The Centennial Institute, which organizes the Western Conservative Summit, is facing public pressure after its founder and original director, former Colorado state senator John Andrews, gave an anti-Islam speech in front of thousands of attendees at last weekend's confab, billed as "Defending Religious Freedom and America's First Amendment."
“He was given a voice,” says Krista Cole, a Muslim and vice-chair of the Colorado chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “He was given a loud voice. He was comfortable enough with his Islamophobic speech that he just spewed it out in public.” Cole’s organization is now calling on the most prominent leaders who attended the Summit — Donald Trump Jr., Senator Cory Gardner, and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson — to condemn Andrews’s comments. So far, the Council hasn't heard back from any of them.
Jeff Hunt, the current director of the Centennial Institute, praised his predecessor's speech during the Summit. On July 16, as criticism mounted, Hunt tweeted a picture of speakers at the Summit coming together to display apparent religious diversity, consensus and tolerance by reaffirming the Williamsburg Charter. “Religious leaders stood side by side and pledged their commitment to defending religious freedom for all,” he wrote.
In a statement sent to Westword on July 17, Hunt explains: "John Andrews brought to light the challenges Sharia law has for religious freedom. Any analysis of international religious freedom clearly demonstrates that fact. The question raised by John Andrews and other speakers is the relationship between Islamic religious commitment and Constitutional rights."
But Andrews didn't just raise a casual question about the U.S. Constitution. He made a brazen argument that religious freedom should not be granted to Muslims.
In his speech, Andrews characterized Islam as a “totalitarian political and economic system, not subject to reformation, set forth in a holy book not subject to revision,” whose “legal scholars and clergy insisted the day is coming when that book must govern all mankind, on penalty of death to whoever would refuse to submit,” and threatened to dominate the world with “unbending absolutism and its dreams of global conquest.”
Like Hunt, ColoradoPolitics.com, which is owned by Denver billionaire Phil Anschutz and was a sponsor of the Summit, noted that Andrews refrained from “targeting everyday Muslims, whom he called good Americans.” And in fact, during the first part of his speech, Andrews did say this: “It’s true we all know Muslims who are likable neighbors or capable co-workers. Decent patriotic Americans who humbly love Allah. That’s not what I’m talking about.”
But he was soon using a much broader brush. “How can aggressive dominant Islam and its supreme law, Sharia, coexist with friendly, tolerant America and its supreme law, the Constitution?” Andrews asked. “I don’t honestly see how it can.”
He argued that America is in a "war to the death" that we can only win if we "summon the courage to name our enemies — two of them. The name of one is Marx. The name of the other is Mohammed."
"The average Muslim who's not extreme, the guy who grew up with Islam as his religion, is obviously trying to follow the actions and the life of Mohammed," explains Cole. "So, to say that Mohammed is our enemy, that just really makes it clear for me that he's talking about all Muslims. He's not distinguishing between what he deems as extreme."
Referring to a “tremendous, tragic clash of civilizations,” Andrews continued: “The simplistic approach of just granting unconditional ‘freedom of religion’ to a religion that doesn’t believe in freedom — and have no doubt, Islam does not — that approach is civilizational suicide. They will tell you that a good and faithful Muslim can also be a good and faithful American. Sorry, but I don’t see how. Not when one holds Sharia law supreme, the Koran, the command from above — and the other holds the Constitution supreme. Something has to give.”
Counters Cole, "I think there's a huge misunderstanding of what Sharia law is. There isn't one Sharia law. It's like saying there's one God's law, for Christians. If you ask a Christian if he follows God's laws, he'll say 'Yes, I do, I try to.' But what are those laws? For a Baptist, it would be different than for an Episcopalian. A strict Baptist might not even believe in drinking alcohol, but another might say that's fine."
Cole rejects Andrews's assertion that Muslims are obligated to follow Sharia law and not the Constitution, noting that Muslims who "immigrate to this country, and the people who were born in this country, they respect the laws of the United States, and that, I know Islam teaches. When you are in another country other than your birth, you're obligated to follow the laws of that country. And I don't know of a single Muslim—I've never met them—who's said, we should follow something else. That is Islamophobic talk. That's rooted in fear of the other, fear of a religion that is virtually still unknown to Americans."
In his statement, Hunt noted that "other speakers, like Dr. [Zudhi] Jasser, argued for a reformation within Islam, that Muslims can be good Americans and faithful to their teachings. I consider Dr. Jasser to be both a good Muslim and a good American."
And in a subsequent tweet, Hunt portrayed Andrews’s speech as targeting Islam because “its sacred texts have been used to oppress LGBTQ people.” But Andrews made no mention of LGBTQ oppression in his speech, and Hunt didn't mention that Christianity’s sacred texts have been used to do the same. In fact, according to PRRI, a narrow majority (51 percent) of Muslims in the U.S. now favor same-sex marriage, joining many other religious groups, including Catholics, Jews and Buddhists, in being generally friendly to LGBTQ people. On the other hand, only about one-third (34 percent) of white evangelical Protestants support same-sex marriage today.
Hunt also pictured the "indignant media" with a GIF of Elmo raising his hands in fire-and-fury condemnation.
Cole says she'd never heard a prominent Colorado leader speak so directly against Islam. "I'm not sure who he thinks he's communicating this diatribe to, because I'm not really sure Colorado is that much of an Islamophobic state," she notes. "But as it turns out, some of our leadership apparently condoned it, because they said nothing."
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Cole urges Andrews and others who think similarly to visit a mosque and see what people there really believe. "We didn't bring our families thousands of miles to live some nightmare where someone who clearly has spent zero time alongside our faith community presumes to tell us how we live and that we don't deserve representation," she says.
While Muslims are accustomed to mischaracterizations of their religion, Cole says that the Council on American-Islamic Relations is worried by the rise in bigoted speech it's seen over the past few years. "Nazi Germany started out with talk," she explains. "Their atrocities didn't begin on day one, and they didn't begin on day 101. It took years for their unrealistic fantasies of...how genetics work to blossom into a nightmare for not only Jews, but anybody who tried to protect them."
According to data from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which tracks hate crimes worldwide, hate crimes against Muslims are also on the rise in the U.S. Leaders at the Western Conservative Summit repeatedly brought up the persecution of Christians, but Muslims are targeted on a much larger scale. In 2017, the most recent year for which data was available, there were 182 hate crimes committed against Christians, and 318 against Muslims — even though Muslims only make up about 1.1 percent of the U.S. population and Christians 75 percent.
"Talk about Sharia law reminds me of talk about Jewish law back in the ’30s and ’40s," Cole concludes. "Germany was also concerned with these laws of Jews, thinking that Jews were trying to undermine them at every turn, convinced that there was some underhanded conspiracy. Anti-semitism and Islamophobia are cousins. Same family."