By Kalia Abiade
State Sen. Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro) is among other conservative lawmakers threatening to kill a school voucher bill because they fear Muslim schools could receive funding.
Under the proposal, parents of children attending failing schools would be eligible to receive vouchers to pay full or partial tuition at private schools. Private religious schools would qualify to receive students, but senators are most concerned that schools that teach principles from the Qur’an would benefit from state money. So far, no concerns have been raised about biblical teachings supported by voucher funds.
“This issue gives me pause in voting for the governor’s voucher proposal,” Ketron said. “These issues warrant further assessment.”
This is not the first time Ketron has used his public office to express his disdain for and suspicion of Muslims. Over the years, Ketron’s antics have helped to keep Tennessee in contention as the nation’s Most Islamophobic State.
Late last month, Ketron went into a panic about a floor-level sink inside the capitol building that he believed to be a sink for Muslims to wash their face, hands and feet before ritual prayers. Alas, the sink was for custodial purposes — a mop sink — installed as part of a process to update the aging building’s plumbing system.
Ketron said he was satisfied with the assurance he received, but that didn’t protect him from Stephen Colbert’s take on terrorist foot baths and creeping sharia mops.
In 2011, Ketron proposed a bill, authored by attorney David Yerushalmi that would have jailed anyone who follows sharia law. Unlike the current sharia bills — most of which are also authored or heavily influenced by Yerushalmi — that aim to prevent the unlikely occurrence of sharia being imposed on non-Muslims, this bill would have punished Muslim people for practicing Islam or materially supporting a “sharia organization,” as designated by the attorney general. The bill was eventually amended to remove explicit references to Islam and sharia.
If the name of Ketron’s district, Murfreesboro, looks familiar, that’s because it was the site of an extended municipal battle to construct a mosque around the same time as the anti-sharia proposal. The debate, which started out as fairly civil, quickly devolved into a paranoid attack on the Muslim community. There was minor vandalism, arson and even a bomb threat at the construction site.
County residents sued to prevent the mosque from being built and the main argument, initially, was that Islam was not even a religion and, thus, the mosque did not qualify for protection under religious land-use rights. After a two-year court battle that brought out Bill French and Frank Gaffney, the mosque finally opened, though it is still being hit with technical challenges.
Ketron and the Murfreesboro incident are just small pieces of the Islamophobia puzzle in Tennessee. The state is home to 14 ACT! for America chapters, which host meetings and events that ramp up fear of ordinary Muslims. ACT! has a loyal ally in the Tennessee Freedom Coalition, with whom they often host joint events, including an upcoming meeting featuring disgraced former FBI-agent-turned-counterterrorism expert, John Guandolo.
And though Ketron is, possibly, most known for his anti-Muslim stance, he first made a name for himself in the anti-immigrant movement. He visited Arizona in 2010 to hand-deliver a resolution to Gov. Jan Brewer in support of the state’s anti-immigrant legislation and to learn first-hand from sponsors of the famed SB 1070. He said he’d go “hot and heavy” with his own bill, promising it would be “the best bill passed so far” to make it a state crime to be in the country illegally and to expand local police power.
As his collaboration with Yerushalmi shows, he learned well how to feed on hatred to model fear-driven legislation.
On his website he pledges to keep up the pressure on immigrants and, with his stance on vouchers and his recent hissy fit over mop sinks, his anti-Muslim sentiment shows no signs of subsiding. Ketron cannot be taken at his word that he is motivated by his desire to simply protect American values and uphold the law. His actions and his collaborations with noted bigots demonstrates a commitment to criminalizing anyone and anything he believes to be foreign.
It’s critical to recognize that the anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant movements are not unrelated, and as Ketron so clearly proves, they are often one and the same.