Concerned about the increasingly hostile tone of the Ground Zero mosque debate, top Muslim and Arab-American Republicans are working behind the scenes to try and tone down their own party's rhetoric.
Organized informally, the group includes officials who served in the Bush administration or have strong ties to GOP leadership. Their concerns are twofold: that there is something fundamentally unconstitutional about opposing the Islamic cultural center and that the tenor of conservatives risks alienating the Muslim and Arab communities (both domestic and abroad) for years to come.
"People like myself... who are hardcore Republicans and have been activists for years, with undoubted credentials on the Republican side, are really outraged by what is going on," said David Ramadan, a prominent Muslim-American conservative operative and a member of the Virginia delegation to the Republican National Convention. "We believe first and foremost in the Constitution. This is not a matter of this mosque or that mosque. This is not a New York mosque issue. It is a Constitutional issue.... This is absolutely unacceptable."
With close ties to both Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell national Republicans, Ramadan said that he and others will launch an outreach campaign in the days ahead targeting key leaders, from members of Congress on down. The hope is to bring the GOP closer in line with the position it held during the Bush years, when Islam was defined first and foremost as a religion of peace. He counted officials from that administration as some of the calmer voices in the debate over the Islamic cultural center. Though he added that recent comments from former RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie -- who chastised both the mosque and President Obama's support for it -- underscore just how far the scales of the debate have tipped. [Updated below]
"He went with the wave, I guess," Ramadan said of Gillespie's appearance on CBS' "Face the Nation" this Sunday. "I have put out an email and a call from Ed... and I am waiting for a call back."
What influence Ramadan and others might be able to exert over Republican leadership is unclear. The concern is not merely that the Muslim and Arab-American community doesn't have the lobbying clout to make a large impact on the mosque debate; but, rather, that electoral politics will overwhelm the matter. Even though the issue of building a cultural center in downtown Manhattan has been largely settled by local authorities, it still presents low-hanging partisan fruit for the GOP.
"It is the silly season and people appeal to the most basic of emotions when they want to get elected," said Randa Fahmy Hudome, a prominent Arab-American political consultant and former Bush administration official. " We are running for the House and the Senate and we want to win it and some of the party believe this is a really good wedge issue to run on... I happen to think we shouldn't relinquish our belief in the constitution, the Federalist papers, the Federalist Society, my people, for some base political idea."
Hudome, who is allied with Ramadan in his outreach efforts, said she plans on communicating these concerns to, among other institutions, the Republican National Committee. The fear (or, perhaps, the pitch) is that the rhetoric coming from the GOP's most visible members could produce long-term alienation of the Muslim or Arab-American voting bloc -- which despite expressing conservative voting tendencies in the past has largely fled to Democratic camps in the past eight years. It's not just that Republicans fail to distinguish between Islam and its extremist elements, it's that the party's rhetoric has ventured into the realm of fantasy.
"I hear Newt Gingrich and his chatter about Sharia law. I have to tell you I don't know where this is coming from," she said. "Did someone actually say, 'I want to impose Sharia law on the United States?' Because if someone did, I would like to meet and debate them."
The frustration evident in Hudome's remarks is indicative of how the broader Muslim-American community has responded to the mosque debate. Cognizant of the issue's divisiveness to begin with, they have watched in a mix of fear and horror as the topic moved from cable news catnip to political demagoguery. Somewhere in between, the discussion became a bit unhinged from basic fact or reality -- on both sides of the aisle -- and with it, the larger geopolitical implications became amplified.
"Let me start with the anti-building camp first. If there is a problem with those particular people building this particular center, then the problem should be the same regardless of where they build the mosque or center," said Sherine El-Abd, the head of the New Jersey Federation of Republican Women and a Muslim-American joining forces with Ramadan and Hudome.
"If they were [dangerous], what difference does it make if they move down 20 blocks or 20 miles?" she added. "At the same time, I feel like people should look into the source of funding and mainstream Muslims like myself ought to take a deep breath and say it is these radicals that have damaged our reputation and have tainted people's image of what Islam and Muslims really are. We should be as concerned as anybody else about the source of the funding regardless of where the cultural center is going to be. Additionally, people who come and say 'We don't want this, this is our enemy, Islam is not a religion of peace,' these people have not read the Koran. They have listened to those crazy radicals and they keep repeating those comments those people make until they believe it... it really bothers me because it is not fact."
UPDATE: In a phone call later on Monday, Gillespie clarified that he was not criticizing the right to build the mosque in downtown Manhattan -- though he opposes construction at that site. His criticism was strictly directed at President Obama for suggesting, in his initial statement, that those critics of the Cordoba House somehow didn't share a commitment to First Amendment rights.
"That was disdainful," said Gillespie. "That is not the case. The fact is there is not a debate here as to whether or not Muslims should be free to open mosques. The question is, is the imam wrong to open a mosque at this site. If the purpose is to foster greater understanding a raport and relationships across the faiths this site is not going to further that goal."