Muslim advocacy groups are calling on Coffee County District Attorney Craig Northcott to resign after they learned of statements he made on Facebook in mid-April painting Islam and all Muslims as inherently “evil” and “violent.”
The Council on American-Islamic Relations called Northcott “clearly unfit” to serve as a district attorney.
“Anti-Muslim bigotry has no place in the administration of justice in Tennessee or anywhere in America,” CAIR’s government affairs director, Robert S. McCaw, said on Friday.
The Nashville-based American Muslim Advisory Council told HuffPost that Northcott’s statements compromise his ability to execute his duties in a “fair and just manner.”
“When you perpetuate stereotypes and vilify another group of people, that’s not legitimate criticism, it is hate speech,” AMAC’s middle Tennessee program manager, Sabina Mohyuddin, said in a statement. “It is exactly this kind of hate speech against Muslims by elected officials that [leads] to bullying in schools, discrimination, and hate crimes.”
“If they figured I would apologize for calling hate in any form evil, they miscalculated,” he wrote. “If they expect me to denounce my faith because of their tactics, they are going to be disappointed.”
Northcott’s comments appeared last month on a Facebook thread started by Daniel Berry, the chairman of Coffee County’s Young Republicans organization. The independent Tennessee news website TN Holler published screenshots last Thursday of the conversation between Berry and Northcott after it was no longer publicly available online (Berry has since made the conversation public).
Berry, who is running for local office, asked his followers if it is ever acceptable to stereotype an entire group and said it is not OK to stereotype Muslims based on the actions of a few extremists.
Northcott jumped in to claim that Islam is not a legitimate religion and that being a Muslim is no different than “being part of the KKK, Aryan Nation, etc.” He said that every Muslim “by definition” supports an “evil belief system whether they understand/act on it or not.”
He also brought up his beliefs about the U.S. Constitution.
“There are no constitutional rights. There are God given rights protected by the constitution. If you don’t believe in the one true God, there is nothing to protect. No one other than God has given us any rights,” Northcott reportedly wrote.
Berry pushed back, saying that as an elected official, Northcott is supposed to represent everyone in his district regardless of their religious beliefs. In response, Northcott argued that he defends freedom of religion even for “those who reject the Truth of God’s Word.” But he added that there are “limits to the exercise of this right” and again suggested that Islam is inherently violent.
Muslim leaders were particularly troubled by Northcott’s line of thinking, which they say implies that Muslims don’t have constitutional rights.
“When a district attorney publicly professes that the U.S. Constitution does not protect the religious liberties of Muslims, that person has no legitimate claim to the office,” McCaw said.
Hana Ali, chair of Tennessee’s Sumner County Democratic Party, is calling on Northcott to resign.
McCaw called on the Tennessee Republican Party to repudiate Northcott’s statements. HuffPost has reached out to the group for comment.
The Coffee County Republican Party has backed Northcott, suggesting he is the victim of a “political hit job” from CAIR.
The argument that Islam is a political ideology and not a real religion has been gaining popularity in some circles, including within President Donald Trump’s administration, according to Asma T. Uddin, a religious liberty lawyer and scholar. Uddin said this argument supports the idea that Muslims don’t have rights to “respect, dignity or First Amendment protection for religious liberty.”
“These claims attempt to legitimize the restriction of Muslims’ rights in the defense of American values,” Uddin wrote in a Washington Post article in March.
Northcott’s office told HuffPost the district attorney is on vacation and does not have an official spokesperson.
Northcott was elected as Coffee County’s district attorney in 2014. He is listed as a member of Pleroma Bible Church, a deeply conservative, nondenominational evangelical church in Tullahoma. The church’s website still advertises a meeting held last year featuring Shahram Hadian, a controversial ex-Muslim Christian pastor who has been accused of spreading misinformation about Islam to evangelical Christians.
After news about Northcott’s statements made headlines, Berry released a statement Sunday defending the district attorney as a “good man” and condemning attempts to remove him from office for “exercising his First Amendment rights.”
Imam Ossama Bahloul, a resident scholar at the Islamic Center of Nashville, told HuffPost that while freedom of expression is important, he believes it is also important not to stoke fears. Bahloul pointed to how the New Zealand mosque attacker took cues from extreme views expressed on social media.
Bahloul said Northcott’s statements betrayed an “incorrect” understanding of Islam. The scholar offered to meet Northcott and invited him to the Islamic Center of Nashville so practicing American Muslims could answer his questions.
“I believe we have to start speaking with each other instead of speaking about each other,” Bahloul said.
This story has been updated to link to the conversation between Berry and Northcott and to note that it is public again.