One of the stock characters in American public life is the political/religious convert who becomes the expert on the evil he once was. Pick your era or locality of evil, and you’ll find ’em. And while there are certainly authentic converts from totalist or criminal societies who have truths to tell, for others it becomes a confidence game of ever newly found or escalating evil.
The latest such character to take to the stage of history is Kamal Saleem, who was a featured and wildly popular speaker at the just-concluded Value Voters Summit. And yet he has been repeatedly exposed as a fraud whose story of being an ex-terrorist doesn’t add up.
I was struck by how through his story of being a big time terrorist for hire for the likes of Arafat, Assad, and Sadaam Hussein, he sought to contrast this with the kindness and compassion of Christians, such as those who nursed him back to health after a car crash in the U.S. While we knew he had converted to evangelical Christianity, Saleem is a good story teller and so I couldn’t tell where his story was going. I was surprised when we got there and he roared, “Allah and Jehovah are not the same god!”
And the crowd of some 1200 Values Voters went wild.
While the demonization of Islam is nothing new, Saleem makes it part of a conversion narrative that, without quite saying so, gives permission to fellow evangelicals to justify religious war. He has known how deep and dark is the evil; he lived to tell about it; and he knows what must be done.
Echoing his predecessors in false testimony, such as Sen. Joseph McCarthy, he also told VVS12 attendees that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is conspiring with Muslim nations to “subjugate American people to be arrested and put to jail and their churches and synagogues shut down.”
But we have to wonder how most conservative evangelicals would feel if they learned that Saleem’s story is probably not even partly true? And that the Family Research Council, Liberty University, the Heritage Foundation, and the other prominent co-sponsors of VVS12 had apparently not done their due diligence, or had looked hard the other way?
Had conference organizers looked at all, they might have come across exposes by CNN, Mother Jones, and Books and Culture, a publication of the flagship magazine of evangelicalism, Christianity Today.
In March, Tim Murphy wrote for Mother Jones:
Doug Howard, a professor of Middle Eastern history at Michigan’s Calvin College, first encountered Saleem in 2007, when he was invited to speak at the school. Howard quickly became suspicious: For starters, Saleem claimed to be a descendant of the “Grand Wazir of Islam,” a position that doesn’t exist. Howard dug deeper and discovered that Saleem’s original name was Khodor Shami—and that for more than a decade before outing himself as a former terrorist he had worked for Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network and James Dobson’s Focus on the Family. (CBN declined to comment. Focus on the Family confirmed Saleem was an employee but would not comment further.)
Howard himself wrote in Books and Culture that when he spoke with top officials at Focus on the Family who knew Saleem, they even doubted the story of his conversion.
Anyone looking into Saleem would probably also find posts at Talk to Action by Rachel Tabachnick, who revealed that Saleem had been making anti-Islam videos for The Oak Initiative, a political project founded by Christian Right activists Rick Joyner of Morningstar Ministries and Rev. Samuel Rodriguez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. Saleem also recently warned Michigan state legislators considering an immigration bill that Islamic extremists were sneaking into the country and that “If we don’t pass this bill we will be legalizing terrorism to be part of our culture.”
But perhaps we should not be surprised. Also making anti-Islam videos for the Oak Initiative was Oak board member Jerry Boykin, a controversial retired Army General and Delta Force commander and Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence who was recently hired as executive vice president of the Family Research Council and also spoke at the conference.
Thanks in part to PRA’s report on how law enforcement were using similarly-minded groups and individuals such as pseudo ex-terrorist Walid Shoebat for training in counter-terrorism, elements of the menace manufacturing sector were marginalized. But the prominent roles of Saleem and Boykin at the VVS12 suggest that leading activists on the Christian Right remain either credulous or complicit in the promotion of yet another self-described ex-terrorist who has been repeatedly exposed as a fraud.