State Republican Party chair Robin Smith seems convinced America is fighting a holy war against Muslims. Talking about Iraq, she told the Johnson City Press last August: “I think people of faith see this battle completely differently. It’s not a battle over resources. This is a war that puts the Christian faith in direct opposition to the Muslim faith.”
Here’s more from Smith, this time from an opinion piece she wrote for The Tennessean in October: “America will either be resolute to defeat the terrorists and choose to protect our families, our faith and our freedoms, or we will surrender in fatigue and short-sightedness.…” She didn’t explain whose faith she meant by “our faith.”
Given these remarks, which didn’t go completely unnoticed in political circles, you might have thought Smith really stepped in it last week when she put out the now-infamous “Anti-Semites for Obama” press release and made Tennessee a national embarrassment. Turns out, Tennessee Republicans love her even more than they did before.
The party’s executive committee, meeting Saturday in Nashville at the end of a week of negative press, gave Smith a standing ovation and adopted a resolution in support for her.
The press release that came from the state GOP earlier in the week referred to Obama by his full name, Barack Hussein Obama, showed a picture of him in a turban and insinuated that he’s anti-Semitic and an enemy of Israel because Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan praised him in a speech. But the 66-member executive committee, which represents the party’s rabid grassroots, is not at all ashamed and instead is reveling in the controversy as a case of the liberal media run amok.
Smith, who ironically serves on the Tennessee Human Rights Commission, was proudly cracking jokes after the meeting, saying she’d been “skewered, pierced, shish-kebabed and rotisseried” by reporters, but she insisted she wasn’t backing down.
Even Sen. Lamar Alexander, who ordered the press release’s removal from the party website, seemed willing to pass it off as nothing much worse than a slightly underhanded political trick. “It could easily be misinterpreted, taken out of context or considered inappropriate,” Alexander spokesman Lee Pitts said in the understatement of the week. And Smith insists her job was never in jeopardy.
But combined with her past comments on Muslims and terrorism—plus the inconvenient fact that her handpicked communications director, the right-wing blogger Bill Hobbs, lost his flack job with Belmont University in 2006 because he drew and then posted a stick-figure picture of the prophet Muhammad holding a bomb—the latest hubbub is understandably making some people wonder whether Tennessee GOP headquarters is run by religious bigots.
Karl Rove reportedly warned at a recent meeting of state party directors not to use Obama’s full name in the presidential campaign because it might backfire and make Republicans look like bigots. In Tennessee, appearances might reflect reality. (Question: Is it a problem when Rove is your party’s progressive voice of reason?)
“You could put Robin Smith’s words into Osama bin Laden’s mouth,” says Richard McGregor, an assistant professor of religious studies at Vanderbilt. “It’s a throwback to the worst impulses in the Islamic and Christian traditions. It exists on both sides. Bin Laden speaks this mythical, grand, black-and-white language of holy war, and to evoke the Crusades from our side is to play right along with him, to agree with him that that’s the nature of the conflict.”
“It’s scary,” says Khaled Sakalla, a director of the Islamic Center of Nashville. “We’re minding our own business here in America. We live in peace. The war is against the terrorists. It’s not Christians against Muslims. God doesn’t want us to think that way.”
One influential GOP executive committee member, newly elected national committeeman John Ryder, isn’t willing to defend Smith’s holy war comments. “You’ll have to ask her what she means by those statements,” he tells the Scene. But he won’t criticize her, either. “Republicans are not generally in the business of chewing on their own in public,” he says.
We would ask Smith what she meant, but she’s not talking about it. The bombastic Hobbs isn’t talking anymore either, which is curious—a spokesman who won’t speak.
When Hobbs took the GOP flack job last fall, the state’s political reporters started laying odds on how long he would last, and there’s been speculation that the Obama press release could be the beginning of the end for him. The executive committee’s got Smith’s back for now, but too many Republican legislators see Hobbs as a troublemaker. They don’t like it when they’re forced to respond to difficult media questions about something Hobbs has written in a press release.
He did send us an email declaring: “The Barack story is officially over.” That’s OK. With Hobbs, there’s always another story.
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