Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond plans to urge other Tennessee sheriffs to keep a close eye on Islamic activity in their jurisdictions.
Speaking on Islam and domestic terrorism, he told members of the Hamilton County Pachyderm Club on Monday that federal officials are turning blind eyes to what he called "the strongest infringement that we've had in our country as a constitutional government since communism."
Local Muslim leaders said they were disappointed by Hammond's comments, and said they hope Hammond would reconsider his stand.
Hammond, who studied Islam as a chaplain's yeoman in the U.S. Navy, and later trained local police in Amman, Jordan, said he is concerned that a sect of dangerous Muslims is moving into the state, securing jobs within government and planning to slowly take over.
"Islam is communism with a god," he said, likening the religion to communism in the 1950s.
"[Islam is] a state, wrapped in a religion so they can get the tax breaks, so they cannot have government intrusion into their mosques. They are able to use our own system against us," Hammond said. "Islam is very good at what they do. They have built a structure to take over this country. And many of the pieces are in place."
Hammond clarified he's not talking about all the estimated 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, just a dangerous sect of what he called jihadists.
"Say it's only 5 percent of the 1.2 billion to 1.5 billion," he said. "Then you've got some real danger."
He counted Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez — the gunman who killed five U.S. servicemen on July 16 at the U.S. Naval and Marine Reserve Center on Amnicola Highway — among the jihadists.
Hammond said he has seen reports that Abdulazeez turned his back on the American flag during the Pledge of Allegiance at school. And while he doesn't know if Abdulazeez was taking direction from terrorist cells, his intent was to commit jihad, Hammond said.
Bassam Issa, president of the Islamic Society of Greater Chattanooga, said Hammond's concern is misplaced.
"He's saying there are 75 million Muslims who are jihadists, or terrorists," Issa said. "That can't be, because if there were 75 million out in the world doing jihad right now, we would see it."
Issa said more acts of violence are carried out every day in the U.S. by non-Muslims. And in his 41 years living in the United States, he's not seen any domestic terrorism committed by devout Muslims.
Abdulazeez was not a fervent worshiper, he contended.
"The attack that happened a month and a half ago, also the person, the attacker, the killer who did this heinous crime was not a devout Muslim. He was hooked on drugs," Issa said. Drug and alcohol use is expressly prohibited in the Muslim faith.
The local Muslim community viewed the attack as a crime, Issa noted.
Issa, who also works as a developer, said the vast majority of American Muslims are here because they love the country.
"I've been here 41 years, and all I've been doing is building things, not tearing things down. Under this great Constitution, we are all equal and we all work together to make a better America everyday," Issa said. "I have great respect for [Hammond] as sheriff, and I hope that he would reconsider."
According to Hammond, more than 2,000 mosques or Islamic centers have opened in the U.S. in the last 24 years. He warned that citizens and law enforcement need to be move vigilant about Islamic activities. He plans to speak with Tennessee sheriffs soon to help monitor activity of Muslims throughout the state.
Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at firstname.lastname@example.org, @glbrogdoniv on Twitter or at 423-757-6481.