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Ex-Muslim pastor stokes fear and controversy in Idaho

After listening to Shahram Hadian speak for over an hour about Islam as a rising menace in America, Alton Howell stepped outside the log-built community hall in Sandpoint and quickly called a colleague.

“It scared the living daylights out of me,” the Careywood farmer spoke into his phone.

Howell, a leader in the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation, said in an interview that he worries young people are being “indoctrinated” to Islam and that followers already have a foothold in parts of the Northwest.

“I think that we better pay attention,” he said. “The city of Seattle, that part of Washington, is just shotgun full of Muslims.”

If alarm and fear are the reactions Hadian strives to produce in his audiences, the Spokane-area Christian pastor is having some success. And not just with community groups like last month’s Sandpoint meeting hosted by a group of Republican women.

Hadian, a former Muslim who converted to Christianity, also outlined his anti-Islam views for a group of conservative legislators in Boise earlier this year, taking the opportunity to voice his concerns about a Senate bill to keep Idaho in compliance with the federal child support program. A House committee tabled that legislation in the waning hours of the legislative session, thrusting the state into national headlines and leading the governor to call lawmakers back into session Monday to deflect a looming crisis in child support payments. Hadian downplayed any influence he had on that debate.

It wasn’t the first time he was invited to school elected officials on what he calls “the fallacy of a peaceful Islam.”

In March 2011 Hadian was the featured speaker at the GOP’s Lincoln Day Dinner and fundraiser at the Coeur d’Alene Resort. In the audience that night were Gov. Butch Otter, U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador and Norm Semanko, the state Republican chairman.

Luke Malek was there as well and recalls how troubled he and others were by Hadian’s controversial remarks.

“I was extremely uncomfortable that evening,” said Malek, a Republican state representative from Coeur d’Alene and director of legal affairs and program development at Heritage Health, a nonprofit community health clinic.

He worries how Hadian’s uncompromising characterizations of Islam resonate in North Idaho.

“We don’t have good exposure to this minority religion here, so anything that he says, he’s taken as an expert by those who don’t know any other source,” Malek said. “So if you want to seed hatred in a way that it can’t be tamped down by facts, and feed fear and seed paranoia, he has an unchecked platform for doing that.”

Hadian, who was born in Iran and came to the U.S. as a young boy, warns audiences that Islam is not just a religion but a totalitarian system governing people’s lives. Americans must not let political correctness and tolerance keep them sidelined while Islam destroys their way of life, he said.

“The hour is too critical for us to be silent,” he said to vigorous applause in Sandpoint.

He cited passages from the Quran as words of warning, and encouraged people to buy DVDs of his speeches – $15 apiece – with such titles as “Is Obama a Muslim?” and “Islam – A Culture of Death.”

But he prefaced his talk by assuring the crowd, “I am not anti-Muslim. I have family that are still Muslims. I have a great heart for Muslims because they are in darkness, they need to be rescued out of the darkness.”

Arsalan Bukhari, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Seattle, said Hadian is adept at passionate lectures that advance fringe ideas and falsehoods, not unlike those who preach anti-Semitism.

“If he were to say he’s against African-American culture but he likes African-American people, people would see right through it,” Bukhari said. “And I think they should see right through when he says he’s anti-Islam but he’s not anti-Muslim.”

He also said Hadian engages in the sort of inflammatory speech that leads to kids being bullied in schools, adults being taunted at work, vandalism of property and hate crimes.

“It is affecting public opinion, it is mobilizing people to see their fellow Americans who are Muslims or look Muslim as somehow a threat,” Bukhari said.

In Sandpoint, more than 100 people packed into the community hall to listen to Hadian. Afterward, Bob Browning walked outside and said it’s time to take action. “We need to prepare as a country and as a community,” Browning said.

Asked how, he said education about Islam first, “and second, prepare yourselves at home, whether that be food, whether it be weapons, or whatever.”

Others were quick to reject Hadian’s message.

“I think he’s playing on the base fears of pretty much the right in this country,” said Dion Nizzi, an Air Force veteran who lives in Sandpoint and stood outside the community hall holding a sign that read, “Fearmonger, not the American Way.”

“People right now are so easily controlled by fear of other people and other religions and countries,” Nizzi said. “We’re going to figure this thing out by understanding each other, not creating boogeymen.”

Rep. Kathy Sims, R-Coeur d’Alene, opposed the child support bill in the regular session and again this week, saying she was concerned about the effect of foreign orders and due process of law.

Sims attended Hadian’s recent Boise talk but said she can’t speak to the validity of his message.

“I know we all assume we’re kind of isolated here in Idaho, and we are for the most part,” she said. “But the world is getting smaller, and I think it would be in our best interest to pay attention.”

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