Updated at 8:29 a.m. on February 4.
Tea party-backed freshman Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., is denying allegations that some of his recent remarks about a congressional colleague were anti-Islam and anti-Muslim. In an interview in January, West described Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn.--the first Muslim ever elected to Congress--as the "antithesis of the principles upon which this country was established."
Many people found the remark offensive, particularly since West has become one of the more prominent faces of the tea party movement, which has had to deal with a few episodes of religious and racial intolerance in its ranks. Several religious groups this week wrote a letter to West chastising him for the remark, saying that he should not use his public position to "proselytize for one religion or demonize another."
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On Thursday, West fired back, clarifying but not apologizing: "My comments in regard to my colleague, Representative Keith Ellison, are not about his Islamic faith, but about his continued support for CAIR," the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
That organization, writes the congressman, is among groups that "have long histories of supporting violent anti-American and anti-Israel terrorist organizations such as Hamas, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood." They operate "within our borders" and "masquerade as more peaceful moderates," while posing threats to the United States, writes West of such organizations.
There was no immediate response from Ellison's office to West's letter, posted on West's congressional website.
CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper on Thursday dismissed West's depiction of his organization. Rather, he said West is trying to deflect his own embarrassment over disparaging a fellow House member and his finding out that "the old hate rhetoric that played to the base before he was elected doesn't sound as good once in office, representing people."
"We often see that with these Muslim bashers," added Hooper. "When they get called out in a way that is embarrassing for them, they say, 'No! No! No! I meant radical Islam.' Their target keeps shifting."
This controversy erupted late last month when West was interviewed on a South Florida-based program on which he was asked how he'll manage in Congress associating with Islam supporter Ellison.
West said it is important to "stand upon the principles that people elected me to go to Washington, D.C., and represent them on Capitol Hill." But he went on: "So that when you run into someone that is counter, or someone that really does represent the antithesis of the principles upon which this country was established, you've got to be able to defeat them intellectually in debate and discourse, and you to just have to be able to challenge each and every one of their assertions very wisely and very forthright."
Ellison, in a statement, responded: "Americans across the country want their public servants to reject the toxic and corrosive chatter that yields more heat than light. I hope to have a productive and respectful dialogue with all of my colleagues, including Allen West."
But harsher criticism came from elsewhere: On Wednesday, the leaders of several religious groups--the Interfaith Alliance, the Rabbinical Assembly, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty--sent West a letter of complaint.
They wrote: "Although your laudable decision to offer yourself for public service in no way disqualifies you from discussing your own faith, we urge you not to use the prestige of your position in the U.S. House of Representatives to proselytize for one religion or demonize another."
In his written response Thursday to those religious groups, West insisted his comments were not about Ellison's religious faith, but about his support for CAIR. He writes that he will take their concerns to heart, but he does not apologize in the letter.
"If there has been a misunderstanding that I have come across as someone who is against the entire Islamic faith--that is simply not true," writes West.
He then invoked 9/11 as one reason for his concern. "I am very passionate and concerned about the dangers this country faces, a danger we have witnessed from the destructions of the Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, to the USS Cole, to September 11, 2001."
CORRECTION: The original version of this report misspelled the name of Ibrahim Hooper.