For months, the Trump campaign has been nurturing a set of outside groups that purport to represent Muslim Americans who support Donald Trump for president. These groups kicked into high gear last week to join the attack on the parents of Army Capt. Humayun Khan, to give the Trump campaign the appearance of Muslim support.
Ever since Khizr Khan, the father of the fallen soldier, harshly criticized Trump onstage at the Democratic National Convention last week, several organizations claiming to represent pro-Trump Muslim Americans have accused Khan of being linked to Islamic groups they say have an anti-American agenda. The chief attack group is called the American-Mideast Coalition for Trump, which was established in March with the help of Walid Phares, a Lebanese Christian who serves as Trump’s top Middle East adviser.
The group AMC Trump is referring to is the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington-based advocacy group.
AMC Trump never explained how CAIR was connected to the Khan family’s comments about Trump, but Phares and CAIR have been attacking each other publicly for many years. Groups including CAIR have publicly criticized Phares since 2012, when he worked on Mitt Romney’s campaign advisory staff, for his past ties to Lebanese Christian militias.
For its part, CAIR denied any connection to Khan’s speech. “As much as we would like to claim credit for such a powerful speech as by Mr. Khan at the DNC, we had nothing to do with it,” said CAIR National Communications Director Ibrahim Hooper. “These Islamophobes blame us for everything, including the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. It really gets to be a bit ridiculous at times.”
A large part of AMC Trump’s previous activity has been centered around promoting Phares’s views and defending him from various attacks. The staff of AMC Trump is filled with what one Trump adviser told me are Phares’s “buddies.” They include Tom Harb, who has worked with Phares for years, and John Hajjar, who has been defending Phares on the AMC Trump website and in interviews.
In June, Hajjar said that Phares was the target of attacks by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Iranian regime, but claimed “the silent majority backs him.” This week, Trump friend Roger Stone tweeted that Khan was a “Muslim Brotherhood agent helping Hillary” and linked to a Middle East Christian conspiracy website. Phares has often accused Obama and Clinton of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.
Pro-Trump Muslim figures have been echoing the Trump campaign’s attacks on the Khan family on the airwaves as well. Sunday on CNN, Sajid Tarar, the founder of a group called Muslims for Trump, defended Trump for attacking Humayun Kahn’s mother, Ghazala Khan. Trump speculated on Twitter that she wasn’t permitted to speak at the convention. Ghalaza Khan refuted that speculation in a Post op-ed.
“He didn’t know her medical conditions, and if she was that sick, why they brought her on to the stage to begin with?” said Tarar. “All these liberals are so panicked, and this is the sign of panic and that is what’s going on.”
Several other Muslim American leaders I spoke with said that groups such as AMC Trump and Muslims for Trump represent only a tiny fraction of Muslim Americans and are misrepresenting Trump’s level of support in the Muslim American community.
“They represent themselves and a few of their powerful buddies. They are used as cultural validators by right-wing demagogues to promote their anti-Muslim talking points,” said Wajahat Ali, a prominent journalist formerly with Al Jazeera. “They suggest sharia law is a threat to America and say the radical Muslim Brotherhood has infiltrated the administration and the White House. They are essentially trying to demonize and marginalize any mainstream American Muslim group that emerges in the spotlight.”
Phares did not respond to my request for comment, but I spoke with AMC Trump member Hossein Khorram in Cleveland. He told me that Phares invited several members of the group to Washington in June for a meeting with him and several other top Trump campaign foreign policy advisers, including retired Rear Adm. Charles Kubic.
The group has about 100 members, Khorram claimed, including Iranians, Syrians, Iraqis, Lebanese and Turks. He said many Muslims support Trump’s plan to curb immigration from countries affected by terrorism, which is an adjustment from Trump’s original call for a total ban on Muslims entering the United States.
“I don’t mind, because I want to live. I don’t want terrorists here. That’s the way I look at it,” he said. “We are working very closely with Trump advisers to develop a process of vetting, and vetting doesn’t necessarily end when people come to this country.”
For pro-Trump Muslims, Trump’s commitment to fight the Islamic State and his criticism of President Obama and Hillary Clinton are enough for them to overlook some of his more inflammatory, seemingly anti-Muslim statements.
“He’s not the sweetest in the way he talks, and he leaves himself vulnerable, but he shows authenticity, he shows he cares, and he thinks outside the box. That’s what has inspired us,” said Khorram. “Muslim people need to wake up and understand that we have not done our job.”
Mouaz Moustafa, executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization that supports the Syrian opposition, told me that the pro-Trump Muslim group leaders have no real standing in the Muslim American community.
“What is clear is that the individuals making up these groups by no means represent Muslim Americans,” he said. “I have yet to meet an American Muslim in support of a Muslim ban, and all Americans have seen how outrageous it is for Mr. Trump to attack the mother of an American hero who sacrificed his life for his country.”
There has always been a small minority of Muslim and Middle Eastern Christian activists in the United States who support the right-wing agenda. But in supporting Trump’s attack on a Gold Star family, these figures risk further marginalizing themselves and sacrificing their already shaky credibility.