Why one Oklahoma lawmaker is targeting American Muslims

Oklahoma state Rep. John Bennett (R) called the executive director of the state chapter of an Islamic-American relations group a terrorist. Is this a political tool?

Scott Audette/Reuters/File
Television trucks sit outside the Dove World Outreach Center church before a news conference by pastor Terry Jones announcing the burning of the Korans will continue as planned, in Gainesville, Florida in 2010. Jones, leader of a tiny, little-known Protestant church in Gainesville, Florida, which openly campaigns against what it calls "radical Islam," is facing a barrage of calls from U.S. government, military and religious leaders, and from abroad, to cancel his plans to publicly burn Islam's holy book.

Remarks by one state legislator spurred a state hearing this week to determine what threat "radical Islam" plays in Oklahoma.

Rep. John Bennett, a Republican from Sallisaw County who serves in the Oklahoma House of Representatives, accused a local imam and the state chapter leader of the Council on Islamic-American Relations (CAIR) this week of being terrorists. The state has since decided to host a meeting to determine the threat that the Muslim population plays to state security. 

Islamic cultural representatives are outraged. They say Representative Bennett’s accusation is an example of the scapegoating endured frequently by the Muslim-American community in the United States.

"It is important to realize that American Muslims are being singled out," says Karam Dana, the Director of the American Muslim Research Institute and a professor at the University of Washington, Bothell. "It is very unfortunate. We know what happened in Germany in the 1930s."

Only three lawmakers attended Bennett’s study to discuss his accusations, although he called upon a number of speakers to support his claims, including John Guandolo, founder of UnderstandingTheThreat.com. Mr. Guandolo also labeled the executive director of Oklahoma's CAIR chapter, Adam Soltani, a terrorist.

Chris Gaubatz, a security consultant with Guandolo's website, told attendees that CAIR’s real mission is to establish an Islamic state in the United States and destroy Western civilization. Mr. Gaubatz said that CAIR is no different from al-Qaida.

For its part, CAIR says its mission is "to enhance understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American Muslims, and build coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding."

The group monitors legislation and advocates for members of the Muslim community who become victims of hate crimes.

Bennett is currently up for election, leading some experts to say that the question of terrorism and the Muslim community is a cheap and timely tactic to appeal to voters.

Less than 1 percent of Oklahoma's population identifies as Muslim, while about 1 percent of American citizens nationwide, or 3.3 million people, practice Islam, according to Pew Research data.

And while just 14.6 percent of respondents to a Reuters/Ipsos survey following the San Bernardino terrorist attacks last December said that they are fearful of Muslims, others say that anti-Muslim hate crimes are on the rise.

"There’s no question at all that anti-Muslim hatred is on the uptick," Mark Potok, an extremism expert and senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, tells the Monitor in a phone interview. "Since 2014, every other category of hate crime has gone down, except crimes against Muslims."

And the ongoing presidential election could be making things worse.

"American Muslims are good, law-abiding citizens," says Dr. Dana, "I’m not surprised that they are being singled out, though."

"Why? Donald Trump."

Experts say the Republican presidential candidate has played on American fears and targeted Muslim Americans in a way that would be unacceptable if the targets were Christian, Jewish, or any other religion.

Mr. Trump’s rhetoric has "made it okay" to target Muslims, they say. Bennett’s current attempts to target Muslims in Oklahoma do not occur in a vacuum.

"Donald Trump has unleashed the beast of anti-Muslim hatred, and that is going to be a very difficult animal to get back in the cage," said Mr. Potok. 

Bennett says he is currently working on legislation to evict CAIR from the state of Oklahoma, although he is not specific about how he plans to do so.

Mr. Soltani, of CAIR, says the lawmaker is wasting his time.

"Rep. Bennett is shamefully wasting taxpayer money to promote his own biased agenda," Soltani said. "This hearing was a new low for Rep. Bennett, as his guests presented a biased narrative that achieves nothing more than demonizing and marginalizing the Oklahoma Muslim community."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to Why one Oklahoma lawmaker is targeting American Muslims
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today