Anti-Islam at the State Capitol

March 24, 2019

I was deeply offended, saddened, bewildered, and embarrassed to read that a member of the Idaho House of Representatives invited three anti-Muslims who have left the faith, to present their personal views of Islam and Muslims to legislators and the public in our state capitol building. I am also deeply disturbed that the four (Republican) legislators reported to have attended this event, have apparently made no attempt to point out that the information presented was largely filtered through the personal lenses of traumatized individuals or that three ex-Muslims can hardly claim to represent more than a billion non-radicalized Muslims world-wide.

If three ex-Christians claimed to represent all Christians, a tsunami of public outrage would undoubtedly ensue. Unfortunately for Idaho and its reputation, I believe this event could be interpreted by some as government-excused, if not endorsed, hate speech. It is a gross misuse of the People’s House. I understand that inappropriate activities may inadvertently be scheduled at the Capitol from time to time. However, no official apology has been published and widely disseminated by the Governor or any other elected official to my knowledge. I find this neglect reprehensible.

What information is emphasized and what is not mentioned can easily slant a message. In this instance, the Iranian ex-Muslim — now Christian pastor — who was a featured speaker at the Capitol decried Muslims as persecutors of Christians the world over. Because he failed to place the current situation within the context of the long and sordid history of religious persecution by all the major religions including Christianity, it might seem to some that Islam stands alone in perpetrating violence on those of another faith. He failed to point out that extremism and intolerance in religion has been a fundamental scourge throughout history. Objective truth-telling demands we name all, not just some, religious persecutors.

The pastor did not mention the Christian persecution of Jews during the many pogroms in western and central Europe nor the long foundational history of Christian invasions and persecution of Muslims in the Middle East stretching back to the time of the Crusades. He appeared to intimate that a limited number of Muslim extremists increasingly represent the attitudes of Muslims and failed to admonish Christians for their gruesome history of violence toward Muslims and other non-Christians.

There was also no reported mention of Christian against Christian persecution throughout the centuries even though it played a pivotal role in the founding and development of this country and continues to impact contemporary political discourse. The Pilgrims became immigrants to avoid persecution by other Christians, as did Quakers, Amish, and Lutherans. Sadly, the well-documented history of Christianity is rife with examples of Christians killing and maiming other Christians for not being the “right kind” of Christians. Extreme cruelty and violence in the name of God and religion have been far to common.

In fact, today, this country is still not free from inter-Christian persecution as a variety of conflicting beliefs exist. Some U.S. Christians believe each of us establishes an exclusive relationship directly with God. Some believe only regimented doctrine and strict adherence to specific beliefs and practices ensure salvation in the hereafter and “right-living” on earth. Some U.S. Christians believe using birth control is a responsible way to ensure that all children are well-cared for, and some believe women must be forced to deliver children conceived against their will in rape and incest. Some U.S. Christians believe they are forbidden to intervene medically in their children’s illnesses, and some believe God gave us intelligence so we could use it to improve our lot and save lives. Some U.S. Christians believe God, as an all-powerful creator, can manage his own business on earth. Some believe it is their duty to assist God by seeking to impose their doctrines and beliefs on everyone. And so, almost daily, we find many U.S. Christians not only diminishing those who subscribe to non-Christian religions but also harassing and vilifying fellow Christians for their beliefs and practices.

In his speech, the pastor also sighted Muslim immigrants’ tendency to aggregate in neighborhoods as evidence that they do not want to “assimilate” and obey our laws as though they are the only immigrants who have ever exhibited this behavior. He appears to be unaware that throughout U.S. history ethnic immigrants such as the Irish, Italians, and Poles also lived in specific neighborhoods drawn together by language, custom, religion, food, and a sense of familiarity and belonging. He perhaps does not realize that our society often exerts social pressure on immigrants which encourages them to form enclaves where neighbors and relatives can help each other navigate the unfamiliar culture and language.

My Polish immigrant grandfather lived in a nearly exclusively Polish neighborhood in Wyandotte, Michigan. English was a second language for my father because Polish was the language at home and in the neighborhood. However, my dad earned a Ph.D., taught in a variety colleges and universities, never had even a traffic ticket, and raised a successfully “assimilated” family that cherishes its Polish roots. He did, however, have to abandon our Polish last name in order to have a fair shot at the American dream — something I regret to this day.

I appreciate that our legislators may want to sponsor informative public presentations. However, there is an accepted format for such occasions. 1)Present a variety of well-rounded, inclusive viewpoints and perspectives on the chosen topic. 2)Require all statements be substantiated by verifiable facts and data. 3)Publicize and conduct the event in a manner that promotes balanced education and civil conversation rather than scapegoating and denigrating. In this instance, accepted norms for balanced public presentations were ignored.

The damage this kind of event can do to Idaho’s image and reputation outside our boundaries should not be underestimated. If our state government is, as it often claims to be, intent on enticing significant corporations to locate in Idaho and provide jobs, this presentation and similar unnecessary anti-Muslim actions such as repeatedly introducing bills to outlaw Sharia Law are counterproductive and hamper recruitment efforts. Fear of Sharia Law is groundless because the U.S. already has an established body of law that governs our justice system.

High-profile actions such as these tarnish Idaho’s credibility and paint a portrait of us as a state dominated by ill-informed, fear-mongering politicians. These officials misrepresent the open-mindedness and tolerance demonstrated by many Idahoans. Most successful, quality corporations and businesses now embrace the documented economic benefits of bringing diverse ideas and perspectives to the problem-solving and money-making tables.

Many lucrative, growth sectors such as tech and investment/banking, seek highly educated, skilled employees regardless of religion, nationality, gender orientation, skin color or a myriad of other insignificant attributes because they value merit and productivity first and foremost. What high-profile business entity would locate in a state where some of its employees (or even its senior officers) could be disrespected or vilified?

I sincerely hope this kind of misguided event will never again occur in our Capitol — or anywhere in Idaho — around Islam or any other topic. The people of Idaho are better than this. We deserve legislators and government officials who do not diminish us and our state.

Chris Stevens of Pocatello is a former not-for-profit corporation founder and director, school administrator, and rock and roll radio promotion director. Her current passions are landscaping, grassroots political organizing, and volunteering for socially and environmentally conscious organizations. She is a co-founder of the Gateway Coalition for Change and is proud to have settled in Idaho.