WASHINGTON (UPI) — The Bush administration made a major effort at outreach to the American Islamic community in the aftermath of 9/11. The unstated if obvious purpose was to reassure Muslims living in the United States that they would not be subject to persecution because of the heinous act perpetrated by a handful of their co-religionists.
As part of that effort the president made a highly publicized visit to a Washington Islamic Center. The leaders of U.S. Muslim civic organizations were invited to participate in White House briefings with senior administration officials. The FBI director opened a dialogue with Muslim activists, giving them a chance share their concerns about domestic aspects of the war against terrorism that may have singled them out unfairly.
The tactic provoked some grumbling on the president’s right, including specious allegations of untrustworthiness being leveled against several Muslims working inside the White House. These charges were typically dismissed by administration higher-ups when they would in fact comment on them. For the most part they were dismissed as not being worth the effort needed to pull together a response, winning further plaudits for the president in the Islamic community.
Overall the outreach effort helped build upon the already considerable level of support for Bush in the U.S. Muslim community, an example of coalition politics at its best. A pending personnel move, however, threatens to undermine a 2-year record of achieve.
The president has nominated Daniel Pipes, the director of the Philadelphia-based Middle East Institute, for a term on the board of directors of the United States Institute for Peace, a small federal agency charged with the exploration of ideas in the field of conflict resolution.
The agency itself is of little importance. The significance of the nomination, however, is big. Pipes is a controversial figure, well known and disliked in much of the American Muslim community for statements he has made regarding Islam and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Supporters say Pipes has merely issued warnings about the dangers militant Islam poses to freedom in the west. Groups including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Anti-Defamation League have come out on his behalf, urging the Senate to confirm him to the board. Many who follow his writings say Pipes has simply been sounding a clarion call to warn of the dangers of Islamic extremism, dangers confirmed by the 9/11 attack.
But others say that Pipes paints his criticisms with too broad a brush, slurring most of Islam. In the spring 2000 edition of The National Interest magazine, Pipes, in trying to explain what he found to be the difference between Islam and “Islamism” — the extremist face of the faith — described the latter as having “three main features: a devotion to the sacred law, a rejection of Western influences, and the transformation of faith into ideology.” The problem with such a definition, say some of his opponents, is that it could be construed as including most observant Muslims. With that as a backdrop, it is not then surprising that some take offense when Pipes says, later in the same article, that it represents “an Islamic-flavored version of the radical utopian ideas of our time, following Marxism-Leninism and fascism.”
A number of groups and organizations have come out against his nomination. The Washington Post editorialized that it was “a cruel joke” and “salt in the wound” for American Muslims.
The unexpected opposition, from within Republicans ranks as well as from Democrats, caused the confirmation process to slow. When the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee had a hearing on the nomination last July, it adjourned without taking a vote because of objections to Pipes lodged by several prominent members of the panel, including Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.
“‘I continue to believe that Dr. Pipes is not the right person for this position,'” Kennedy said in a recent statement. ‘His record and experience do not reflect a commitment to bridging differences and preventing conflict. Surely the administration can find someone better to serve on the Board of the United States Institute of Peace.”
The White House is said to remain committed to its nominee, though few can figure out why. The stakes are already outrageously high considering the size and mission of the agency in question. Now, in an effort to get around the refusal of the Senate to act, the White House is believed ready to place Pipes on the board by means of a recess appointment, allowing him to serve without confirmation for one year.
The news has inflamed the American Islamic community. At a news conference Thursday, a number of groups, led by the Council for American-Islamic Relations, charged the administration with trying to make an end run around the Senate and voiced concern over the unfolding situation.
“A recess appointment of Daniel Pipes to the board of the United States Institute of Peace would be a slap in the face to all those who seek to build bridges of understanding between people of faith,” CAIR Executive Director Nihad Awad said.
“Such a move would poison the well of interfaith relations, harm America’s image and interests worldwide and serve to impede the vital mission of the institute,” Awad, whose group has repeatedly clashed publicly with Pipes, said.
Khaled Saffuri, executive director of the Islamic Institute, another Washington-based group, said Pipes, “has made it his mission to promote hate and bigotry and to divide people. (He) has repeatedly condemned the president’s message of inclusion and he opposes the president’s Road Map to Peace.” Saffuri worked to generate support for Bush among Muslim-Americans in the 2000 presidential election.
“The U.S. Institute for Peace needs a person who brings the many cultures, religions and ethnicities of our diverse world together, not someone who seeks to divide people based on race or religion,” he added.
CAIR, which Pipes calls, “particularly worrisome” and represents a “radical utopian movement originating in the Middle East that seeks to impose its ways on the United States,” has been leading the charge against the nomination. Earlier in the week they announced a national campaign to generate calls and letters into the White House calling for the president to reject the recess appointment option.
Both sides are digging their heels in over what is — save for the significance it has to one increasingly important American political constituency — a relatively insignificant matter. What we can take from this is that American Muslims, as a political block, have arrived and taken their seat at the table. They, like all the ones that came before them, now expect to be served.
”’The Peter Principles is a regular column on politics, culture and the media by Peter Roff, UPI political analyst and 20-year veteran of the Washington scene.”’