if not revulsion; using propaganda to shape the public’s perceptions recalls outrage at the CIA’s information operations during the early years of the Cold War. While feigning shame for the history of robust promotion of America by the clandestine services in prior decades, inside the United States their desire to engage in sophisticated political warfare against their enemies is performed eagerly without the slightest hesitation.

One method of political warfare involves stoking a controversy and building a wedge between a constituency and an otherwise-favored candidate. As transparent an example you will find this year is Salon’s recent article “Perry: The Pro-Sharia Candidate?” — complete with the suggestive question mark. It was an attempt to divide a sizable portion of the GOP base from Texas Governor Rick Perry. By seizing on a local story highlighting Perry’s relationship with the Ismaili community in Texas, Salon’s Justin Elliott set out to create a fake controversy meant to alarm the millions of Americans concerned with radical Islam and homegrown jihad in America.

Elliott picked up his story’s framing from the Houston Chronicle, Politico, and other media outlets. As we’ll see, this manufactured dispute is intended to damage more than just Perry’s candidacy and the unity of conservatives ahead of the presidential election. It also benefits the Muslim Brotherhood groups many of Perry’s new critics rightly warn about.

Unfortunately, some conservative bloggers took the bait against Perry, bashing him for his links to the Ismailis and his support for the Muslim Histories and Culture Project, a curriculum co-sponsored by the Ismailis’ spiritual leader, the Aga Khan. In addition, some have seized on the endorsement of Perry in an earlier race for the governorship by Farouk Shami, a Palestinian-American businessman on the board of an anti-Israel group. Another is Perry’s sharing the stage in a program on taxes with Grover Norquist, whose troubling connections with Muslim Brotherhood groups are becoming better known. At their most generous, critics point to the sum of these associations as a kind of “proof” establishing Perry’s unwitting compliance with the agenda of the Brotherhood. On the other side of the spectrum, overheated words have overtaken level heads. Using the Salon report as a springboard, some have accused Perry of “systematic sedition” and, in a follow up, doubling-down with, “Yes, Perry is the 5th Column Candidate.” Obviously, based on the evidence provided, Perry is neither.

Meanwhile, some (including myself, at Commentary) have defended Perry’s relationship with the Ismailis, arguing that this Shia Muslim community represents a relatively moderate, minority sect of Islam in the United States. I wrote:

Rather than reaching out — as both presidents Bush and Obama mistakenly did — to problematic organizations associated with the Muslim Brotherhood’s expressly political agenda, Perry’s choice to engage with a more “progressive” group is a good sign.

One of these problematic organizations, the Hamas-linked Council on American-Islamic Relations, noticed this too; they were clearly disappointed in not being able to influence Perry. The Texas Independent reported CAIR’s local spokesman’s negative initial reaction to Perry’s relationship with the more moderate Ismailis, saying the governor “may feel safer with [Muslim] minority groups with less connectivity.” But given CAIR’s links to the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, the governor’s lack of this kind of “connectivity” is a virtue.

Indeed, from a national security perspective, Perry’s meeting with the Ismaili community and its leaders is vastly preferable to meeting with a host of other, more problematic American Muslim organizations, like CAIR, the Islamic Society of North America, and others who were named unindicted coconspirators in US v. Holy Land Foundation, the largest terrorist financing trial in U.S. history. Federal judges have found that these groups trace their history and ideological agenda to the Muslim Brotherhood and its promotion of political Islam.

The goal of CAIR and other Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups is to get Perry — and every candidate of both party — to engage with them as the authentic voices that represent American Muslims. In this way, these groups would be able to shape a narrative on national security that introduces counterfactual issues and obscures the nature of the enemy we fight: jihadists fighting to implement shariah law. Rather than attack Perry’s relationship to the Ismailis, anti-jihad activists should encourage the governor and his team to reach out to the newly-formed American Islamic Leadership Coalition to better educate themselves on these issues from this group’s unabashedly pro-American and anti-shariah perspective.

As proof of the malevolent influence of Perry’s partnership with the Aga Khan, critics cite the grant given by the Aga Khan Foundation to the Muslim Histories and Culture Project in Texas, premised on extending education about Islam in that state’s public school current events, history, and geography classes. While the academic overview of the Project (written at Harvard) is infused with revisionist history and an unmistakably hard pro-Islam slant, there appear to be no expectations to cleave to this line at the local level. By the time the curriculum gets to the classroom, Project-approved lesson plans disregard the revisionism entirely.

In other words, the curriculum on Islam is open to a very “Texas” interpretation, and an example of one such interpretation (PDF) needs a response from Perry’s critics. As David Stein has found, after a careful study of actual lesson plans used in 2009 and an interview with its self-described “Christian Zionist” author Ronald Wiltse. The subject matter addresses al-Qaeda, Hamas, jihad, and shariah in their religious and political contexts. If anything, such a forthright and balanced characterization of the current issues and conflicts between the Muslim world and the West would be a welcome replacement for more problematic approaches in other states’ curricula.

Still skeptical of Perry, however, these bloggers raise the specter of other issues and associations, most of which turn out to be quite tenuous. A close relationship to Perry himself — i.e., one that would influence his view of actual policy — is intimated but, on one issue after another, the connections themselves do not prove this to be the case.

The tenuous association that troubles many critics is that of Farouk Shami, a Palestinian businessman, activist, and unsuccessful candidate for the Texas governorship. In the final stretch of the campaign, Democrat Shami endorsed Perry’s reelection. Perry’s pro-forma acceptance of Shami’s endorsement (“I look forward to working with Farouk so we can keep Texas the envy of the nation and continue creating jobs so that every Texan who wants one has one”) is simply one weak data point that must be weighed against the governor’s very robust stance on Zionism, Israel, and its security. While Shami is certainly an undesirable character with anti-Israel links both ideological and familial, critics have not been able to establish any evidence that Perry either works with or takes counsel from Shami on any issues, much less foreign policy ones.

This controversy also benefits Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). In fact, CAIR’s handling of this story has been tactically deft; altering their stance on Perry and the “less connected” Ismailis from disappointment to a more welcoming one that would not preclude a future relationship. They see, correctly, that they are more successful in American politics wearing a smile rather than a scowl of criticism. Also, by promoting the story touting Perry’s warm relationship to a Texas Muslim community, CAIR successfully provided another data point that bolsters the case conservative bloggers have made against the governor, keeping the controversy going.

While Salon gleefully noted the criticism of Perry from the right in its inevitable follow-up, “Shariah foes seize on Perry’s ties to Muslims,” this manufactured story created an inconsequential dust-up in the blogosphere instead of the desired conservative crack-up. For the left, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups vying to take advantage of the fallout, a large-scale manufactured fight among conservatives is tantalizing. By their calculation, the release of tension here can only follow two paths: (1) Perry brushes off the attacks against him from a small number of bloggers on the right, who continue to marginalize themselves with hyperbolic pronouncements about his “fifth column candidacy”; or (2) Perry listens to these conservative bloggers, repudiates his outreach to the Ismaili community in Texas, and leaves himself open to a vicious assault from the media, including demands he make amends — like Herman Cain did — to the most vocal and aggressive Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups like the Islamic Society of North America.

The governor, I predict, will take the first option. Fortunately, he is astute enough to stay above the fray on the issue, with a spokesperson commenting simply,

Gov. Perry took an oath to uphold the U.S. and Texas constitutions, and the principles enumerated in those documents are what guide his leadership.

And, as more respected commentators dismiss the assertions leveled against Perry by these bloggers (or, as is more likely, ignore it altogether), the left will have lost this wedge issue. Let’s hope they do.

David Reaboi is the Communications Director at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, DC.
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