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Islamophobia Strikes Late in Michigan Congressional Race

A right-wing Super PAC is running attack ads against a Syed Taj, a Democratic congressional candidate in Michigan, in an attempt to portray the Muslim doctor as un-American and tied to terrorism. The 30-second ad charges that Taj "wants to advance Muslim power in America," has ties to Hamas, and is "too extreme for America."

The race to represent Michigan's 11th congressional district was already unusual—the seat became open when five-term Republican congressman Thaddeus McCotter failed to qualify for the primary ballot last spring and was subsequently investigated for allegedly submitting election petitions with fraudulent signatures. McCotter, who also pursued a bizarre and short-lived campaign for the GOP presidential nomination, abruptly resigned from Congress one month before the primary.

Republicans were left with Kerry Bentivolio, a Tea Partier who had planned on challenging McCotter from the right. A Vietnam vet, reindeer farmer, and former teacher who was fired from his job in the Fowlerville school district, Bentivolio was hardly the first choice of Michigan's GOP establishment. His brother Phillip calls him "mentally unbalanced," and told reporters this week that "I've never met anyone in my life who is conniving and dishonest as this guy." 

Michigan Democrats were equally unprepared for a competitive race in the district. Although McCotter's support had dipped in recent years, the district's boundaries had been redrawn in 2010 to favor his reelection. Democrats didn't want to let McCotter run unopposed, but they also didn't want to pour money into an unwinnable campaign, so they ran Syed Taj, a local township trustee and doctor who is as intelligent as he is uncharismatic. Taj, who immigrated from India more than 30 years ago, is part of the fast-growing Indian-American community in the district. He is also a practicing Muslim.

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Taj's religion did not come up in his township trustee race, but his campaign manager Natalie Mosher says they knew he would not be so lucky as a congressional candidate. "When someone has a clean record, they're going to attack his religion," says Mosher. "It doesn't have to be truthful. We knew it was going to happen. We just didn't know when."

Cue Freedom's Defense Fund, run by right-wing conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi. Last week, the Super PAC started running an ad on Detroit-area television stations that asks, "What do we really know about Syed Taj?" Corsi, who last month traveled with the Romney campaign as a reporter for World Net Daily, is not known for his subtlety. Among other things, Corsi has claimed that Obama is a closeted gay Muslim whose wedding ring bears the inscription, "There is no god except Allah." He also spent much of the Bush administration convinced that George W. Bush was "pursuing a global agenda to create a North American Union" that would replace the United States.

Being crazy as a loon is not a barrier to raising money, however, and Corsi has used Freedom's Defense Fund to back a number of conservative candidates this year, including Todd Akin and Rick Santorum. He supported Bentivolio's primary campaign, and is apparently concerned enough to fund a $30,000 ad buy in the last weeks before the election. Corsi hits Taj with his patented brand of innuendo and outright lies, taking a quote in which Taj noted that his election would bring the total number of Muslims in Congress to three—thereby allowing them to form a caucus—as proof that Taj wants to "advance Muslim power in America."

The Taj campaign has appealed to station managers to pull the fear-mongering ad. And Taj, who is benefitting from ads run on his behalf by the American Medical Association, is taking the high ground. Responding to the Corsi ad, Taj said, "I wish I could say I was surprised by these commercials. My religion is not an issue, no more than Mr. Bentivolio's religion is an issue. Part of what drew me to this country was the ability for everyone to freely practice their religion and respect the rights of others to do the same. I remain steadfastly committed to this ideal, and I am disappointed that others would seek to score political points simply because I attend a mosque." Amen.