Despite ties to the Aga Khan, Perry has avoided broadly embracing Islam

Posted on: August 16th, 2011 by Mary Tuma 4 Comments

A recent Salon article exploring the “surprisingly warm” relationship between Texas Gov. Rick Perry and the Muslim community leans on the Republican presidential candidate’s ties to the Aga Khan, religious leader of the Ismailis — a sect of Shia Islam — as evidence he is well-connected to at least one group of Muslims.

Its headline wonders if Perry will be considered “the pro-Shariah candidate,” during his bid to win the GOP nomination, a label sure to make some conservative voters cringe.

Perry has embraced small sects of Islam like the Ismailis, while avoiding close ties to the broader Muslim community.

Perry’s cozy relationship with the Aga Khan, an extremely affluent jet-setting billionaire, is mutually and monetarily beneficial. Khan’s far-reaching network spends $350 million a year on projects in South Asia, Africa and the Middle East. The governor has capitalized on the leader’s scope and influence, agreeing to partnerships, including a deal with The University of Texas and the Aga Khan University in Pakistan to bring Muslim history and cultural studies to high school educators.

The pair have shared about a decade of friendship, hosting and attending various invitation-only events. For instance, in April 2008 the Austin American-Statesman reported on Perry’s plans to host a private dinner “to honor the Aga Khan, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad celebrating his 50th year as the spiritual leader of a Muslim sect.”

The powerful alliance between the West Texas politician and the Kenyan-raised Ismaili leader may have some pivotal right-wing voters thinking twice about a Perry ticket — especially in light of the hard-line approaches against Islam voiced by his opponents — but is the bond really indicative of Perry’s larger relationship with Muslims?

So soon after his controversial Christian prayer event in Houston, it sounds unlikely that anyone would fault Perry for being too inclusive of other religions. The event followed months of protests by faith leaders and activist groups who condemned its lack of religious diversity and said it blurred church-state boundaries.

Muslim groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations and leaders like Imam Qasim Khan, president and CEO of the Islamic organization Shades of White, denounced Perry for promoting Christianity above all others. The day before the rally Qasim Khan, joined by leaders of a plurality of faith backgrounds, called the governor a “contradictory politician,” one that claims to be religious but fails to help those most in need.

Many of the evangelical leaders who backed “The Response” have a history of contentious statements about Islam — like the suggestion Muslims do not deserve First Amendment rights and should be kept out of the U.S. altogether. Bryan Fischer, a spokesman for the American Family Association, which bankrolled Perry’s event, detailed four steps to “save Western Civilization” on the group’s blog in May.

The steps include eradicating all mosques, denying Muslims inclusion into the U.S. military, and cutting off Muslim migration to the United States. “There is no such thing as moderate Islam. Islam itself is a dangerous infection, and every devout Muslim is a carrier,” he wrote.

Another “Response” host with a history of anti-Muslim sentiments is Dave Welch, executive director of the Texas Pastor Council, who said earlier this year that Texas’ Speaker of the House should be allowed to follow any religion, just as long as he’s not Muslim, as the Texas Independent previously reported.

Cultivating ties to minor sects

Mustafaa Carroll of the Council on American-Islamic Relations says Perry’s relationship with the Muslim community is fairly middle-of-the-road in practice. The exclusivity of his recent prayer rally didn’t help him build any alliances with Muslims, he said, but overall the tone is neither supportive nor negative.

“As far as I can tell, the governor doesn’t have a strong relationship with the mainstream Muslim community,” said Carroll. “He mostly sticks to interacting with minority groups within Islam like the Ahmadiyya and the Ismailis and hasn’t done anything to overwhelmingly gain support from Muslims.”

Carroll mentioned Perry’s 2003 ceremonial signing of Texas’ Halal Law, which seeks to protect consumers from product mislabeling, as Perry’s most memorable act supporting the Muslim community — but could not point to any other major event like it.

“I think he hasn’t branched out because it’s seen as a risk for some politicians to align with the majority of Muslims, they may feel safer with minority groups with less connectivity.”

“I can’t speak to his motivations aligning with [the Aga Khan], but there may be some other benefits in that relationship,” he added.

‘I do believe this could be a problem’

That halal bill was hailed as the “Texas Muslim community’s First Legislative victory” in the state by the Freedom and Justice Foundation, an activist group that lobbied for its passage — but the community’s advocates in the State Capitol focused most of their attention on defeating a pair of anti-Sharia bills that floated around this past Legislative session. And unlike the halal legislation, those bills were embraced by Perry.

“We met with the governor’s office and he seemed to really support the bill,” said Pat Carlson of the conservative Texas Eagle Forum, who called the numerical assignment of H.B. 911, “appropriate.” “Although he didn’t have the power to push it­ — that’s controlled by [Texas Speaker Joe] Straus — he gave me every indication he agreed with the bill.”

The legislation suggested a constitutional amendment prohibiting Texas courts from enforcing, considering or applying religious or cultural law. Though the bills did not explicitly mention Sharia, author Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, did not exclude it, as the Texas Independent previously reported.

As for his long-time partnership with the Aga Khan, Carlson said the bond could pose a sizable roadblock in currying favor with conservative voters.

“I do believe this could be a problem for Gov. Perry in his presidential bid,” she said. “We should not be showing a preference in Texas schools for a religion that is guided by Sharia law […] it is totally incompatible with our U.S. and Texas Constitutions. It is a complete political, social, legal and economic system controlling every aspect of a Muslim’s life.”

Carroll, though, disagreed, saying that if Perry showed any true support for the anti-Sharia bill, it was “strictly political.” He considers Sharia Law a “non-existent” threat drummed up for partisan reasons. Sharia is a cultural underpinning, he said, not a codified edict; Muslims end up having to defend it because efforts to limit Sharia stomp on their First Amendment rights, Carroll said.

“It’s a red herring, it’s a non-issue,” he said. “The idea people have conjured up that Muslims are trying to overtake our constitution is the biggest lie ever told.”

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