Suburban Muslims are refuting claims made by Congressman Joe Walsh about the growth of "radical Islam" in the suburbs, saying instead that their religion is increasingly becoming a "punching bag" for Republicans.
"They took it very offensively," Jamil Zara, General Secretary at the Midwest Islamic Center Masid Al-Huda in Schaumburg said of remarks Walsh made Wednesday at an Elk Grove Village town hall meeting. "It seems Republicans lately are doing this for the political gain. They make Islam a punching bag. They're using Islam to scare people."
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Walsh's comments came in response to an audience member identified as Egyptian-American who complained that Muslims are taking over the United States.
"It's a real threat ...," Walsh said of radical Islam, "a threat that is much more at home now than it was right after 9/11,"
Walsh, a McHenry Tea Partyer, describes radical Islam as a small sector of the overall Islamic community, but he said "it's in Elk Grove, it's in Addison, it's in Elgin. It's here."
The 8th Congressional District, stretching from Addison to Elgin and including portions of Kane, Cook and DuPage counties, was dubbed "perhaps the most Asian district in the Midwest" by Raja Krishnamoorthi, who lost a Democratic primary bid to challenge Walsh.
According to 2012 census figures, 12 percent of the district's residents are of Asian descent; 4 percent are South Asian. Many of those residents are Muslim.
Just two months after Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachman called for an Islamic conference in Rolling Meadows to be "shut down" because of a possible terrorist connection, local Muslims say they are becoming increasingly fearful of the Tea Party.
"Rep. Joe Walsh's comments are consistent with the rise of the radical right and the insistence by some in the Republican party that Americans should be suspicious and fearful of fellow Americans -- including Walsh's own constituents -- who are of a different faith," Chicago Council on Islamic Relations Director Ahmed Rehab said in a statement. "Such indiscriminate vilification is not unrelated to the rise in hate crimes and acts of vandalism we are seeing today."
In Congress, Walsh is a member of the Homeland Security Committee. His chief of staff, Justin Roth, Wednesday evening pointed to "hours of testimony" heard by the committee about the growth of radical Islam across the country, including in the Chicago suburbs.
The committee has recently held five hearings that examined the threat of Muslim radicalization.
In a statement, Walsh Thursday did not back down from the comments he made at the town hall. Instead, he said, "We cannot let political correctness blind us to reality. While most Muslims in America and around the world are as peace loving as the rest of us, we would be foolish to ignore the fact that there is a radical minority that simply wants to destroy America and the values that we stand for. ... It is our responsibility as members of Congress to protect American families."
Still, Zara, of Bartlett, said in his 20 years in the suburbs, he has "never seen radical persons."
"It is true families are growing, Muslim families are growing in the Northwest suburbs, especially in Elk Grove, Schaumburg. They want to live closer to the Islamic Center," he said.
However, he said, these suburban Muslims "they're doctors, engineers, very educated business people. peaceful people. This is a regular community."
The campaign of Hoffman Estates Democrat Tammy Duckworth, who is bidding against Walsh for the 8th Congressional District seat, did not immediately comment Thursday.