Newly-seated Congressman Allen West (R.-Fla.) is facing a controversy following abrasive comments about the Islamic religion.
The Tea Party-backed conservative, in an interview on “The Shalom Show,” a public affairs program airing on the JLTV cable channel, told producer Richard Peritz that Islam was the “antithesis” of America’s founding principles.
At the outset of the 11-minute interview, Peritz asked West how he was going to deal with members of Congress he disagreed with, especially Rep. Keith Ellison (D.-Minn.) who is Muslim.
“Well I think it’s most important that I stand upon the principles people that elected me to go to Washington, D.C., and represent them on Capitol Hill,” West responded. “So that when you run into someone that is counter, or someone that really does represent the antithesis of the principles upon which this country was established, you’ve got to be able to defeat them intellectually in debate and discourse, and you just have to be able to challenge each and every one of their assertions very wisely and very forthright.”
West’s comments came at a time when public and political focus on America’s Muslims is intensifying following the announcement of a mosque being constructed near New York’s Ground Zero monument.
The Future of the Global Muslim Population, a new demographic study by the Pew Research Center and the John Templeton Foundation, estimate that there are 2.6 million Muslims Americans. The Pew Research Center projects this number will more than double by the year 2030.
According to various media reports, Ellison in a statement said he was surprised by the comments, as West had never expressed those views to him directly. Ellison disagreed with West’s assertion that his religion precluded him from representing the principles of America.
“Contrary to the views expressed by Congressman West, I work to represent the highest ideals of our great nation – ideals like freedom of worship and respect for all faiths, equal protection under the law as well as a civil and open public discourse,” Ellison said.
“Americans across the country want their public servants to reject the toxic and corrosive chatter that yields more heat than light,” he added. “I hope to have a productive and respectful dialogue with all of my colleagues, including Allen West.”
West’s latest comments are in stark contrast to those he made when he was sworn in to the Congressional Black Caucus. At that time, he acknowledged there would be differences between him and other members of the caucus, but said that all members just wanted what was best for America.
“You bring a different perspective, but I think we’re all working toward the same end, which is what is best for our country and within the African-American community,” West told The Washington Post shortly after being sworn in.
But his anti-Islamic comments are likely to offend members of that community. A 2009 Gallup study reveals, “Muslim Americans are the most racially diverse religious group surveyed in the United States, with African Americans making up the largest contingent within the population, at 35%”. This percentage is up from an earlier 2007 report by the Pew Research Center, which put the African American Muslim segment at 24 percent.
This, however, wasn’t the first time West made comments about religion. Last March, West criticized the popular “Coexist” bumper stickers, which display symbols of Christianity, Judaism, Islam and other religions and philosophies.
“And the reason why I get upset, and every time I see one of those bumper stickers, I look at the person inside that is driving,” West said, according to the blog ThinkProgress, operated by the progressive policy group Center for American Progress. “Because that person represents something that would give away our country. Would give away who we are, our rights and freedoms and liberties because they are afraid to stand up and confront that which is the antithesis, anathema of who we are. The liberties that we want to enjoy.”
West added that Islam was a “very vile and very vicious enemy that we have allowed to come in this country because we ride around with bumper stickers that say ‘Coexist.’”
American Islamic groups strongly denounced West’s comments, saying they are disappointed that an elected official would harbor such views.
“Congressman West’s statements against Islam are profoundly troubling,” said Corey Saylor, Government Affairs director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “I don’t think it reflects well on the office of a member of Congress.”