Sallisaw Republican state Rep. John Bennett ignited a firestorm last month with his comments that Islam was a “cancer that needed to be cut out of America.” He later said those comments were meant to inspire “open dialogue and education about the Islamic faith.”

In that, he actually shares something with Oklahoma Islamic leaders. In response to Bennett’s initial statements — as well as two presentations he’s given in the last three weeks — some area Islamic leaders said they believe the only way to reach state residents fearful of their religion is through the same avenues Bennett uses to help ignite that fear.

“We have to live our lives,” Islamic Society spokeswoman Sheryl Siddiqui said. “We’re told in our religion to do good — to ourselves, our family and our communities. That includes those who share our same faith and those who don’t. Hopefully by doing that, we can show people we are peaceful and loving. They will learn who we are through that.”

Bennett has become the state’s loudest voice, for better or worse, when it comes to anti-Muslim sentiment,and he shows no signs of slowing down.

He compared “so-called” peaceful Muslims to Germans who joined the Nazi party after its rise. He’s called the national and state Council for American Islamic Relations a “terrorist organization.”

And he’s made it clear, through social media posts and town hall meetings with supporters, that he’s not going to change his mind.

But the outspoken Bennett is not the only person in the state who feels this way. If there’s anything to take from meetings he’s held recently with supporters in Sallisaw and Muskogee, it’s that his message is one that resonates with a portion of the state’s population.

There’s clearly a gap between Oklahoma’s Muslim population and people like Bennett, who have no interest in having their minds changed. But is it one that can be bridged?

“It’s something we’ve dealt with historically,” Adam Soltani, executive director of CAIR-Oklahoma, said of fear of Muslims. “It’s the same hate that’s been around for decades (against other groups). We’re just the new target.”

“Potential terrorists”

Soltani said violent emails and voicemails are two things CAIR is no stranger to. He said he’s answered the phone a handful of times, only to find an angry stranger on the other end.

Those types of messages are increasing after a killing in Moore. Alton Nolen — who said he converted to Islam while in prison — is alleged to have beheaded a woman at their workplace after he was suspended from his job, according to authorities.

On Friday, CAIR released two voicemails that were sent to the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City.

The first call is from a man who references the beheading and said that in response, he will buy a Quran and urinate on it.

In the second call, a man says he will have a “herd of pigs” run Muslims out of Oklahoma, and that he, and presumably others, will behead Muslims.

“For us at CAIR, because we’re an advocacy group, we’ve always had (messages like this),” Soltani said. “But this is the first time I’ve ever seen so many to the Islamic Society of Oklahoma City. It’s concerning that they have so many threats.”

The latest calls were reported to the FBI’s civil rights division, he said.

For Soltani, a Muslim-American who was born in Kansas, fear of Muslims is nothing new.

“I think it’s just a general fear of the unknown,” he said. “What makes people fear Islam or fear Muslims is the same thing that made people fear African-Americans in our country, or fear Japanese-Americans after World War II, and to fear the current influx of Hispanic immigrants.

“There’s a general fear of losing the status quo, maybe.”

Bennett said following his presentation Thursday that Muslims are “severely” threatening the U.S. Constitution. Americans are scared, Bennett said, and “they shouldn’t be scared in their own country.”

“They’re terrified someone is going to (cut their heads off) based on Muhammad’s teachings.”

Bennett said he was “immersed in Islamic ideology” while serving in Afghanistan and Iraq as a Marine.

“I saw it then and said to myself, ‘If this ever takes hold in America, we’ll be fighting on American shores instead of over here,’” Bennett said. “And look what happened in Moore.”

He told those who attended one of his presentations in Muskogee that it’s his duty to fight the “satanic ideology” of Islam.

Bennett is among eight House members who identify themselves as the Counterterrorism Caucus. They issued a joint statement last week calling for public discussion “about potential terrorists in our midst.”

The statement reads: “The Feds say this is workplace violence, but people know that’s not true.

“… Unfortunately, jihadism is no longer confined to foreign soil. We must be alert to it here and take steps to counter the doctrine, institutions and organizations that foster it.”

In addition to Bennett, the statement lists Republican state Reps. Sean Roberts of Hominy, Lewis Moore of Arcadia, Dan Fisher of El Reno, Mike Ritze of Broken Arrow, and Sally Kern, Mike Christian and Mike Reynolds, all of Oklahoma City.

“We aren’t so scary”

Siddiqui said she once spoke to a man who came to an event with a three-page list of allegations against Muslims. He began to read the allegations off item by item, and Siddiqui said she did her best to refute each one.

“Eventually, he just stopped, he didn’t even finish his list,” she said. “He couldn’t finish it because he’s lived his life this way. If he had rational answers, he would had to have changed the way he lived.”

Soltani said the issue of outreach to the portion of the community wary of Muslims is “one of the biggest challenges” he and other Muslims face.

The problem, he said, is that it’s very difficult to directly reach someone who doesn’t want their mind changed in the first place. Instead, he said he’s found that the best way to change minds is by simply being a positive force in the community.

“We do a lot of work with our interfaith partners in both Oklahoma City and Tulsa,” Soltani said of religious groups who coordinate events with Muslims.

“One way to move forward is by working along with other faiths. If people see Muslims working with other religious groups, maybe they’ll decide to sit down with us. If they see various other groups working with us freely, they’ll see that maybe we aren’t so scary.”

Another way — perhaps the most effective way, Soltani said — is to build a connection to communities in non-religion based ways.

“Last year when the Moore tornado hit, we were one of the first faith groups to gather supplies,” Soltani said of CAIR.

“We were told by people ‘I never had met a Muslim person before, but now that I met you, I love you. I can see Islam is a beautiful religion.’

“I don’t think there’s any other possible way. When you find someone in a time of need and can help them, you can change their mind.”

Ironically, Siddiqui said another thing that’s currently helping Muslim groups reach others is the drama that enveloped Bennett and resulted from the Moore beheading.

“Every single time, without exception, when there’s something negative done by people who claim to be Muslim, or something done against Muslims, conversions go up,” she said. “We’re already seeing conversions. Because people have questions and are coming to us with those questions.”