10.12.11

Mitt's Muslim Problem

As Romney fends off attacks on his Mormon faith, he may soon face allegations of insensitivity toward Muslims. McKay Coppins on the Islamic uproar over a new Romney adviser’s troubling past.

After a prominent Baptist minister proclaimed last week that Mormonism is a non-Christian “cult” that would ideally disqualify adherents from the White House, Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney enjoyed a full-throated defense from people all over the political spectrum who considered the pastor’s remarks an ugly example of religious bigotry. But Romney, a practicing Mormon, may soon find himself facing allegations of intolerance from another religious minority: American Muslims.

The Daily Beast has learned that the nation’s leading Muslim advocacy group sent a letter to the Romney campaign late Tuesday calling for the ouster of the candidate’s recently appointed foreign-policy adviser, Walid Phares. In the letter, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) refers to Phares as “an associate to war crimes” and a “conspiracy theorist,” citing ties to a violent anti-Muslim militia. Scholars and leaders throughout the Islamic community are adding pressure on Romney to drop the adviser immediately. (The Romney campaign and Phares did not immediately respond to requests for comment.)

The controversy comes at an awkward time for the campaign. Hours before CAIR’s letter was sent, Romney called on primary rival Perry to “repudiate” the anti-Mormon remarks made by the Rev. Robert Jeffress, who has endorsed the Texas governor, and touted the importance of tolerant discourse. “I just don’t believe that kind of divisiveness based on religion has a place in this country,” Romney said at a New Hampshire press conference.

Yet Phares is a divisive figure in the minds of some leading U.S. Muslims. To admirers, Phares is a well-regarded scholar who has testified before the Defense and State departments, and has worked as a terrorism expert for professional news outlets such as NBC and, most recently, Fox News.

But to critics, Phares has long been a lightning rod for charges of Islamophobia and outright aggression toward Muslims. According to CAIR, Phares, who was born in Lebanon, worked as an official in the Lebanese Forces, a Christian militia that reportedly took part in “the 1982 massacre of civilian men, women, and children at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.” In 1984, another Lebanese militia with which Phares was allegedly associated rounded up a group of men for questioning and then slaughtered them with guns and grenades, according to a news report. (There is no indication that Phares was directly involved in the violence; his roles in the organizations are reported to have been administrative.)

When he emigrated to the United States in the 1990s, Phares positioned himself as an expert on Islam and Middle East relations, allying himself with conservative think tanks and appearing frequently on television. Throughout his career as a pundit, he has warned that some Muslims are plotting a secret takeover of American institutions with the end goal of imposing Sharia.

It would be akin to turning to David Duke to get advice on race relations.

This history of inflammatory rhetoric has drawn scorn from many corners of the American Muslim community, and CAIR’s concerns were echoed by a chorus of Islamic scholars reached by The Daily Beast.

“[Phares] is hostile to Muslims and Romney has adopted an expert who is going to alienate him from a good section of the voting public,” said Ebrahim Moosa, a Duke professor of Islamic studies.

“Frankly, it is a pathetic reflection on Governor Romney to have surrounded himself with such a person for advice on the Middle East and Islam,” said Omid Safi, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill. “It would be akin to turning to [former KKK member] David Duke to get advice on race relations.”

Correy Saylor, legislative director for CAIR, is willing to give Romney the benefit of the doubt and assume he was largely unaware of Phares’s past. Saylor credits Romney with showing an increased sensitivity to Islam over the years.

During his 2008 presidential candidacy, Romney reportedly told supporters in a private meeting that he would not appoint a Muslim to his cabinet. But he later walked back that comment, and in this election cycle he has occasionally found himself defending Islam against his opponents’ intolerance. Saylor cited an early primary debate during which Herman Cain hypothesized that appointing a Muslim to his cabinet could open the door to the implementation of Sharia in the U.S. Romney dismissed the paranoid theory, insisting that “people of all faiths are welcome in this country.”

“He’s getting better,” Saylor concluded. “But this appointment is a step in the wrong direction.”