From NBC's Shawna Thomas
Freshman Rep. Allen West (R-FL), no stranger to controversy, is now receiving criticism from some religious leaders who want West to apologize for comments he made about a fellow member of Congress.
Today, four interfaith leaders sent a letter to West asking him to clarify statements he made about Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) on a local Florida show called, "The Shalom Show." During the interview, West is asked how he manages working with people in Congress that he disagrees with.
Interviewer: "Since you're with a new crowd of people you haven't really met before and will be very closely associating with in the future, including Keith Ellison who supports Islam. How will you manage that if I may ask? Because it's not really easy to be that polite often with individuals one totally disagrees with, which I believe may be the case."
Rep. West: "I think it's most important that I stand upon the principles that people elected me to go to Washington DC and represent them on Capitol Hill. 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 have to just be able to challenge each and every one of the assertions very wisely and very forthright."
Ellison is one of only two Muslim members of Congress and was targeted by Tea Party Nation, which sent an e-mail to members that said, in part, “Ellison is one of the most radical members of congress. He has a ZERO rating from the American Conservative Union. He is the only Muslim member of congress.”
One signatory, Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said he initially found the comments "alarming." "We wanted to raise the issue and encourage him to clarify what he intended to say," said Saperstein.
West responded with a letter of his own today that offered some clarification:
"Let it be clear. 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. 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. 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. These organizations operate within our borders, and as an elected official, I have an obligation to speak the truth and educate my constituency on the threat they pose...My comments in regards to my colleague Representative Keith Ellison, are not about his Islamic faith, but about his continued support of CAIR."
But the interfaith letter says West's remarks about Islam in the past have not been as carefully worded:
"Regrettably, this is just the latest example of your tendency to offer intemperate comments about Islam. 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."
And yesterday, CNN reported that at a town hall, West responded to a question from the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Miami, Nezar Hamze, who challenged West on his comments about Islam:
Me and my children choose to follow the faith of Islam. You consistently insult it. How can we expect you to defend our right and practice Islam as far as the Constitution is concerned?" Hamze asked.
"I will always defend your right to practice a free religion under the First Amendment," West said. "But what you must understand, if I am speaking the truth, I am not going to stop speaking the truth. The truth is not subjective," he continued to loud applause.
At the end of the letter, West wrote, "I certainly will take your concerns to heart, and hope that we can work together to continue to educate the American public on the importance of both understanding the threats we face, and exercising religious tolerance."
As of now the interfaith leaders are planning no response to West.