The effort to marginalize American Muslims from U.S. politics has hit a new low, thanks to Oklahoma Republican State Sen. John Bennett. Sure, Donald Trump has proposed an extreme vetting test that would ban Muslim immigrants who don’t share Trump’s values. (I guess that means Muslims must also believe it’s OK to grab women by the genitals and then shame the victims of sexual assault like Trump did.)
But Bennett is now taking it a step further. He’s demanding that American Muslims who want to meet with him must first be subject to “extreme vetting” about their religious beliefs. You may not have heard of Bennett before, but I’ve written about him many times over the last few years. Simply put, Bennett is a right-wing political demagogue who demonizes Muslims for political gain.
In 2014, Bennett declared that Islam was a “cancer that must be cut out of the American society.” But he was not done there. He told a crowd of about a hundred people in Sallisaw, Oklahoma, that “Muslims have worked their way into the government at every level” to achieve their goal of “the destruction of Western civilization from within.” (How come no one told me that was our goal? I better get to work.) Bennett received a standing ovation for his anti-Muslim hate.
Flash forward to this past Thursday. Two starry-eyed Muslim-American high-school students attended “Muslim Day at the Capitol” to meet their elected officials. Their goal was simply to chat with Bennett and other Oklahoma elected officials in an effort to become more involved in our political system.
But to Bennett, every Muslim is a threat. So his office staff was instructed to hand a questionnaire to any Muslim who sought to meet with him—a sheet that was apparently generated by the anti-Muslim hate group Act for America (ACT). As the Southern Poverty Law Center has documented, ACT has pushed to stop public schools from teaching about Islam as part of world religion courses and has worked to pass state laws designed to prevent the nonexistent threat of Sharia being imposed in America.
The questions these teenage high-school students were asked included “Do you beat your wife?” Another read: “Sharia Law says that it must rule over the kafirs, the non-Muslims. Do you agree with this?” By the way, “Sharia law” says nothing because there’s no codified version of Sharia, or Islamic law. But ACT is not about educating Americans. Rather it’s a way for founder Hanan Qahwaji, who uses the alias “Brigitte Gabriel,” to turn hate into cash. Gabriel has ginned up fears of Muslims with such jaw-dropping comments as “[a practicing Muslim] cannot be a loyal citizen of the United States.”
As Adam Soltani, the executive director of the Oklahoma Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, explained, “Bennett’s questions were truly not about Islam. It’s a religious test designed to keep Muslim Americans out of the American political process.” I couldn’t agree more.
Now if Bennett was vetting every American to assess their religious beliefs, that would be another thing. If he asked Christians—especially evangelicals who take the Bible literally—if they agree with the biblical passage that calls for women who are not virgins on their wedding night to be “brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death,” at least there would be some fairness. It would still be wrong, but at least it would be fair.
But with Bennett—or Trump, for that matter—forget fairness. These are two men cut from the same cloth of hate; the same type of people who gave birth to the Nuremberg laws in the 1930s, when the Nazis banned Jews from serving in the government simply because of their faith. The Jews were painted by Nazi propaganda as “dangerous enemies of the German Reich” who were not loyal to Germany. Not very different from how some on the right describe Muslims today.
And we can expect that at some point the Trump administration will follow the same path as Bennett. The president will call for vetting of American Muslims who want to serve in the government. (And it could expand from there to other occupations.) I don’t make such a claim to be provocative. I say it because I believe with every fiber of my being that he will do it.
Why? Because the politicians who seek to demonize Muslims for political gain all follow the same hateful playbook of groups like ACT. After all, ACT called for a complete ban on Muslim immigration to the United States four years before Trump announced his demand for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”
And alarmingly, ACT has powerful allies in the Trump administration. There’s Steve Bannon, who gave ACT’s leader Gabriel a platform to write anti-Muslim garbage when he was the head of Breitbart.com. Bannon has espoused views akin to ACT’s with his claim that the best known Muslim-American organizations—the type that fight for the civil rights of American Muslims and encourage more political engagement—are “cultural jihadists.”
Trump CIA Director Mike Pompeo has a very cozy relationship with ACT. He spoke at the group’s 2013 and 2015 events and even reserved the auditorium for ACT’s “Legislative Briefing” on Capitol Hill. And Trump’s recently fired national security adviser, Michael Flynn, is on the board of ACT.
Bennett’s “extreme vetting” of Muslim Americans who want to engage in politics is disturbing. But it’s nowhere near as disturbing as what we can expect from the Trump administration going forward if he continues to follow the anti-Muslim playbook of groups like ACT. I don’t even want to imagine where that could lead us.