In Difficult Times Muslims Count on Unlikely Advocate: Norqu

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In Difficult Times Muslims Count on Unlikely Advocate: Norqu

Postby admin » Tue Jun 27, 2017 8:51 am

In Difficult Times Muslims Count on Unlikely Advocate: Norquist, Famed Tax Foe, Offers Washington Access, Draws Flak
by Tom Hamburger and Glenn R. Simpson
Staff Reporters of the Wall Street Journal
June 11, 2003

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In early 1997, Grover Norquist, a prominent conservative activist, met with Republican political consultant Karl Rove at an awkward time. Mr. Norquist had been criticizing the tax policies of Mr. Rove's client, then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush. But the two old acquaintances found something to agree on: the need for Republicans to embrace Muslim Americans and other nontraditional constituencies.

That brief conversation in Austin, Texas, helped start a new chapter in Mr. Norquist's career -- and in the political lives of Muslims in this country. The following year, Mr. Norquist started the nonprofit Islamic Free Market Institute. In collaboration with Mr. Rove, now Mr. Bush's chief political adviser, he and other institute leaders courted Muslim voters for the Bush 2000 presidential campaign. Mr. Norquist even credits gains among Muslims with putting Mr. Bush in a position to win the critical Florida contest.

Today, Mr. Norquist, 46 years old, has become the leading conduit between Muslim Americans and the Bush administration. The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks hurt that relationship and sparked charges from some conservatives that Mr. Norquist has provided Washington access and legitimacy to Muslim militants. Norquist critics cite his occasional past contacts with Sami al-Arian, a Florida college professor and Bush supporter who has since been indicted for alleged terrorist activities. The institute has also taken contributions from an Islamic charity in northern Virginia that is under investigation as a possible front for financing terrorism.

Paul Weyrich, head of the Free Congress Foundation, a conservative Washington lobbying group, calls Mr. Norquist's dealings with Muslims "very dangerous." Mr. Weyrich adds, "We have to acknowledge we're at war and that it's very possible some of the Muslims want to establish a fifth column in this country."

Mr. Norquist and his allies in the White House, including Mr. Rove, dismiss such attacks. Mr. Norquist says he had very limited contact with Mr. Arian and the donations from the Virginia charity were made before any questions were raised about that group. Such criticism, he says, smacks of guilt by association and anti-Muslim bigotry.

Still, Muslim activism is an unlikely career turn for a top Republican antitax strategist who helped engineer the party's historic takeover of Congress in 1994. Mr. Norquist is famous in the capital for his frenetic devotion to getting conservative interests -- from gun-rights proponents to conservative Christians -- to work together.

Part of his pitch to observant Muslims and Republicans is that they share conservative social values: opposition to abortion and gay marriage and support for religious schooling and free-market capitalism (although Islam forbids paying or collecting interest). Mr. Norquist and his allies "helped us make real inroads in New Jersey, to be able to participate with the Republican party and its leaders at a very high level," says Hamdi Rifai, a Clifton, N.J., attorney who represents Islamic schools.

Mr. Norquist helped secure a promise from presidential candidate Bush to moderate federal policy on investigating suspected illegal immigrants. In a nationally televised debate on Oct. 11, 2000, Mr. Bush said: "Arab-Americans are racially profiled in what's called secret evidence ... . We've got to do something about that."

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the White House has abandoned that promise, as the Justice Department has aggressively pursued prosecutions of Muslims allegedly supporting terrorism. But Mr. Norquist hasn't backed down from his campaign to improve Muslim ties to the administration.

Mr. Norquist, a well known personality in Washington, speaks avidly of interests ranging from history to murder mysteries to the mechanics of grass-roots politics. A poster of Janis Joplin hangs on his office wall. He regularly hosts takeout-food dinner parties for eclectic groups at his Capitol Hill townhouse.

In the 1980s, Mr. Norquist, a Harvard-educated former national executive director of the College Republicans, helped rally support for Ronald Reagan's tax plan. Eventually, he formed the nonprofit Americans for Tax Reform, which has been involved in antitax organizing in nearly every state.

In the early 1990s, he expanded to the health-care debate, aligning himself with business and other groups opposing President Clinton's overhaul plan. The weekly meetings he organized, bringing together small-business lobbyists, antiabortion activists, gun boosters and tax foes, played an important role in mobilizing Republican foot soldiers. In 1994, he received a measure of credit for helping the party shatter the Democrats' 40-year grip on Congress. Along the way, Mr. Norquist began to urge Republicans to reach out to nontraditional constituencies, from Muslims to Orthodox Jews.

In 1998, he helped found the Islamic Free Market Institute. He says the group is nonpartisan, but its top officers became active in Republican campaigns.

To run the nonprofit's day-to-day operations, Mr. Norquist turned to Khalid Saffuri, a Palestinian-American raised in Kuwait who had been an official of the American Muslim Council, a political group in Washington. The institute's founding chairman was a Palestinian American, Talat Othman, who had served with Mr. Bush on the board of Harken Energy Corp. and later visited the president in the White House, according to records obtained by the National Security News Service.

The institute, which maintains a small staff that works out of offices in downtown Washington housing several Norquist-related organizations, has been dependent from its start on foreign donations. Its main supporter has been the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, from which it has received hundreds of thousands of dollars since 1998. In 2001, the last year for which complete records are available, roughly 80% of the institute's $641,000 in contributions came from foreign governments, companies and individuals writing checks on foreign banks.

Mr. Saffuri says the foreign donations are all legitimate and that most of the money from Qatar, an American ally, pays for an annual meeting the institute co-sponsors in that country on capitalism and democracy in the Middle East. Foreign donors such as Qatar can count on Mr. Norquist and the institute to help open doors to members of Congress and others in official Washington. Mr. Norquist stresses, however, that the institute doesn't engage in political-campaign activity and thus isn't covered by federal law barring use of foreign donations in U.S. campaigns.

Mr. Norquist says he draws no pay from the institute. His primary source of income is a $120,000 annual salary from Americans for Tax Reform, he says.

In the spring of 2000, the institute's director, Mr. Saffuri, brought prominent American Muslims to Austin to meet presidential candidate Bush at the Texas governor's mansion. Later, Mr. Saffuri introduced the candidate and Mr. Rove to Muslims in the battleground state of Michigan, home to the nation's largest Arab-American population. Messrs. Saffuri and Norquist urged the Bush campaign to embrace issues important to Muslims -- and, specifically, to denounce the Justice Department's use of undisclosed evidence against suspected terrorists in deportation proceedings.

Mr. Bush did just that in the debate on Oct. 11, 2000. Twice during the debate, Mr. Norquist says, Mr. Rove phoned him at home to draw his attention to the remark and urge him to "put the word out" among Muslims. Mr. Rove says he doesn't remember making such calls.

It's difficult to find reliable measures of Muslim-American voting patterns. But most analysts agree that 2000 marked a significant shift toward the Republican Party.

After Sept. 11, however, the institute's efforts began to raise questions from some of Mr. Norquist's fellow conservatives. Skeptics pointed out that one institute contributor is the Safa Trust, a charity that is part of a cluster of groups in northern Virginia raided in March 2002 by Customs agents trying to determine whether they have financially aided terrorists. Mr. Saffuri says donations from Safa -- which total $20,000 -- were accepted by the institute before any question had been raised about the northern Virginia groups. He notes that no charges have been filed in the case -- a point underlined by Safa's attorney, Nancy Luque. "Neither Safa nor anyone connected with Safa has ever aided or knowingly funded terrorism," Ms. Luque adds. "The fact that 15 months have gone by with no action, let alone charges, underscores that fact."

Prosecutors say they remain interested in the Safa Trust, in part because its other beneficiaries included a network of Muslim groups in Florida run by Mr. Arian, the Palestinian-American professor. In February, Mr. Arian was charged with helping lead the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist group.

In 2000, Mr. Arian campaigned actively for Mr. Bush in Florida. In June 2001, Mr. Arian and some 130 other Muslims attended a White House meeting on issues of concern to Muslims that was also attended by Mr. Rove. White House officials have characterized the gathering as a standard political-outreach event and said Mr. Rove wasn't aware Mr. Arian was in the room.

In 2002, Mr. Arian visited the Islamic Institute in Washington. Institute officials say his purpose was simply to drop off literature. Mr. Norquist adds that he himself has never worked with Mr. Arian and has met him only briefly at various events before Mr. Arian was indicted. Calling attention to Mr. Arian is unfair, he says. "Since I started working with Muslims, a handful of bigots have been trying to smear the president, Rove and me for working with them," he adds.

The push to change the Justice Department's secret-evidence policy collapsed after Sept. 11, 2001, but the Islamic Institute continued to lobby the Bush administration on Muslim civil rights. The institute has arranged or participated in more than half a dozen meetings since Sept. 11 for Muslim leaders to convey their concerns to Attorney General John Ashcroft and other top administration officials about investigations, arrests and detentions of Muslims.

Frank Gaffney, a former senior Pentagon official in the Reagan administration, faults Mr. Norquist and his associates for their involvement in arranging such meetings. Mr. Gaffney, who was once close to Mr. Norquist, notes that the 2000 campaign meeting with Mr. Bush in Austin -- to which Mr. Saffuri brought prominent American Muslims -- included a Muslim activist who later publicly expressed sympathy with U.S.-designated terrorist organizations Hamas and Hezbollah. Abdurahman Alamoudi, a founder of the American Muslim Council, was recorded at a Washington rally later in 2000 saying, "We are all supporters of Hamas," and, "I am also a supporter of Hezbollah." He has since apologized for those remarks and said he wishes to retract them. When the institute became aware of Mr. Alamoudi's comments, officials there demanded an apology and ceased working with him.

"Allowing these sorts of organizations to meet with the president and his senior subordinates is a very bad idea," says Mr. Gaffney. While the administration now is cracking down on terrorism abroad and at home, Mr. Gaffney says Mr. Norquist's Muslim-related activities could still lend legitimacy and "undesirable influence over policy" to individuals and groups hostile to American interests.

"This is nonsense," Mr. Norquist responds. He says such objections reflect "an ongoing campaign to try and attack the Islamic Institute and Muslim participation in politics."

Mr. Rove rejects the criticism with equal vehemence. "What's the evidence" of undesirable influence? he says. "There's no there there." Mr. Norquist's standing at the White House remains good, and a weekly Wednesday breakfast meeting he hosts for conservatives still draws 100 or more activists.

Despite the criticism, the Islamic Institute has continued to put socially conservative Muslims in touch with Republican activists. Mr. Rifai, the Muslim lawyer in New Jersey who represents Islamic schools, says that in the late 1990s, the institute introduced him to conservatives in that state seeking more government financial support for religious schools. One of those conservatives, Larry Cirignano, chairman of a group called Catholics.Org, says that the Islamic Institute helped him and other Catholic activists recruit Muslims to join antiabortion demonstrations in New Jersey, Washington and elsewhere.

In Washington, the Islamic Institute has helped furnish Muslim support for various Bush administration causes. After Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Saffuri, wrote a paper justifying U.S. military action during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Mr. Norquist passed along the document to the White House National Security Council. A senior administration official says it was used in developing talking points by U.S. officials defending the U.S. attack on Afghanistan.

Write to Tom Hamburger at tom.hamburger@wsj.com1 and Glenn R. Simpson at glenn.simpson@wsj.com2
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