Florida congressman stokes Islamophobia

Tea party-backed freshman congressman Allen West, R-Fla., became unhinged at a recent town hall meeting in South Florida when he told a Muslim questioner who defended Islam, “Don’t try to blow sunshine up my butt!”

The questioner was Nezar Hamze, Executive Director of the South Florida chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, America’s largest Islamic civil liberties group.

When Mr. Hamze responded that he was ashamed to hear a U.S. congressman launching such crude attacks against Islam, West, an Iraq War veteran, shouted back above a storm of whooping and hollering from the largely pro-Rep. West audience, “You attacked us! You attacked us! I went to Muslim countries to defend the freedom of Muslim people. Don’t come up here and try to criticize me. Put the microphone down and go home!”

The exchange began when Hamze asked West if he could cite any passages from the Quran that instruct Muslims to kill innocent people, attack America or kill Americans. West claimed that there is a “verse of the sword” that incites Muslims to violence against “infidels” but he did not elaborate, and neither West nor the noisy and indignant crowd allowed Hamze to comment further.

Hamze’s question was in reference to a statement West had made in January at the “Reclaim American Liberty Conference” that Islam “is not a religion . . . it’s a theo-political belief system that’s been doing this [promoting terrorism] since 622 AD.” West claims that Muslim terrorists are not following a warped version of Islam; they are following genuine Islamic teachings and the instructions of the Quran to promote world domination through terrorist acts.

“You need to get into the Qur’an,” West advises, “then you can really understand this [terrorism] is not a perversion. . . . They are doing exactly what this book says.”

West’s problems on the religious front might go beyond fear and hatred of Islam. He seems to have misgivings about the whole idea of religious tolerance. During his campaign he attacked the “Coexist” bumper stickers, which use various secular and religious symbols to promote peace and interfaith understanding. Here’s what he said about people who display the stickers:

As I was driving up here today, I saw that bumper sticker that absolutely incenses me. It’s not the Obama bumper sticker. But it’s the bumper sticker that says “Coexist.” And it has all the little religious symbols on it. 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. 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. [emphasis added]

But Rep. West doesn’t launch his attacks only against Muslims in general, nameless bumper sticker displayers or the hapless questioners at his raucous town hall meetings. He got personal when he said that Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., the first Muslim to be elected to Congress, represents “the antithesis of the principles upon which this country was established.” And he’s even attacked President George W. Bush for, of all things, being soft on Islam: “George Bush got snookered into going into some Mosque, taking his shoes off, and then saying that Islam was a religion of peace.”

What opponents consider disgraceful exhibitions of fascistic demagogy, town hall meetings that are more like Jerry Springer shout-downs than good faith efforts to engage constituents and fear mongering are nothing new to West, who managed to win the election last November in a district that went 52 percent for Obama in 2008, by appealing to tea party conservatives, wavering independents and disoriented centrist Democrats with a platform of Islamophobia, immigrant bashing, unqualified support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and attacks on “socialism.”

Who is Allen West?

Rep. West served 22 years in the U.S. Army, rising to the rank of Lt. Colonel. He went into politics after being drummed out of the army for overseeing the illegal beating – and personally staging the mock-execution – of Iraqi prisoner Yahya Johdri Hamoodi in 2003.West claimed that Hamoodi had refused to divulge knowledge of an ambush planned by Iraqi insurgents.

The alleged ambush never occurred.

After 45 days in custody, Mr. Hamoodi was released by the U.S. military and never charged with a crime.

After West’s conduct came to light, he was charged with violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Spared a court-martial, West was fined $5,000 and allowed to retire to Florida with full benefits in 2004. After stints as a high school teacher and a defense contractor, West ran for Congress in 2008 and lost to his opponent, Democrat Ron Klein, by 9 percent of the vote. He ran again in 2010, riding the right-wing wave of fear, resentment and bigotry to a 9 percent victory over Klein.

Since then he’s made himself a media lightning rod and, many Floridians say, an embarrassment to Congress and the State of Florida. West has already had one career end badly due to poor judgment and lack of self-control, though he would probably blame Muslim terrorists and their enablers among the army brass.

But Florida voters could say no to tea party demagogy by sending West packing in 2012.

Image: Rep. West at town hall meeting, photo via West’s office.