The speaking appearance at FAU next week of FOX News talking head Walid Phares has been preceded by little fanfare, unusual for a school that trumpets such events as a local Boys & Girls Clubs' art exhibit or the school's Jupiter campus being named a "Tree Campus USA."
Perhaps it's just as well, given the school's record of mishandling political hot potatoes. In the course of his career Phares has been denounced as a "radical, right-wing, sharia-phobe" and praised as "a true gentleman and one of the world's top analysts on terrorism, jihad, and the Middle East."
Criticism of Phares exploded in October 2011 when Mitt Romney announced Phares' appointment as a foreign policy advisor, a move interpreted as a dog whistle to the neocon community. "Walid Phares is advising Romney on Middle East policy? For realz? That's terrifying," tweeted one Middle East expert. "I have nothing against Gov. Romney," tweeted another, "but appointing Walid Phares your M.E. advisor is NUTS."
More detailed objections to Phares came from publications like The New Republic and especially, Mother Jones, which reported that Phares had been "a high ranking political official in a sectarian religious militia responsible for massacres during Lebanon's brutal, 15-year civil war."
Right-wing and GOP writers and publications rushed to Phares' defense, most coherently in National Review, where it was argued that Phares' critics had overstated his role in the Lebanese Christian militia, whose massacres were, in any case "the war crime of a small rogue group."
A very savvy analysis of the affair's political fallout came from Politico, which noted "the extent to which Phares is now aligned with an 'anti-jihad' movement that sometimes shades into being flatly anti-Islam." Politico highlighted this, from Mother Jones:
Phares may be viewed as mainstream, but he doesn't avoid the more vocally anti-Muslim segments of the right. He has been a columnist for David Horowitz's arch-conservative Frontpage magazine, and he endorsed two books by Robert Spencer, whose writings frequently posit that American Muslims are part of a conspiracy to establish Taliban-style Islamic law in the United States. Phares also serves on the advisory board of the Clarion Fund, which has released a series of films warning of an Islamist fifth column in the United States. In a YouTube video released by anti-Islam activist Brigitte Gabriel, herself a Maronite Christian whose views of Islam were shaped by harrowing experiences in Lebanon's civil war, Phares tells Gabriel that "there is a cold war infiltration acquiring influence and the lands of what they call the infidels." When Gabriel's cohost asks Phares for examples of this vast conspiracy, Phares quietly assures him, "We can't give names, because it's operational, it's happening now."
New Times only became aware of Phares' FAU appearance when we received an email off an FAU internal email list, in which Professor Robert Rabil announced Phares' lecture -- "co-sponsored by the Peace Studies program and the College Republicans at FAU" -- on behalf of the school's Political Science Department, where Rabil teaches.
Asked about the scant publicity for Phares' appearance, Rabil said he'd expected Phares' publisher to handle that. Otherwise, he said, "If you're not on an email listed with FAU you won't get [an announcement]." About attendance by the community at large he said, "I'm not concerned. It's an open space."
Asked if he supports Phares' thinking on the Mideast and Islam, Rabil replied, "I tell my students to never follow one line of thought. I don't endorse anything [Phares] says."
Rabil, who has co-authored several papers with Phares, took a much different tack when Phares was under attack during the Romney campaign. At that time Rabil wrote that the charges against Phares constituted:
an attack on Lebanon's Christian community as a whole, and perhaps against all minorities and liberal Muslims in the Middle East. They explicitly attacked Dr. Phares on the misleading basis of guilt by association without even considering either the political context in which the Lebanese Christians operated or the collective angst of the Christian community.
Phares has a well-oiled publicity machine at his disposal, but his vaunted predictive powers are non-existent (see what he said would happen after the U.S. exited Iraq) and his policy prescriptions are a lot of empty blather about winning the "war of ideas."
We expected a similarly critical comment from Professor Eric Hanne, faculty advisor to the FAU chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine. In an email, though, he wrote:
As I've not read the book, or kept up with Phares' work (being a medievalist myself), I wouldn't be able to add anything substantial to the conversation regarding his discussion of the Arab Spring or US Foreign policy.
Having followed the coverage of the Arab Spring from its inception, and having read a number of pieces from a variety of scholars, I would say that the "jury is still out" regarding an assessment of the "Arab Spring." There is much more at work here, going beyond the confines of the Arab world (a problematic monolithic term in and of itself) and it would be premature to make predictions or judgements.
Asked if Phares' controversial history was problematic or likely to color his message and analysis, Hanne wrote back:
I wouldn't presume to prejudge his upcoming talk; his career has tied him to particular mindsets (Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Romney campaign) in which there are very clear parameters for discussion and analysis, but where he stands is still a mystery to me (as someone who looks elsewhere than the FDD, Romney crowd for analysis).
Dr. Walid Phares Arab Revolutions and American Foreign Policy: The Lost Spring Monday, March 17 6:30 p.m. FAU Boca Raton campus Social Science Bldg. (SO), 250
Fire Ant -- an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes-fatal sting -- covers public affairs and culture in Palm Beach County and elsewhere. Got feedback or a tip? Contact Fire.Ant@BrowardPalmBeach.com.
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