The war of words between Islam critic Rep. John Bennett and a group that advocates for local Muslims ratcheted up a notch on Thursday.
Bennett, R-Sallisaw, issued a two-page press release Thursday following a Capitol press conference organized a day earlier by the Oklahoma Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. He made several allegations against the organization in his latest press release.
At Wednesday’s press conference, the group countered Bennett’s Facebook remarks that people should be “wary of individuals who claim to be Muslim American.”
The press conference included several organizations that denounced Bennett’s remarks, including the NAACP of Oklahoma, the ACLU of Oklahoma and the Oklahoma Conferences of Churches.
In a press release issued Thursday by the House media office, Bennett said he believes that CAIR is linked to terrorist organizations and should not be allowed in Oklahoma.
“I have received hundreds of emails, voicemails, and personal thank you messages from all over the world for standing up against a cancerous problem that CAIR and other wings of the Muslim Brotherhood support,” Bennett said in the press release. “CAIR is leading the charge to discredit me and trying to put political pressure on me with their irrelevant press conference at the Capitol.”
Bennett also called CAIR “an unindicted co-conspirator of the largest terror financing trial that yielded over 100 convictions in the U.S.”
CAIR is not affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, said Adam Soltani, CAIR Oklahoma executive director.
“CAIR’s inclusion, along with over 300 Muslim organizations and individuals on a list of ‘unindicted co-conspirators’ in the Holy Land Foundation trial was concluded by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to have been a violation of our Fifth Amendment rights by being included on such a list in the first place,” Soltani said.
“The court also ruled that inclusion in the list was a result of simply an untested allegation of the government made in anticipation of a possible evidentiary dispute that never came to pass,” Soltani continued.
The organization had sought an apology from Bennett, who said one would not be forthcoming.
“In the last 10 days, Rep. Bennett has not only proven his inability to take responsibility for his inappropriate and offensive comments; he has also showcased his lack of intelligence with his continued false accusations against Oklahoma Muslims and shown no concern for the future of our diverse society,” Soltani said.
“He continues to deflect his bigotry and racism with attempts to attack CAIR’s credibility and by promoting the fear of false threats and fictitious concerns.
“Rep. Bennett is correct on one thing: He has every right to practice his First Amendment right of free speech. However, we will continue to hold him accountable for being responsible in how he exercises his freedom of speech. The right to freely speak does not give one the right to promote bigotry and hatred towards any group of people.”
Gov. Mary Fallin declined to comment.
House Speaker Jeff Hickman said members of the Legislature are free to voice their opinions and are accountable to their constituents.
“As speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, I have found that most Oklahomans welcome anyone who respects our laws and embraces our state, our culture and our people,” Hickman, R-Fairview, said in a prepared statement.
Rep. Mike Shelton, D-Oklahoma City, said he was disappointed that House staff were used to write the press release.
“We all have our own personal opinions about many things, but when the tax dollars are used to write such a mean-spirited press release, it is disappointing,” Shelton said.
He said the incident gives a glimpse as to why it has been so difficult in the last few years for lawmakers to get anything meaningful done for the state.
Sen. Brian Crain, R-Tulsa, said he strongly disagreed with Bennett’s remarks about Muslims and CAIR.
“There is a strong Muslim community in the Tulsa area, and they are some of the finest people in Tulsa County,” Crain said. “If Rep. Bennett chooses to say that, he has every right to, but it is not a remark that I can agree with and, in fact, strongly disagree with.”
Tulsa’s interfaith community was preparing a response to the issue Thursday night.
Ray Hickman, executive director of Tulsa Metropolitan Ministry, said TMM had prepared a statement and was asking members of the Say No to Hate Coalition to sign on to it.
“We believe that making comments that lump all Muslims together in the same category is inconsistent with good leadership, negative and prejudicial,” he said.
“We’re not calling for (Bennett’s) resignation but for an apology.”
Hickman said TMM would like to see Bennett sit down with Oklahoma Muslims and the interfaith community to talk about more productive ways to address issues.
Toby Jenkins, executive director of Oklahomans for Equality in Tulsa, said his board of directors was scheduled to meet Thursday night to decide whether to sign on to the Say No to Hate statement.
He said he lived among Muslims years ago when he was in the Peace Corps in the Ivory Coast and found them to be some of the most loving, kind and compassionate people he has known.
World Religion Writer Bill Sherman contributed to this story.