A state lawmaker and an Islamic advocacy group engaged in a war of words last year following news that ISIS was on the march in Iraq. In their latest dustup, state Rep. John Bennett and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) are again battling over words — specifically words in Islam’s holy book.
And it all relates to the words and images in a Paris satirical newspaper.
Last fall, we criticized both Bennett and CAIR, the former for painting Islam with an overly broad brush and the latter for being slower to criticize ISIS atrocities than it was to blast Bennett for his remarks.
This time, there’s no equivalency: Reaction by Bennett to the terrorist outbreak in France last week, and CAIR’S reactions to Bennett, aren’t comparable. The lawmaker has clearly crossed a line into demagoguery that taints him and any who would defend him. Sadly, Speaker Jeff Hickman upheld Bennett’s use of the taxpayer-funded House media office to issue scathing remarks about cherry-picked verses in the Quran.
Immediately following the Jan. 7 attacks on Charlie Hebdo’s editorial staff, CAIR’s Oklahoma director issued a news release condemning the massacre. This wasn’t enough for Bennett, who demanded (using publicly funded resources) that CAIR also renounce certain verses in the Quran that the lawmaker picked for maximum shock value.
In September, we accused CAIR of engaging in street theater by staging its anti-Bennett protest not in the Republican legislator’s hometown of Sallisaw but at the state Republican Party headquarters. What Bennett has done in his latest expression of outrage takes street theater to a new level.
What played out on the streets of Paris on Sunday was an outburst of unity that lifted up the right of free expression. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu marched just meters away from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Some risk to reputation (and potentially life and limb) accrued to the dignitaries in the march — Abbas in particular. Bennett exposed himself to no great risk (other than to his reputation) by making the absurd demand that members of one religion denounce scriptures that the lawmaker finds objectionable.
Critics were quick to point out that the Holy Bible also contains Scripture that appears to support violence against nonbelievers. That’s a subject for another time. The focus now is on how legislators can exploit a tragedy to score political points — and how the state enables them to do so. We don’t question Bennett’s right to believe or say what he wants. But taking Scripture out of context, magnifying it and broadcasting his outrage crosses a line that taxpayers should not be expected to fund.
State Rep. Mike Shelton, D-Oklahoma City, has it exactly right in saying Bennett’s “personal rants against a religious organization and its activities” have no connection to the lawmaker’s official duties. So why must we all pay for Bennett’s demagoguery?
Hickman, R-Fairview, is in a tight spot, as House speakers have been in the past when dealing with fringe members of the GOP caucus. Hickman said the attacks in France “are an international news story which Rep. Bennett feels is important to his constituents.” Really? Would it be appropriate for legislators to comment on recent events involving white police officers killing black men, with taxpayer-funded press releases using racially charged language?
Abuse of the House media office for political purposes has been rampant for years, but Bennett has taken it to a new, lower level. His words will neither influence the behavior of Muslim extremists nor help foster good relations between peace-loving members of all religions.