By William Gibson
Several religious leaders told South Florida Congressman Allen West on Wednesday they have "deep concern" over his recent comments about a Muslim colleague in Congress and about "your tendency to offer intemperate comments about Islam."
West immediately replied that he respects Islam, has fought to protect religious freedom and has directed his scorn only at "a radical jihadist movement."
The flap came over West's comments at town hall meetings in South Florida and in a recent interview on the "Shalom Show," a TV program about Jewish life and Israel.
The religious leaders from Jewish, Christian and inter-faith groups wrote a letter to West accusing him of calling U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., the "antithesis of the principles on which this country was established" because he is Muslim.
"Regrettably, this is just the latest example of your tendency to offer intemperate comments about Islam," the letter says. "At a town hall meeting during your campaign, you characterized Islam as America's enemy and asserted, `Islam is a totalitarian, theocratic political ideology; it is not a religion.' Such untrue and inflammatory remarks intensify an unsettling trend of anti-Muslim rhetoric and fear in our country. They are also likely to confuse your constituents as to the differences between radical, Islamic extremists and non-violent adherents to Islam."
The letter was signed by the Rev. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance; Rabbi Jack Moline, director of public policy for The Rabbinical Assembly; Rabbi David Saperstein, director and counsel of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; and the Rev. J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.
In response, West said on Wednesday his comments on Ellison "are not about his Islamic faith but about his continued support of CAIR (the Council on American Islamic Relations."
"It is the extremist, radical element that has hijacked Islam that presents a dangerous threat to both our country and our allies throughout the world," West said in a return letter. "This radical jihadist movement has no place in the United States of America or anywhere on earth."
"The problem is, these fanatics are often supported by certain groups and organizations that masquerade as more peaceful moderates," West wrote. "Organizations such as CAIR have long histories of supporting violent anti-American and anti-Israel terrorist organizations such as Hamas, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood."
West told the letter-writers he shares their goal to exercise and safeguard religious tolerance.