Three Muslim students who tried to visit an Oklahoma lawmaker Thursday at the State Capitol in Oklahoma City were surprised when they were instead handed a questionnaire at his office. They would have to fill out the survey first, an office assistant told them, before they could make an appointment to see state Rep. John Bennett.
Among the nine questions on the form were lengthy paragraphs that “intentionally misinterpreted ideas [from the Koran] to try to slander Muslims,” said Anna Facci, an officer with the Oklahoma chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).
“The sunna of Mohammed says that Muslims must be punished for leaving Islam,” one question read. “Do you agree with this?” Another asked: “The Koran, the sunna of Mohammed and Sharia Law of all schools say that the husband can beat his wife. Do you beat your wife?”
Bennett, a Republican who was elected to the Oklahoma state legislature in 2010, has a history of expressing anti-Muslim views. He once called Muslims a “cancer in our nation that needs to be cut out” at a 2014 event and refused to apologize for those remarks later, according to the Tulsa World.
The students knew about Bennett’s history when they tried to meet with him, Facci told The Washington Post on Saturday.
The students were participating in CAIR’s third annual “Muslim Day” at the Oklahoma State Capitol on Thursday. The event, which drew more than 200 people, was aimed at building better relationships between the government and the Muslim community. The morning’s sessions had gone well, Facci said, and in the afternoon several groups split up to visit various legislators at the capitol.
Given the day’s purpose and the event’s location, Facci said, the students who visited Bennett’s office were hopeful they would be welcomed. Two were high school students from Peace Academy in Tulsa, and the third was a law student from Oklahoma City University School of Law, she said.
“Because we were in the State Capitol and because this is a place that’s supposed to be open to everyone … I think they weren’t expected to be treated with that level of disrespect,” said Facci, who was in the capitol building when the students emerged with the questionnaire in hand. “One of the students, he just kind of seemed like he was in shock: ‘Can you believe this? Can he do this?’”
Bennett on Friday confirmed to the Tulsa World that his office distributed the questionnaires to the visiting Muslim students.
“CANT REFUTE FACTS!” Bennett told the newspaper in an email. “According [to] her testimony in the Hadith [a collection of Muslim sayings and traditions], Muhammad physically struck his favorite wife for leaving the house without his permission.”
Bennett continued: “According to the Qur’an, Hadith and Islamic law, a woman may indeed have physical harm done to her if the circumstances warrant, with one such allowance being in the case of disobedience. This certainly does not mean that all Muslim men beat their wives, only that Islam permits them to do so.”
Neither Bennett nor his legislative assistant could be reached for comment Saturday.
A copy of the survey the students received, provided by CAIR, showed that it was written by a group called ACT for America, a nonprofit organization that bills itself as “the NRA of national security.” The Southern Poverty Law Center lists ACT for America as an extremist group, “the largest grass-roots anti-Muslim group in America,” which reportedly has about 280,000 members in more than 1,000 chapters.
Since its inception, the Virginia Beach-based group has tried to brand CAIR as a terrorist organization and target “what it sees as the creeping threat of sharia, or Islamic law, in the form of Muslim organizations, mosques, refugees and sympathetic politicians,” The Washington Post reported last month.
ACT for America has been described as a “fringe” organization, but it now appears to have a surprising amount of influence on President Trump’s agenda, thanks to a network of connections to Trump and his new administration, as The Post reported:
Stephen K. Bannon, the former executive chairman of Breitbart who has described Muslim American groups as “cultural jihadists” bent on destroying American society, is Trump’s chief strategist. Breitbart has published several articles [ACT founder Brigitte] Gabriel has written. Trump’s CIA director, Mike Pompeo, has spoken at ACT’s conferences and sponsored an ACT meeting at the Capitol last year.
Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who sits on ACT’s board of advisers, served as the president’s national security adviser before stepping down after revelations that he might have violated the law in communications with a Russian diplomat.
A message to ACT for America sent through the group’s website was not immediately returned Saturday.
Adam Soltani, the executive director of CAIR Oklahoma, called ACT for America an “Islamophobic hate group.” In a video filmed at the Oklahoma State Capitol on Thursday, Soltani denounced the survey that had been distributed by Bennett’s office.
“First of all, that’s completely false,” Soltani said in the video, referring to the assumptions about Islam that were reflected in the survey. “Second of all, nobody should be vetted with stupid, Islamophobic, hateful, bigoted questions before they can meet with their representative.”
“We need to hold this man accountable,” Soltani said. “John Bennett has no right to do this to Muslims or to any group of people. To promote Islamophobia is one thing. But to refuse to meet with members, citizens of the state of Oklahoma unless they answer hateful, bigoted questions is something entirely different.”
Facci pointed out that Bennett was the exception on Thursday, saying that other lawmakers — Republicans and Democrats — had participated in and responded positively to the group’s “Muslim Day at the Capitol.”
‘This continues to remind folks that there’s still more work to be done,” Facci said. “It helps our community find strength and solace [knowing that] Rep. Bennett stood alone in his opposition to our community on Thursday. There were definitely more representatives and senators in support of us.”