Right Wing Islam Obsession at the Values Voter Summit

At the conservative Values Voter Summit, speakers invoked the recent violence in Libya to inflame a holy war. Michelle Goldberg on why it would have made the fallen Americans sick.

09.15.12 8:45 AM ET

Kamal Saleem, one of the most enthusiastically received speakers at the Values Voter Summit, claims that before finding Jesus Christ he was a jihadist who worked for Yasser Arafat, Saddam Hussein, and Muammar Gaddafi, among others. “The many years of his terrorist training, resulted in Kamal mastering every form of offensive and defensive terrorist tactics,” said a flier at his merchandise table advertising his availability for speaking engagements. For someone with such a dangerous past, though, he was strangely shaken when myself and another journalist, Timothy Murphy of Mother Jones, confronted him with a couple of questions. “This is becoming like an interrogation!” he said angrily, after we asked whether he could offer any evidence to substantiate the wild stories in his ostensible memoir, The Blood of the Lambs, which tells of his journey from Muslim radicalism to evangelical Christian witness.

Saleem is a fairly preposterous figure whose claims have been discredited numerous times. Writing in Christianity Today’s Books & Culture magazine, Douglas Howard, a professor of Middle Eastern history at the evangelical Calvin College, concluded that he’s a fraud and his book’s distortions are “bizarre.” (In response, Saleem told me that Howard is an agent of the Muslim Brotherhood.) None of this, however, stopped Saleem from appearing on the same bill as vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and a host of other Republicans at the Omni Shoreham hotel on Friday. When it comes to stories about Muslims, it seems, there’s no such thing as too questionable for the GOP.

If there was one dominant theme at this year’s Values Voter Summit, the right-wing confab organized by the Family Research Council, it was that President Obama is endangering the United States by coddling radical Islamists. “[W]hat we’re watching develop before our eyes today are the direct consequences of this administration’s policy of apology and appeasement across the globe,” Michele Bachmann said of the attacks on American embassies and consulates in the Middle East.

Last year, you might remember, some American counterterrorism trainers were found to be using material so virulently anti-Muslim that senators Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins wrote an outraged letter to the Department of Homeland Security. Bachmann described the resulting changes in counterterrorism curricula this way: “That’s enforced Islamic speech codes here in the United States, and all done with the help of our president and secretary of state.”

Given the resonance of such language at the Values Voter Summit, Mitt Romney’s recent rhetoric on the Middle East makes more sense. His claim that the Obama administration’s “first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks,” has been widely criticized, even by some staunch Republicans. The base, however, ate it up—when pundit Bill Bennett quoted Romney’s words in his speech introducing Paul Ryan, there were sustained cheers and applause.

“Romney was talking about this attack, but he was talking about other things as well, wasn’t he,” said Bennett. “He was talking about a history.” The history, presumably, of Obama’s complicity with radical Islam. “His words were an unveiling, a revelation,” Bennett continued. It’s hard to think of anything else that Romney has ever said that’s been received so reverently by the religious right.

There is a grotesque irony in the way speakers at the Values Voter Summit kept invoking the deaths of the four American officials in Libya to argue that the United States needs to adopt a more belligerent stance toward Muslims. Describing what’s at stake in the election, Ryan said, “We’ve all seen the images of our flag being burned and our embassies under attack by vicious mobs. The worst of it is the loss of four good men, including our ambassador to Libya.” From these speeches, one would never know that at least two of the dead were deeply devoted to fighting the sort of politics that the Values Voter Summit represents.

A former Peace Corps volunteer, Libya ambassador Chris Stevens was, by all accounts, a passionate advocate for engagement with the Islamic world. As Robin Wright wrote in The Washington Post, “He was not among those declaring that the Arab Spring had only made the region worse. Quite the reverse.” Former Navy Seal Glen Doherty, meanwhile, was on the advisory board to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, an organization that fights Christian fundamentalism in the armed forces.

“If he knew that his name and his death was being used this way, he would find it beyond his ability to show contempt,” says Mikey Weinstein, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation’s founder and a close friend of Doherty. Doherty, who served in Iraq and worked as a security contractor in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen, was under no illusions about the danger of radical Islam, but he hated the way right-wing Christians, particularly those in the military, promoted Islamophobia. Weinstein never knew how Doherty voted, but he recalls him saying, “Mikey, all I can tell you is this type of religious supremacy has no place in the profession of arms.”

In a better world, it would have no place in the profession of politics, either. In ours, Saleem is a featured speaker at a major Republican gathering. Hillary Clinton, he claimed in his speech, is working with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation on legislation that would “subjugate American people to be arrested and go to jail and the churches and synagogues shut down and go underground.” When he was finished, thousands of people in the packed ballroom leapt to their feet, roaring their approval.