Of all the items on the agenda of the legislature’s new Republican majority, none has been more contentious than the proposal to give state officials sweeping and unprecedented authority to decide which individuals or organizations constitute a “domestic terrorist entity.”
As America celebrates the killing of Osama bin Laden, Tennessee lawmakers are considering whether to join the U.S. government in the war on terror, despite the misgivings of civil libertarians who wonder if state officials can be trusted to target only the bad guys.
In its original form, the bill made it a crime to practice extreme forms of the Islamic code known as Sharia, prompting protests by Muslims at the Capitol and elsewhere. It was widely criticized as the stiffest measure yet introduced in any state by the conservative national movement to limit how Muslims worship.
“I sing the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ before games, and I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America,” said Nadeem Siddiqi of Knoxville. “And I am a Muslim. I see no contradiction in that.”
Critics said the legislation would have made it a crime to donate to Muslim organizations, help paint a mosque or bring a dish to a potluck dinner.
As the bill has made its way through the legislature’s committee system toward House and Senate floor votes in the last weeks of this year’s session, any mention of Islam or religion had been deleted. Proponents say the measure now focuses strictly on counterterrorism. They say it would become the first state statute modeled after the federal law banning material support to foreign terrorist groups.
“There’s no problem with Tennessee being a leader in the nation on anti-terrorism campaigns,” said one sponsor, Rep. Josh Evans, R-Greenbrier. “We shouldn’t be ashamed of that. Tennessee is an excellent laboratory for freedom and an excellent laboratory for justice.
“This is not a witch hunt. This is nothing but to protect ourselves where the federal government can’t or won’t.”
Another sponsor, Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, said the proposal would “enable state and local law enforcement to act decisively before an act of terrorism is committed.”
“The bill is thorough in protecting due process rights and protecting the First Amendment rights of pure political speech,” Ketron said.
Yet hundreds of concerned Tennessee Muslims have descended on the legislature each time the “Material Support to Designated Entities Act” has come before committees.
In Tennessee, anti-Muslim passions are as aroused as anywhere in the country. A Columbia mosque was torched three years ago, and Murfreesboro’s fight over the new mosque under construction in that city drew international attention. Islamic leaders say they fear state officials will unfairly target Muslims and destroy innocent reputations and lives under the bill, even in its amended version.
Acting on the recommendation of the state’s director of Homeland Security, the governor and state attorney general would have the power to designate a person or group as a domestic terrorist entity. That would kick-start a civil procedure under which the state could freeze or block the entity’s bank assets. Those contributing support or money to the entity in spite of the designation could be subject to criminal penalties if a terrorist act is committed.
Muslims have been given reason to feel uneasy about handing state officials such broad powers.
Only last summer, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey publicly questioned whether Islam is really a religion. During a stop in his unsuccessful campaign for governor, he was asked about the Murfreesboro mosque plans, and he suggested that Islam could be a cult, apparently meaning Muslims wouldn’t be entitled to freely exercise their faith in this country.
Late last year, the Tennessee state surveillance center put the ACLU of Tennessee on an Internet map listing “Terrorism Events and Other Suspicious Activity.” The ACLU’s crime? It sent a letter warning public schools not to celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday. After media attention, the state safety commissioner at the time apologized to the ACLU, and the surveillance center since has dropped its Internet map.
In debating the bill, lawmakers themselves have done little to help. As Imam Mohamed Ahmed Al-Sherif of the Islamic Center of Nashville pointed out to the House Judiciary Committee, the bill’s proponents insist they aren’t targeting Islam, yet hearings on the proposal have been marred by public rants against the religion. In a 20-minute speech, Rep. Rick Womick, R-Rockvale, said several times “this bill isn’t about religion,” but then he denounced Islam. His voice choking with emotion, Womick said he has studied the Koran since 9/11 to be prepared for the next terrorist act.
“Most of you may not realize this, but I am a commercial pilot,” he told the House committee. “I was piloting an airplane, a commercial aircraft, on the morning of September, 11, 2001, from Dallas to Los Angeles. Two of my company’s airplanes were crashed into buildings. All my life I’ve taken pride in always being prepared. That morning I was not prepared. It was a dreadful morning. However, since that day, I have acquired a Koran … and I have studied the religion of those Islamic terrorists who killed over 3,000 of my fellow Americans.
“To any religious group,” he added as the hearing room full of Muslims watched somberly, “you practice your religion peaceably and you abide by our state and U.S. constitutions and there will never, ever be any problems or prosecutions. It’s when you step outside of that and demand that our constitution take an exception to your beliefs, whether it be cor white supremacy, it doesn’t make a difference — it won’t happen.”
Womick addressed one Tennessee Muslim leader who “says that the Koran does not support violence and that he denounces all violence. I believe him. But he is an exception, because those who truly hold the Koran for every word that it speaks cannot believe that. …”
In a statement, the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations criticized Womick for his “hate rhetoric.”
“His rant is evidence of the hateful paranoia that will inevitably lead to this bill being used against peaceful American Muslims,” said Gadeir Abbas, the council’s attorney.
Democratic lawmakers say they are concerned that the bill, even in its amended form, fails to give entities accused of being terrorist groups the opportunity to present proof to clear their names. In the Senate Judiciary Committee, at the urging of Sen. Tim Barnes, D-Clarksville, the bill was amended again to spell out the rights of the accused to defend themselves in court.
“I doubt there’s anybody in this room who at some point in their life has not been wrongfully accused of something,” Barnes said. “We need to make sure that we have a procedure where if you’re a church or an organization and you’ve done nothing wrong, that there’s a workable procedure that you can clear your name and clear your organization and do it in a timely manner, before the electricity is shut off and all your funds are shut off.”
Despite all the changes, even some of the state’s most conservative lawmakers have been unable to vote for the bill. Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, calls it “Patriot Act Part II” and “a bridge too far” for Tennessee. Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Kingsport, worries about “giving a phenomenal amount of power to the governor and attorney general.”
“Isn’t that the ultimate in truly Big Brother?” Lundberg said.