The Council on American Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy group based in Washington, sent Falwell a letter asking that he apologize and open a dialogue with Muslims to help prevent future "incidents of this type." Falwell was unavailable late yesterday and had not yet seen CAIR's letter, according to his spokeswoman, Laura Swickard.
CAIR--the most outspoken organization for Muslim American civil rights--is part of a coalition that had endorsed Bush during the campaign. They also had offered what communications director Ibrahim Hooper called "cautious support" of the faith-based initiative.
But Hooper said Wednesday that the group will have to re-evaluate its stance on the issue if Christian leaders fail to speak out against Falwell and his statements. In the letter, CAIR called Falwell's statements "offensive" and warned that his "rhetoric could lead to discrimination and even physical attacks against Muslims in North America."
In defining who should receive faith-based funding, Falwell told Beliefnet that Muslims should be disqualified from receiving the money because their faith teaches "hate."
"I think that when persons are clearly bigoted towards other persons in the human family, they should be disqualified from funds. For that reason, Islam should be out the door before they knock," Falwell continued.
With much fanfare, President Bush fulfilled a campaign promise last month when he created the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Under the initiative, faith-based charities would be allowed to compete for government funds, as long as they can prove effective in fighting social problems. But already, the plan is devolving into a catfight between religious groups anxious over various issues.
The two main concerns of conservative Christians: that the money would come with strings attached, and that such a program would have to offer money to religions outside the mainstream--out of both fairness and the need to pass constitutional muster. The comments by Falwell and others, including Pat Robertson, critical of the initiative, show what a minefield Bush has entered, and raise serious questions about the political viability of the plan as crafted.
Muslim leaders on Monday said they are worried about the effect that Christian conservatives will have on shaping the faith-based plan. Others challenged Bush to disassociate himself from Falwell and Robertson--both of whom have said they do not want minority faiths such as Hare Krishnas and Scientologists to be eligible for the money.
"He is such a prominent figure in the Christian community that it makes it all the more disturbing," said Hooper, of CAIR. "We'll wait and see if other Christian leaders repudiate these remarks. If there is silence, we'll have to interpret that as an agreement."
This year has been a political milestone for American Muslims, though many of the gains have been symbolic. During last year's election, the coalition of major Muslim groups, which included CAIR, the American Muslim Council, and the Muslim Political Affairs Council, for the first time issued a "Muslim endorsement" favoring Bush. Throughout the campaign, Bush frequently mentioned "mosques" in his speeches, as in "churches, synagogues, and mosques." Muslims were even included in the programs at both the Republican and Democratic Conventions.
"Muslims in general are worried about the Christian right," said Khaled Saffuri, the executive director of the Islamic Institute, who was involved in arranging for the first Muslim benediction at the Republican National Convention. "I don't think all Muslim groups supported the [faith-based] initiative. All groups are cautious."
While the American Muslim Council, another prominent Muslim group, also endorsed the faith-based initiative earlier this year, the Muslim Public Affairs Council was more hesitant, choosing instead to warn American Muslims against "a hasty endorsement of the proposed [faith-based] legislation."
"Falwell and Robertson and that conservative wing are a major component of this legislation. It should send a very troubling signal to American Muslims--a wake-up call" said Salam al-Marayati, the director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council and a prominent Muslim leader. "But the pressure now falls on the president to make sure that this legislation is not biased and that President Bush disassociates himself from such bigotry as Falwell, Robertson, and others with such racist views of Islam and Muslims."
"What Falwell said is not surprising," Al-Marayati said. "Falwell has been known to be a Muslim-hater in the past.... His statements only highlight his bias and racism."