Last week, ThinkProgress first reported comments by Rep. Allen West (R-FL), a freshman member of Congress and Tea Party favorite, claiming that Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) “really does represent the antithesis of the principles upon which this country was established.” In a letter sent yesterday, national religious leaders blasted West for demonstrating “a frightening lack of understanding for [Muslim] values,” and asked for an apology. The letter — signed by the Interfaith Alliance’s Welton Gaddy, the Rabbinical Assembly’s Jack Moline, the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism’s David Saperstein and the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty’s J. Brent Walker — says that the comment about Ellison “is just the latest example of your tendency to offer intemperate comments about Islam”:
In a recent interview with the “Shalom Show,” you underscored that your mission is to represent and uphold the values of your constituents; this is an unquestionably noble goal. However, your subsequent statement that Representative Keith Ellison, one of your colleagues in the House of Representatives, is the “antithesis of the principles on which this country was established” because he is Muslim, shows a frightening lack of understanding for these values. Regardless of the specific “principles” you intended to reference, it is an indisputable fact that one of those principles is religious freedom for all, memorialized in the United States Constitution—including, of course, Article VI’s prohibition on any religious test for public office. Your remarks disrespect not only your Muslim colleagues in the Congress, but also all of your constituents of the Muslim faith. This is neither appropriate, nor true to the American values that you reference.
Regrettably, this is just the latest example of your tendency to offer intemperate comments about Islam….Many peaceable Muslims live in your district and two serve alongside you in the House of Representatives. At a time when Islamophobia is on the rise, it is the responsibility of our elected officials to promote dialogue, understanding and civility in the public forum.
Although your laudable decision to offer yourself for public service in no way disqualifies you from discussing your own faith, we urge you not to use the prestige of your position in the U.S. House of Representatives to proselytize for one religion or demonize another. Rather, we hope that you will seek opportunities to uphold the religious freedom of all of your colleagues and constituents, including Muslims, to believe in or to reject any religious faith, as they choose. This freedom is an integral part of American democracy and promised by the First Amendment to our Constitution. We also hope that you will issue an apology, not only to Representative Ellison, but to the Muslim citizens of your district.
West responded late yesterday in a polite letter that did not offer any apology, and which essentially reiterated his claim that Ellison is somehow working against American interests:
Let me start off by clarifying my position as it pertains to the Islamic faith. I am neither anti-Muslim nor anti-Islam. I respect every religion, and the Constitutionally-protected right to practice that faith in a peaceful manner. [...]
Let me be clear. It is the extremist, radical element that has hijacked Islam that presents a dangerous threat to both our country and our allies throughout the world. This radical jihadist movement has no place in the United States of America or any place on earth. I’ve seen firsthand the vicious hatred that stems from their radical interpretation of the Koran, and I condemn it fully.
The problem is, these fanatics are often supported by certain groups and organizations that masquerade as more peaceful moderates. Organizations such as CAIR have long histories of supporting violent anti-American and anti-Israel terrorist organizations such as Hamas, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood. These organizations operate within our borders, and as an elected official, I have an obligation to speak the truth and educate my constituency on the threat they pose. I spent 22 years protecting the United States in uniform and I will continue to do that in the House of Representatives.
My comments in regard to my colleague, Representative Keith Ellison, are not about his Islamic faith, but about his continued support of CAIR.
Presumably, then, West still believes that Ellison “really does represent the antithesis of the principles upon which this country was established.” West’s baseless smears against CAIR undercut his professed respect for Islam, as do any number of his prior comments about the faith. West has said that Islam is “a totalitarian theocratic political ideology, it is not a religion,” and he believes terrorism is fundamental to Islam: “this is not a perversion. They are doing exactly what this book [the Quran] says.”
As West remains defiant, however, public pressure seems to be increasing. Aside from this letter from national religious leaders, at a town hall event Monday in Boynton Beach, FL, West was confronted by Nezar Hamze, Miami leader of CAIR, who told West he has “consistently demonized and insulted my religion.” West stubbornly replied: “[Y]ou must understand, if I am speaking the truth, I am not going to stop speaking the truth. The truth is not subjective.”