While some GOP presidential contenders ratchet up their anti-Muslim rhetoric to toxic levels, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniel (R) is set to accept a prestigious award next month from the Arab American Institute.
Maya Berry, executive director of AAI, told TPM that the award was incidental to his status as a possible presidential candidate and celebrates his broad record of public service and his Syrian heritage, which is not commonly known. Nonetheless, she noted that Daniels’ award comes at a time of increasingly mainstream anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment in conservative circles.
“It’s a moment to honor our own and Mitch Daniels goes back to the founding of the institute as one of our earliest supporters,” she said. “We have a community that comes with some unfortunate political baggage in terms of bigots…it’s just nice when folks are proud of their ethnic background and don’t allow that kind of politics of exclusion to get in the way.”
Berry noted Daniel’s emphasis on fixing the economy and the group’s website praises his call for a “truce” on social issues, a quote that has invited heated attacks from religious conservatives.
“I think he’s been the adult in the room,” Berry said.
A spokesman for AAI, Omar Tewfik, contrasted Daniels’ relationship with the Arab-American community with other potential candidates in the 2012 primaries in a post on the group’s website.
“Gov. Daniels piques our interest not only because he is Arab American (his grandparents are from Syria), he is a politician who - even in today’s hyper-partisan political climate - has not digressed from his primary focus; fixing the economy,” he wrote. “He has insisted that other issues not become a distraction and has not pandered to the anti-Muslim, anti-Arab sentiments expressed by many other potential GOP presidential candidates.”
Asked about the GOP field, Tewfik told TPM that one area of particular importance to the group was the debate over Park 51 community center. AAI put out report cards grading public figures on their rhetoric on the issue and gave Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin their lowest rating, indicating “anti-Muslim sentiment in opposing the construction of the Muslim community center” and including “individuals who imply that those behind Park51 are pro-terrorist extremists.”
Past winners of the Najeeby Halaby award, named after the former airline executive and father of Jordan’s Queen Noor, include Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Congressman Nick Rahall. Daniels’ paternal grandparents immigrated from Syria.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.