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?
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."