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Quick and Dirty

Pillar Fight

By Gadi Dechter | Posted 8/17/2005

Shortly after becoming the first Maryland Republican elected to statewide office in 36 years, Gov. Robert Ehrlich organized the priorities of his administration under a sturdy-sounding image: The Five Pillars of the Ehrlich-Steele Administration.

He could hardly have picked a more durable metaphor. As the foundational image of the Muslim religion, the Five Pillars of Islam have endured for centuries, standing reminders of the central commandments of the faithful: believe in God, pray daily, give to charity, undertake ritual fasting, and make a pilgrimage to Mecca.

Was it perhaps the goal of the newly elected governor of Maryland, who would later be criticized for saying that multiculturalism was “bunk,” to celebrate the diversity of his state by borrowing the rhetorical imagery of a minority culture?

“No, that was something we learned after the fact,” Ehrlich press secretary Shareese DeLeaver says about the ubiquitous Muslim connotations of the phrase, “five pillars.” “Somebody did a Google search.”

Though DeLeaver insists that the five-pillars image was the “brainstorm” of the governor, likely inspired by the marble columns shoring up the Annapolis statehouse, candidate Ehrlich did make a campaign visit to the Islamic Society of Baltimore in 2002. Umar Mustafa, then-president of the Woodlawn-based group, recalls handing the candidate literature about Islam—literature that would have naturally included an explanation of the Muslim five pillars.

“But I’m not saying he derived his pillars from us at all,” Mustafa is quick to add, “because his five pillars don’t really parallel ours.”

The Ehrlich-Steele pillars stand for fiscal responsibility, education, health and the environment, safety, and commerce. They are prominently displayed on the home page of the governor’s web site, beneath an image of the statehouse’s minaret-like dome.

Though Ehrlich frequently uses his five pillars as talking points at public appearances, similarity to the Islamic pillars doesn’t appear to have aroused any concern—or even interest—in the Muslim political establishment.

“I asked around and nobody’s heard about them and nobody has a comment, to be honest with you,” says Shama Farooq, civil-rights director of the Maryland branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the largest Muslim civil-rights organization in the country.

“The five pillars are for everybody,” Farooq adds. “And we don’t really have a problem with him using them.”

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