It’s way past time for Oklahoma’s political and business leaders to speak forcefully against the anti-Muslim hate speech state Rep. John Bennett keeps spewing.
The mean-spirited, broad-brush demagoguery is fanning suspicion about 35,000 Oklahomans whose faith tradition happens to be different than his, leaving some Muslims concerned they could become targets of religion-inspired bigotry and violence.
Bennett, a Sallisaw Republican, shined a spotlight on his ignorance in a Sept. 3 Facebook post that urged readers to be “wary of the individuals who claim to be ‘Muslim American.’” At a subsequent Town Hall meeting in Sallisaw, he called Islam “a cancer in our nation that needs to be cut out.”
Equally insulting were state GOP Chairman Dave Weston defended Bennett’s remarks: “If we as Americans were ruled by Islam, then Christians and Jews like you and I could only keep practicing our faith if we paid a protection tax. But if you’re a Christian or Jewish and don’t immediately convert to Islam, they immediately decapitate you.”
The Oklahoma chapter of the Council on American- Islamic Relations joined with social justice groups to decry the bigotry. And the state’s NAACP president, Anthony Douglas, demanded Bennett resign.
Unfortunately, the voters in House District 2 have twice given Bennett a megaphone to spew his vitriol. He clearly isn’t exiting the public stage any time soon, despite Douglas’ call.
Regrettably, Oklahoma has a long, sordid history of elected leaders spewing hate, bigotry and crackpot theories.
Gov. Alfalfa Bill Murray was rabidly anti-Semitic and pro-eugenics. State Rep. John Monks used an ethnic slur to deride Chinese. And state Rep. Sally Kern declared homosexuality to be a greater threat to America than terrorism.
What’s especially disheartening is that many of Oklahoma’s political and civic leaders haven’t learned the lessons of history – that hate speech can, and does, lead to violence.
It’s only been five years, for example, since Dr. George Tiller was gunned down in his Wichita, KS church by anti-abortion zealot Scott Roeden, whose warped sense of morality was no doubt shaped by his involvement with groups like the Sovereign Citizen Movement and Operation Rescue that are known for their vitriolic rhetoric.
Yet, we haven’t heard a word from the State Chamber, which maintains a symbiotic relationship with the Republican Party, or from the state’s powerful oil and gas interests which no doubt employ Muslims and partner with Muslim-owned companies.
House Speaker Jeff Hickman and Gov. Mary Fallin both sidestepped the firestorm – the governor choosing to stress that America values free speech and free religion.
“I expect Oklahomans to exercise those freedoms peacefully, as they have done in the past,” she told the Oklahoman.
It’s a free country, of course. Bennett is welcome to display his inanity for all to see. But isn’t anyone in a position of political or corporate power going to stand up and set the record straight: Oklahoma is not an intolerant backwater full of John Bennetts?
Here’s the problem: There are so many John Bennetts now serving in the Oklahoma Legislature – by some estimates, two dozen or so in the House alone – that Fallin, Hickman and Senate President Brian Bingman are careful about crossing them.
They inhabit seats of power because too many goodhearted, sensible Oklahomans don’t bother to vote, giving the parallel-universe, on-the-political-fringe crowd outsized influence on Election Day.
Hickman isn’t entirely wrong when he says he can’t control what Bennett posts on Facebook. What Bennett says and does away from the House floor are his and his constituents’ business. Mostly.
But Hickman and common-sense House Republicans – who ought to be concerned that their party’s image is soiled by such bigotry – are not without tools to curb Bennett’s worst excesses.
The speaker, after all, determines committee assignments. Whose bills are heard. Whether a House member’s office is a broom closet far from the floor or a spacious room with a view. Indeed, whether a member is even recognized to speak on the House floor.
More immediately, Hickman and Co. must take away Bennett’s megaphone – dissolve the so-called Counterterrorism Caucus. Make it clear no such thing exists any longer. And no more anti-Muslim news releases financed by taxpayers, via the House Media Division.
This is risky business for Hickman. Speakers can be deposed if enough of their caucus members get a mad-on. But it’s even riskier for the state when its leaders refuse to repudiate such demonizing.
It is worth remembering that Hickman inherited this mess. Bennett’s “counterterrorism” platform was a “gift” from former House Speaker T.W. Shannon – a political payback to wingnuts whose support was essential to Shannon’s narrow victory over Hickman in a previous speaker’s race.
Hickman, no doubt, wants caucus harmony, but surely there are more than enough GOP House members that would have his back, recognizing the danger of leaving hate speech unchecked.
While we wait for the state’s business and political elite to speak out, CAIR-OK and other groups have been busy protesting Bennett’s and Weston’s remarks [across from state GOP headquarters] and repudiating the radical terror group ISIS [a demonstration outside Penn Square Mall].
“His [Bennett’s] track record is clear,” said Adam Soltani, CAIR-OK’s executive director. “He has agenda of hate and a fear of Islam.”
At a Capitol news conference, Douglas said Bennett’s resignation is required because his anti-Muslim comments show he no longer can effectively represent all his constituents.
“How are you going to be a representative representing your district and yet you put fear in the hearts of your neighbors that live in the district?” Douglas said.
It is true that only about 35,000 Muslims live in Oklahoma, but they are engaged civically. They might not have the numbers to significantly influence most statewide races, but they could prove the difference in hotly-contested legislative races.
As Sheryl Siddiqui, spokeswoman for the Islamic Council of Oklahoma, put it, “Oklahoma Muslims belong to all political parties here, and we vote and we pay taxes and we serve our communities.
“I would say to those two leaders, Mr. Westin and Rep. Bennett, if you can’t tell a criminal from a lawabiding citizen, then you have a problem that threatens the safety of every Muslim and every other Oklahoman standing next to us in the grocery line, at the library, on the soccer field. God help you.”
Republican leaders also may wish to study demographic trends – particularly what millennials are thinking. For the most part, they don’t judge on a person’s religion, race, or sexual preference. They care whether you’re a nice person or a jerk. Period.
Being linked to the hate spewed by Bennett isn’t good for the GOP’s long-term health.