n February, a long-simmering and mostly behind-the-scenes feud between two prominent conservatives, tax-reform advocate Grover Norquist and national-security expert Frank Gaffney, burst into the open. At issue was the conduct of Norquist's energetic campaign to bring Muslims into the Republican party. While Norquist argues that Muslim political participation will be a key part of the GOP's electoral strategy in coming years, Gaffney charges that aggressive outreach efforts to Muslim leaders have brought the party, and in particular the Bush White House, dangerously close to organizations that have in the past endorsed or, at the least, declined to condemn international terrorism. Among them are the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the Islamic Society of North America, the American Muslim Council, and others whose representatives have been invited to meetings in the White House and with officials across the Bush administration.The feud has now escalated into a full-scale battle. Gaffney and others at his organization, the Center for Security Policy, have distributed thick packets of information to reporters and conservative activists outlining the case against the Islamic organizations. Norquist has responded angrily, barring Gaffney from conservative strategy meetings and accusing him of racism and bigotry. The fight has spread bad feelings on all sides, and has left more than a few conservatives worried that it might do serious damage to the conservative movement.
But the argument between Norquist and Gaffney is about much more than two men, or even the conservative movement. At its heart, it is about the Bush White House and whether its contacts with some Muslim groups might someday make the administration vulnerable to charges that it cultivated close relations with groups tied to radical Islam even as it conducted a war on terror around the world. The Norquist-Gaffney feud, some conservatives fear, might be just the first act of a very long play.
WAR OF WORDS
Later, during a question period, Gaffney said he had recently received a press release from the American Muslim Council which he called "one of the leading Wahhabist sympathizers, and, I believe, [Wahhabi-] funded organizations in this country" announcing that a top AMC official had been invited to the White House. Gaffney continued: "And in this press release, they credited one Ali Tulbah [a Bush administration official] for having gotten them into the White House. It turns out that Ali Tulbah's father is one Hasan Tulbah, the treasurer of the Islamist Da'wah Center, a prominent Wahhabi mosque in Houston. But the reason he was able to influence whether [former AMC executive director] Eric Vickers and the AMC were present in this White House meeting was because he is also, I believe, the associate director for cabinet affairs in the Bush White House, responsible in his portfolio, if you can believe it, for the State Department, the Defense Department, and the Justice Department. This is not how we win the hearts and minds of peace-loving, pro-American Muslims. It is a perilous path, and I hope that it will be corrected."
Gaffney's remarks were startling, not because he was wrong about Islamist recruitment efforts he in fact appears to be right on target but because he singled out Tulbah, and suggested that the low-level White House aide played a role in the Islamist political operation. In the weeks since, Gaffney has not offered any evidence to back up his charges. Instead, he now says the problem he was addressing was not Tulbah specifically, but the issue of poor political judgment at the White House. Nor have several experts on Islam and terrorism who are generally allied with Gaffney been able to point to any problems with Tulbah.
Gaffney's remarks enraged Norquist, who responded in an open letter to conservative activists. "There is no place in the conservative movement for racial prejudice, religious bigotry or ethnic hatred," Norquist wrote. "We have come too far in the last 30 years in our efforts to broaden our coalition to allow anyone to smear an entire group of people. . . . The conservative movement cannot be associated with racism or bigotry."
The reaction was explosive. Even if Gaffney had been wrong to mention Tulbah by name, some conservatives felt, Norquist's reaction was over the top. To make matters worse, Norquist used a standard rhetorical device of the Left: If you can't win an argument with a conservative, call him a racist. "I, for one, don't see it," says David Keene, head of the American Conservative Union and an organizer of the CPAC conference. "If you read the transcript [of the panel], you can see if Frank was right or wrong, but there was nothing racist or bigoted about it."
Heightening the tension was Norquist's angry assertion that the White House, and in particular chief political adviser Karl Rove, supported his racism-and-bigotry argument. One witness quotes Norquist as saying, "This is terrible. Karl's upset because we're insulting the people who helped Bush win the election." Another witness recalls that Norquist "said the president and Rove were angry at the conference." In addition, Norquist sent an e-mail to American Conservative Union board members saying that "[t]he White House and the press are increasingly angry with [the American Conservative Union] for some indefensible statements and actions at CPAC this year."
The letter caused a complete break inside the conservative camp. Keene has not spoken to Norquist since it was written, and Gaffney, whose organization shares an office suite with Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform, was kicked out of Norquist's famous Wednesday meeting of conservative strategists.
That is where things stand now. In a recent interview, Norquist denied using the White House to support his accusations: "I never invoke the president or Karl Rove on this position in anything." But he refused to back away from his incendiary charges about Gaffney, on one occasion calling him a "sick little bigot." "I'm sorry," Norquist said. "His whole life screams of bigotry, and what he said is just part of a pattern." Gaffney could have held higher-up administration staffers responsible for choosing who attends White House briefings, Norquist argued, but instead "decided to single out the Muslim." He continued: "Frank Gaffney and Osama bin Laden share the same view on the relationship between the United States and Islam. I agree with the president in rejecting Osama bin Laden's and Frank Gaffney's worldview."
Suffice it to say that this sort of talk simply doesn't go on in public between two respected conservative leaders. What's more, it is absolutely baffling to anyone who knows only what happened at the CPAC conference. To understand what is really going on, one has to look closely at a conflict that has been building for quite a while.
As impressive as that sounds, Norquist's numbers are open to serious question. Pollster John Zogby says there is not a great deal of information on Muslim voting, but "my data indicates that it was tilted Democratic in 2000. It went more for Gore and Nader than for Bush." Michael Barone, author of the authoritative Almanac of American Politics, argues that it is impossible to draw an accurate picture of Muslim voters, given the lack of exit-poll information. As for the claim that Muslims gave Bush his winning margin, Barone says simply, "Any 538 voters in Florida can claim credit for winning the presidency for Bush."
Nevertheless, Norquist maintains that Muslims played a key role in the Bush victory. In the Spectator article, he gave much of the credit to Khaled Saffuri, his chief adviser in Muslim matters, who in 1998 helped found an organization called the Islamic Institute. The Institute's mission is to "build relationships between American Muslims and policy makers in the United States," and it has in the past promoted conservative positions on such issues as free trade, school choice, and tort reform.
While those matters are important, Norquist reserved his highest praise for Saffuri's work in having "brought to the GOP's attention the most important issue for the Muslim community the misuse of 'secret evidence' in immigration cases." Urged on by Norquist, Saffuri, and others, Candidate Bush denounced secret evidence during the 2000 campaign. In his second debate with Gore, he brought the subject up when asked a question about racial profiling: "There's other forms of racial profiling that goes on in America. Arab-Americans are racially profiled in what's called secret evidence. People are stopped, and we got to do something about that."
In connection with the secret-evidence issue, Saffuri and Norquist made common cause with Sami al-Arian, the University of South Florida computer-science professor who had made a crusade of the issue. (Al-Arian's brother-in-law had been jailed and later deported in a terrorist investigation that made use of secret evidence.) Al-Arian headed the far-left activist group National Coalition to Protect Political Freedom, and made secret evidence its primary concern. Saffuri and Norquist shared a position with al-Arian's group on matters concerning secret evidence, and Bush was photographed with al-Arian during the campaign. Al-Arian also visited the White House in June 2001, a year and a half before he was indicted on conspiracy charges as the alleged head of Palestinian Islamic Jihad in America. The indictment charged that al-Arian and his allies, "while concealing their association with the [Palestinian Islamic Jihad], would and did seek to obtain support from influential individuals, in the United States, under the guise of promoting and protecting Arab rights." During all this time, al-Arian's alleged terrorist ties were public knowledge, having been the subject of press reports and congressional testimony.
'WAHHABI LOBBY' GOES TO THE WHITE HOUSE
And that, in turn, brought criticism of the Islamic Institute, because Norquist and Saffuri had been the most prominent advocates of closer relations between the White House and the Muslim community. A significant part of that criticism has come from Gaffney, who points to a number of troubling associations involving the Islamic Institute. Among them:
In early 1999, the Institute accepted a $10,000 contribution and a $10,000
loan from Abdurahman Alamoudi, a founder of the American Muslim Council
(and Khaled Saffuri's former boss). The next year, in a demonstration
in front of the White House, Alamoudi yelled to the crowd, "Anybody
who is in support of Hamas here?" When the demonstrators cheered,
Alamoudi said, "Bill Clinton, we are all supporters of Hamas. I wish
to add that I am also in support of Hezbollah. Anybody supports Hezbollah
here?" The crowd cheered again. Alamoudi's words caused a near panic
among some of his less radical friends and associates, including those
at the Islamic Institute, who say they have dissociated themselves from
him. "I think what Alamoudi said was wrong, and I personally asked
him to retract it," says Saffuri. "Since he made that statement,
we have not had anything to do with him."
For example, after the White House took heat for the September 26, 2001, meeting with the president, administration officials are said to have pledged to be more careful in the screening process in the future. But, in January of this year, CAIR's Ibrahim Hooper and Jason Erb, communications director and government-affairs director, respectively, were back in the White House for a briefing on immigration policy. (Not long after, a former CAIR employee who had done community-relations work in Washington was arrested in New York on terrorism-related charges.)
Gaffney and others have urged the ad ministration to concentrate outreach efforts on more moderate Muslim groups. They worry that the inclusion of groups like CAIR in White House events gives them a credibility they could find nowhere else, making it easier for them to meet with officials in the cabinet departments and on Capitol Hill.
What particularly worries some observers is the possibility that White House contacts with some of the Muslim groups and leaders might be more extensive than is publicly known and that the president's political opponents will try to exploit them. Indeed, on February 27, California Democratic congressman Henry Waxman wrote a letter to the Secret Service requesting all electronic records of visits by Sami al-Arian to the White House complex. Waxman also asked for "all requests, whether granted or denied, by White House employees that Sami al-Arian be admitted to the White House complex." And he asked whether the Secret Service had identified al-Arian's alleged terrorist connections and objected to his visit, only to be overruled by White House officials.
Administration officials say they will try to "accommodate" Waxman's request. Perhaps nothing will come of it, but they cannot simply dismiss his concerns. Waxman functions as a sort of lead scout for Democrats, a congressman willing to make inquiries into topics that might bear fruit politically but that other politicians are too timid to broach. For example, he took a leading role in demanding that Vice President Cheney release documents from his energy task force; even though some Republicans did not take it seriously at first, Cheney ended up facing a lawsuit from the General Accounting Office over the matter (the suit was dismissed).
So there is a much bigger conflict going on behind the ugly battle between Frank Gaffney and Grover Norquist. Conservatives might wish that it would go away or at least that Norquist would stop calling people racists and bigots but they first have to worry about the administration's Muslim outreach program, which gave rise to the conflict in the first place.