In recent days, the liberal blogosphere has launched a concerted attack against Walid Phares, one of Mitt Romney’s senior Mideast advisers. The likes of Ali Gharib, McKay Coppins, and Adam Serwer think they smell blood because of Phares’s former association with the Lebanese Forces, the de facto army of the Lebanese Christians during the latter half of Lebanon’s civil war. “Top Romney Adviser Tied to Militia That Massacred,” intoned Mother Jones in its headline for Serwer’s piece. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has joined in, with a particularly pathetic letter to the Romney campaign requesting “that Phares be removed” from his advisory position.
The assault on Phares is interesting not just because of the basic ignorance behind its main contentions but also because of its true motives.
A bit of background first. In the years after the 1967 war, the Palestinian Liberation Organization was expelled from the Jordanian West Bank and harried by Jordanian and Syrian forces all the way into Lebanon, where it eventually plunged the whole country into civil war. Phares was a teenager when the conflict erupted in 1975. In 1979, when he was 22 years old, Phares published the first of his many books, Pluralism in Lebanon, which called for Swiss-style federated autonomy for the country’s various ethnic and confessional communities. Of course, among liberals, an idea like that is a cause célèbre — when it is advanced by people they like — and a “hard-line extremist” product of “hateful ideology” when it comes from someone they disagree with.
By the early 1980s in Lebanon, Phares was already a well-known writer and was routinely invited to give talks and lectures to all kinds of organizations, including the Lebanese Forces, an umbrella organization in which virtually every Lebanese Christian group was represented. Phares had no official position with the Lebanese Forces until 1986, when he joined its 22-member Political Council as representative for the small left-of-center party he and his brother had previously launched. During his short tenure on the Council, he variously handled foreign affairs and diaspora issues. This, however, was enough for the Mother Jones “investigation” to uncover that Phares was a “key player” in a “sectarian religious militia responsible for massacres during Lebanon’s brutal, 15-year civil war.”
The connection to one of the most infamous massacres of the conflict gives the Mother Jones story its hook. On their way to Beirut during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the Israelis surrounded two Palestinian refugee camps, at Sabra and Shatila, where PLO terrorists were ensconced. In August of that year, the hugely popular Christian leader Bashir Gemayel was elected president of Lebanon — and assassinated three weeks later. Enraged, Phalangist elements of the Lebanese Forces, under intelligence chief Eli Hobeika (later revealed to be in league with the Syrians), asked Israeli permission to enter the camps and hunt down the perpetrators. In the ensuing days, hundreds and possibly thousands of Palestinian refugees were murdered. It was generally understood that the perpetrators were connected to the Lebanese Forces, if only because if you were Christian and you were armed then you were almost certainly with the Lebanese Forces.
The question is whether the war crime of a small rogue group operating clearly outside normal chains of command can be attributed to the organization as a whole. Here the answer is demonstrably “no.” The Lebanese Forces had become the de facto army and political organization of the entire Christian community in Lebanon. It is one thing to link a specific person to a specific massacre, but to discredit someone linked to the Lebanese Forces because of its links to the Sabra and Shatila massacre is to discredit virtually all Christian Lebanese who were prominent during the conflict, even those who rose to the fore years after the massacres. The real target of such an attack is the Christian Lebanese community itself. And let’s note the Left’s rank double standard when it comes to this sort of thing. The Left habitually insists that the United States and Israel recognize the legitimacy of the Palestinians’ elected “representatives,” even if it means legitimizing people who have actually murdered innocent civilians. Mother Jones doesn’t even insinuate that Phares was connected to the massacres, or even that he ever picked up a gun. And Phares’s membership on the Political Council of the Lebanese Forces occurred years after the Sabra and Shatila massacres.
The Mother Jones piece posits several other reasons why Phares should be discredited: that he espoused a “hateful” Christian separatist ideology, that he would be representing the interests of foreigners instead of those of the United States, and that his message is anti-Muslim. The first of these is clearly false — Phares is a federalist — but even if it were true, there wouldn’t be anything hateful about it. All of Lebanon’s confessional communities zealously protect their autonomy and political rights — one of them, the Shia Hezbollah, even has its own army. And how are the separatist movements of East Timor and Palestine not equally “hateful?” The second of the contentions comes from Paul Pillar, 20-year veteran of the CIA: “It should raise eyebrows anytime someone in a position to exert behind-the-scenes influence on a U.S. leader has ties to a foreign entity that are strong enough for foreign interests, and not just U.S. interests, to determine the advice being given,” he told the magazine. The warning about representing foreign views is waved about in the Mother Jones article as a kind of dark insinuation without elaboration, and we are left to wonder just what Serwer thinks he’s talking about. But it’s irrelevant in any case. Phares has lived in the United States since 1990. Other than membership in organizations committed to resisting Syria’s and Hezbollah’s domination of Lebanon (fully in line with longstanding U.S. policy) Phares’s career remains what it has always been — that of a major writer and intellectual on Mideast affairs.
That is the real reason for the anti-Phares campaign. It is not his association with the Lebanese Forces but his message that bothers them. And here Mother Jones has simply fabricated a story. Rather than take the trouble to peruse one of Phares’s many books, Serwer quotes people who dimly remember what they think they heard Phares say 30 years ago. He dredged up a former activist Lebanese, who was 18 years old at the time of the events in question; she says she recalls that Phares “justified our fighting against the Muslims by saying we should have our own country, our own state, our own entity, and we have to be separate.” If Mother Jones had actually bothered to investigate as part of its “investigation,” it would have found a major reason to doubt the veracity of this account, namely that Phares was writing books and articles at the time consistently advocating the preservation of Lebanon as a confederation. He has never been a separatist, which is why Mother Jones wasn’t able to find a quote by Phares himself to back up its story, despite Phares’s decades of public statements and hundreds of publications.
Another source assures Mother Jones that Phares “is telling people to suspect all Muslims [sic] Americans as something other than how they portray themselves.” Notice that Serwer couldn’t find a quote from Phares actually saying anything like that. But, as Bob Woodward has taught us, sometimes you just have to rely on paraphrase and hearsay to put words in people’s mouths, because your fabricated narrative will fall apart if you portray people as they actually portray themselves in their own words.
“Phares’s message,” Serwer tells us, “isn’t all that different from the paranoid worldview of anti-Muslim figures in the United States.” But as Phares’s readers know, his work has nothing to do with Muslims generally or even with Islamic theology. His sole focus is the historical roots of the ideology of the Islamist extremist movement, specifically the Salafist movement among Sunnis, and the Khomeinist ideology of the Qom madrasa in Iran. The first is of course the ideology of al-Qaeda, the second is the ideology of the Islamic revolution of Iran and its Hezbollah offshoot. We are not talking about mainstream Islam at all. But the extremists’ view of the world is deeply religious — it is centered on the complete identification of political with religious authority — and understanding its religious dimension is vital to understanding its historical roots and its ultimate historical aspirations. This is where Phares has made his indispensable contribution, particularly in his great Future Jihad (2005), a Foreign Affairs bestseller. When he elaborates on how the “the jihadi mind link[s] together historical events separated by thousands of years,” he is explaining precisely how the extremists portray themselves, something about which the barriers of language have left us woefully ignorant, even a decade after the attacks of September 11.
I should say a word about CAIR executive director Nihad Awad’s pathetic letter to the Romney campaign. The letter’s two main contentions are (1) that Phares is “an associate to war crimes” on account of his brief membership in the Political Council of the Lebanese Forces years after the war crimes in question, and (2) that he is a “conspiracy theorist” and a “leading figure in the nation’s Islamophobia network.” Leaving aside the mild irony in this longtime Hamas supporter criticizing anyone for association with war crimes, I have to laugh at Awad’s accusation that Phares is both a “conspiracy theorist” and at the same time a member of a vast Islamophobic conspiracy. In other words, Awad is advancing a conspiracy theory about a supposed conspiracy theorist’s conspiracy to advance a conspiracy theory. And if that’s not enough conspiracy for you, consider that CAIR was identified as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Justice Department’s investigation of the Holy Land Foundation, the chief Hamas fundraising arm in the United States, to which Awad has also been linked.
I appeared with Awad on Al Jazeera once back in 2006, on the occasion of some tempest-in-a-teapot over the use of the term “Islamo-fascism.” A third guest, some frothing lunatic Muslim Brotherhood professor from University of Cairo, kept going on that “America is the plague upon the world, America is the disease upon the world.” Of course Awad didn’t quibble with that choice of words, only with how offensive it was for us here in America to link Islamist extremism and fascism. Never mind that the much of the media in the Muslim world is easily as obscene in its portrayal of Jews as the worst of Nazi propaganda, and often quite a lot more revolting and embarrassing. Awad’s concern for sensitive speech only extends to speech about Muslims, never speech by Muslims. As one editor of Denmark’s leading paper remarked at the height of the Mohammed-cartoons controversy, “I don’t think they are asking for my respect. I think they are asking for my submission.” Quite so.
The real reason the liberal blogosphere and CAIR have gone on the warpath against Walid Phares is that he won’t submit to their narrative, which is that the Islamist extremists’ ideology has no doctrinal basis in Islamic history and that to argue otherwise is “Islamophobic.” They want to keep the focus on Israel and don’t want to admit there are other communities that are just as threatened by the Islamist onslaught and just as opposed to it. Phares refutes that narrative by pointing out what the Islamist extremists have actually been saying this whole time.
Walid Phares is a dear friend of mine. I stayed with his family during my trip to Lebanon for my 2007 National Review feature, “Land of Cedars and Sorrow.” He couldn’t visit his mother before she passed away, because he can’t go back to Lebanon for fear of assassination, the same fear that many of his friends and family back in Lebanon continue to live with to this day. That beautiful, magical land has been a tragic casualty of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Even now, Lebanon is slowly succumbing to the domination of a Hezbollah movement motivated by a messianic vision of jihad — much the same vision as that which motivated the attacks of September 11, 2001.
That movement continues to expand and infiltrate throughout the West. It is a clear and present danger. And to the extent that organizations such as CAIR paint those of us who are vigilant against that danger as “Islamophobes,” they are not sowing greater understanding, as they claim, but rather trying to prevent it. That is why they want to discredit leading Lebanese Christians like Walid Phares, who have resisted Islamist extremists and understand how they think.
— Mario Loyola is a frequent contributor to National Review.