Tennessee politician’s remarks on Islam raise uproar

By Michael Cass, The Tennessean

NASHVILLE — Comments by Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey suggesting that Islam might be a cult and that Muslims might not qualify for constitutionally guaranteed religious freedoms drew criticism from Islamic groups Tuesday and an eruption of national media attention.
Ramsey, a Republican candidate for governor, said at a mid-July campaign event in Chattanooga that he is “all about freedom of religion,” which is guaranteed by the First Amendment.

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“But you cross the line when they start trying to bring Sharia law into the United States,” he said. “Now you could even argue whether being a Muslim is actually a religion, or is it a nationality, a way of life or cult, whatever you want to call it? We do protect our religions, but at the same time, this is something that we are going to have to face.”

There are approximately 1.2 billion Muslims in the world and 7 million in the United States, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Ibrahim Hooper, that organization’s national communications director, called Ramsey’s comments “part of an unfortunate trend in our society.”

“There’s a vocal minority promoting the idea that if you can delegitimize Islam, you can deny American Muslims their religious and constitutional rights,” Hooper said Tuesday.

The flap, which caught the eye of several national blogs and news organizations Tuesday, comes one week before the Republican gubernatorial primary on Aug. 5 during a Tennessee campaign season in which opinions on Islam have at times dominated the debate.

Opponents of a new mosque planned in Murfreesboro, Tenn., including GOP congressional candidate Lou Ann Zelenik, have said it shouldn’t be allowed because they believe Muslims are dangerous. But the land is zoned for religious use, and the building plan is moving forward. Public opposition forced the withdrawal of a rezoning plan for a mosque proposed in Brentwood, however, and an Antioch mosque proposal is facing resistance.

Ramsey’s Republican rivals, Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam and U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, tried to steer clear of the controversy Tuesday.

“The mayor’s faith is very important to him, and he respects the right of others to practice their faith, so long as they are respectful of the communities in which they live and the laws of the land,” Haslam campaign spokesman Dave Smith said in an e-mail.

Wamp was “busy with voting” in Washington and unavailable to comment, campaign spokesman Sam Edelen said.

Ramsey clarifies stance@

In a phone interview, Ramsey tried to clarify his stance, saying he has “no problem — and I don’t think anyone in this country has a problem — with peace-loving, freedom-loving Muslims that move to this country and assimilate into our society.”

“But it’s undeniable that there’s a portion of Islam that’s been co-opted by a radical faction that promotes violence not only against Americans but around the world,” he said. “That’s what I’m talking about.”

But Mwafaq Mohammed, president of the Salahadeen Center of Nashville, said Ramsey is representative of “elements within the two (political) parties that are using … Islamophobia, the fear, for their own advantage.”

“It’s election season,” Mohammed said. “He doesn’t have the facts.”

The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found about 1% of Tennessee’s roughly 6.3 million residents, or some 63,000, are Muslim. Mohammed, a Kurd from northern Iraq, said the largest single demographic group among American Muslims, accounting for about one in three, is African-Americans, not immigrants.

Hooper said Muslims “are like every other American.” “They want to raise their kids, send them to school, have a job, live a positive life in society,” Hooper said. “Mainstream religious and political leaders need to come out and say, ‘Look, Islam is the faith of one-fifth of the world’s population. Not a cult; it’s a real religion. And American Muslims have the same religious and constitutional rights as other citizens,’ ” Hooper said.

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