A state lawmaker’s anti-Muslim statements last week have left members of Tulsa’s Muslim community shocked, saddened and surprised.
Rep. John Bennett, R-Sallisaw, warned readers of his Facebook page to be “wary” of Muslim Americans. After a Muslim advocacy group called for him to apologize, Bennett issued an inflammatory press release through the House media office accusing the group of having ties to terrorism.
“I was a little horrified because in the past when individuals have made hateful comments toward minorities such as African-Americans or Indian-Americans, sometimes we see people retaliate because they are encouraged by those statements,” said Allison Moore, a Tulsa Muslim who is executive director of a homeless shelter. “It gives them the green flag to go out and hurt someone. I was fearful for the lives of Muslims living in the state, afraid someone would commit a hate crime.”
American Muslims are not the radicals that can be found in other parts of the world, she said.
Priscilla Galstaun said Bennett has the right to say what he wants, to his beliefs and to hate who he chooses to hate.
But because he is an elected official, he is being irresponsible and misusing his position in the reddest state in the nation by singling out a certain demographic, she said.
Galstaun said she has been discriminated against because of her religion.
“I have been given the hairy eyeball,” she said.
She has been asked if she was in the right place and handed cards telling her that Jesus loves her.
“They are telling me I shouldn’t be Muslim,” she said. “I think that is pretty offensive.”
Houssam Soueissi said Bennett’s remarks indicate a lack of knowledge on the lawmaker’s part.
“I am very surprised,” Souessi said. “I feel like I am a building block in the society of the United States in general and in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I think Muslims have a lot to offer society, as far as being good citizens and peacemakers.”
Yusuf Dundar, executive director of the Dialogue Institute of Tulsa, an educational group that attempts to unite faiths and cultures, said he, too, was surprised by Bennett’s remarks.
“A true Muslim can’t be a terrorist and a terrorist can’t be a Muslim,” he said.
Dr. Lamiaa Ali said the lawmaker’s comments saddened him.
“He is giving a generalized statement across the board about all Muslims when most Muslims are condemning what is going on overseas,” Ali said.
In the wake of Bennett’s Facebook post, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, backed by several civil justice and religious groups, held a press conference decrying the remarks.
Bennett stood by his statements. He was backed by Oklahoma State Republican Party Chairman Dave Weston.
On Friday, Rep. Arthur Hulbert, R-Fort Gibson, issued a statement supporting Bennett and his remarks.
“I wholeheartedly support Rep. Bennett and his effort to expose the threat of Sharia law to our country and its citizens under Islam,” he said in a press release issued by the House media office. “Rep. Bennett has fought in the military for our country abroad and is helping fight for our children and way of life in America now. As we turn on the news, it is evident that ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) and other Islamic groups are trying to expand their followers by terrorism and intimidation rather than evangelism.”
Bennett served 21 years in the Marines. He was elected to the House in 2010 and was unchallenged this year when he filed for re-election.
“The United States was founded on Judeo-Christian values as a basic framework and needs to return to that foundation before it is too late,” Hulbert said.
Also on Friday, two top leaders in the Tulsa interfaith community weighed in on the issue.
Ray Hickman, executive director of Tulsa Metropolitan Ministry, offered to host a conversation between the interfaith community and Bennett and Weston.
“We also ask for an apology by these men for over-generalized comments they have made about Oklahomans who are Muslim and fellow citizens. Not all Muslims are the same, just as not all Christians are the same,” he said.
Jayme Fox, chief executive officer of the Oklahoma Center for Community and Justice, said she works closely with Muslims, and “in my experience, no community is more humble, more giving or more peaceful than the Muslim community in Oklahoma.
“To paint Muslims — or any group of people — in such an ill-conceived way is not only unacceptable, it is just plain ignorant,” she said.
“I am saddened, but I also know that my Muslim friends will forgive.”
She said OCCJ recently gave its humanitarian award to Imam Imad Enchassi, an Oklahoma City Muslim leader, for his work in “bringing peace to our community through CAIR and his other work across Oklahoma.”
World Religion Writer Bill Sherman contributed to this story.