During the 1925 trial challenging the teaching of evolution in a Tennessee high school, the journalist H.L. Mencken decried the mix of ignorance and moral righteousness of those who sought to punish science teacher John Scopes. Their “mystical confidence” in the case, wrote Mencken, “serves notice on the country that Neanderthal man is organizing. . . rid of sense and devoid of conscience.”
Fast forward to today’s Tennessee, and “Neanderthal man” has a new target: Islamic law. Right-wing blogs and talk radio inflame listeners with conspiracy theories about supposed efforts to impose sharia law in the United States, and a few unscrupulous politicians, following in the tradition of Scopes’ persecutors, are ready to exploit those fears.
The latest episode came recently when two lawmakers, state senator Bill Ketron and state representative Judd Matheny, reportedly raised questions about the installation of a new floor-level sink in the state capitol that, they theorized, could be for Muslims to wash their feet before prayer. (The sink, in fact, is for mops.) The same two men had sponsored a bill in 2011 that made the enforcement of sharia law punishable by up to 15 years in jail.
Those politicians are engaging in what Mencken called the “worst buffooneries”: ginning up fears of sharia law, and catering to bigotry and discrimination by creating the false sense that Muslims are seeking to undermine American institutions. The victims — whether Scopes or Tennessee’s small Muslim community — pay the price.