On Monday, former Congressman Allen West took to his website to write about an experience he and his daughter had at a Wal-Mart in Texas. In a post originally titled “Sharia Law Comes to WalMart,” the retired lieutenant colonel claimed that while standing in line to check out, an attendant put up a sign that read “No alcohol products in this lane.”
Looking down at the cashier’s name tag, West noticed that the young man’s name was, in his words, “NOT Steve.”
The man’s name presumably indicated his Islamic religious affiliation, leading West to conclude that it was the clerk’s religious beliefs that barred him from selling alcohol to customers.
“How is it that this Muslim employee could refuse service to customers based on his religious beliefs? … Imagine that, this employee at Walmart refused to just scan a bottle or container of an alcoholic beverage — and that is acceptable,” West wrote.
Alas, despite West’s assertion that this was evidence of Sharia law in the United States, WalMart responded, saying that the employee was under the age of 21 and thus not allowed to sell alcoholic products. Those employees are also prohibited from selling cigarettes.
West added an “update” to his post, and changed the title to: “More Ominous Signs of Christian Persecution.”
It would be easy to simply brush this story under the rug as an “oops” moment if it weren’t so indicative of the degree to which those like West — people with a long history of making inflammatory statements about Islam and advancing conspiratorial claims about its supposedly nefarious influence — see Muslims in every shadow.
But there are a few points about West’s WalMart snafu that deserve to be unpacked.
First, the “name” thing. West falls victim to the logical fallacy of misattribution, which drives much Islamophobic thought. It goes like this: The cashier has an “Islamic” name. The cashier is a Muslim. The cashier won’t sell me alcohol. The cashier won’t sell me alcohol because he is a Muslim. Only West goes one step further by suggesting that Sharia law is running rampant in the nation’s largest retail chain. Let’s run West’s logical gymnastics in another example: Madoff is a “Jewish” last name. Bernie Madoff is Jewish. Bernie Madoff stole $50 billion in a fraudulent Ponzi scheme. Madoff stole the money because he is Jewish. Jewish-led Ponzi schemes are a threat to America. The prejudicial nature of West’s rhetoric becomes clearer when it’s fleshed out in other more familiar examples.
Next, Wal-Mart was not refusing to sell West alcohol. They simply wouldn’t let a kid run the transaction at the register. Still, though, the idea of one group refusing to serve another group on the basis of religious of cultural beliefs is not unheard of. In fact, here in the United States, we hear of it fairly often. There’s the case of the “Muslim free” gun range. There’s the Indiana pizza shop that refused to serve gay people. A Michigan auto shop owner said the same thing.
And finally, West’s tantrum in a teacup underscores the “my way or the highway” attitude held by many with anti-Muslim views. Let’s assume the cashier was of legal age to ring up alcohol at the checkout register. Let’s also assume that he felt uncomfortable doing that. There are surely reasonable ways to react that don’t involve lengthy blog posts about “creeping Sharia.” How about this instead: The United States is an immigrant nation made up of people with differing cultural and religious views. Respecting the views of others isn’t cowing to their demands. It’s protecting the value of pluralism that has long been a part of the American story.