Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, will begin holding hearings Thursday on “the extent of the radicalization of American Muslims.” Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, has characterized the hearings as “a witch hunt.” Are they?
King also has said he believes the “self-radicalization” of American Muslims represents “a very small minority” of the overall community. What are the potential consequences of singling out one religious group?
This week’s House Homeland Security Committee hearing on Radicalization in the American Muslim Community, led by Rep. Peter King (R-NY), should be of grave concern to all Americans. My opposition to this hearing is not based on an opposition to investigations into the relation of radicalization and terrorism – Muslim or otherwise. No one questions the right — indeed the obligation — of this Committee and other appropriate government institutions to defend America from both external and internal threats. I acknowledge that a small number of radical Muslims exist in America. My concern is that the hearing failed to recognize that radicalism is not limited to Islam, nor are most Muslims radical. If this hearing were part of a series of hearings on radicalism it would have be justified; but as an isolated inquiry, it was not.
Second, this hearing did not occur in a vacuum. It was supported by other Members of Congress, whose statements tarred the entire Muslim community and suggested the community has failed to work with law enforcement officials to prevent terror. While some who have spoken out have since modified their positions, and we commend those who have done so, the filters created by those comments feed into fears that the hearing reflects a view of “collective guilt” that is anathema to the values of our country. A hallmark of our justice system is the belief that individuals are responsible for their actions, and that innocence is presumed until guilt is proven. In contrast, in part because of the statements of people in power, one of the main themes of the hearing was the blaming of an entire faith for the actions of troubled and guilty individuals. Mere rhetoric condemning that interpretation of the hearing does not suffice.
As a Jew and an American, the atmosphere surrounding the hearing and the messages it conveyed is troubling. Both in design and execution, the hearing was at odds with our proud tradition of religious pluralism. Our Pilgrim forebears fled religious persecution. The three religion clauses of the Constitution were enshrined to eliminate the notion that one religion would be favored or preferred, while others disadvantaged or demonized. Today, Muslim Americans are facing a new kind of bias and at times outright discrimination, based on stereotypes and fear of the unknown.
Further, no religious faith, including Christianity, Judaism, or Islam, should ever be characterized by the most debased words or deeds of its members. As Jews, who have throughout history been the victims of the worst forms of religious stereotyping, we know all too well the danger that threatens when a religion is demonized.
For all these reasons, in the wake of the hearing, I hope that the members of the committee will speak clearly about the danger of allowing the Muslim community writ large to be vilified, that they will recognize and address the threats posed by religious extremism of all faiths, and will focus on positive ways that moderate religious forces can and do contain and undercut religious extremism – starting with the American Muslim community.
The approximately three million Muslim Americans can be found in every state in the union. Yesterday, we did not hear much about the majority of Muslim Americans who are moderate. Americans need to explore how to strengthen this Muslim moderate community, giving them a stronger voice and a more visible seat at the table. Yesterday’s hearing failed to do that.
Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough recently spoke about the threat of radicalization and the role that the Muslim community plays in combating radicalization at home as part of a larger strategy to defeat al Qaeda:
“Of course, the most effective voices against al Qaeda’s warped worldview and interpretation of Islam are other Muslims. As the President said in Cairo, “Islam is not part of the problem in combating violent extremism – it is an important part of promoting peace.” Around the world, poll after poll shows that the overwhelming majority of Muslims reject al Qaeda. Many Muslim leaders around the world have loudly condemned al Qaeda and its murderous tactics and declared that it is a violation of Islam to murder innocent people. They’ve spoken out at great risk to their lives, and some have lost their lives because of it.”
This is true on a global level as well. We should be able to contain extremists in the Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish and Christian communities by strengthening moderate religious expressions, and we have not been very successful at that. We fail to understand that often the embrace of, for example, moderate Islam by America, by Western countries generally, or by Christians and Jews, can often be used by the extremists in ways that resonate strongly in the Muslim street. The extremists argue that moderates are agents of Western cultural or religious colonialism and Western Imperialism. We have failed to fashion effective ways to support moderate Islam without allowing our embrace to be used against them. That would be an outstanding subject for a hearing!
Domestically the analysis is different. Here moderate Islam is already playing a pivotal role in containing Muslim extremism. Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca testified that moderate Muslims have played a pivotal role in exposing terrorist plots emanating from within their community. According to a Duke University study , the largest single source of initial information that brought terror suspects to the attention of the U.S. government was tips from the Muslim-American community. Muslim-Americans provided initial tips in 40% of cases involving terror suspects since 9/11. To the extent that the hearing drove a wedge between the Muslim community and authorities charged to protect us all it undercuts its very purpose.
Rather than focusing only on the radical fringe, Rep. King should have focused on what each of us, Muslim, Jew, Christian, Hindu, Catholic, Buddhist and others, can do to ensure that our nation is welcoming to all and is prepared to encourage moderate forces at home and abroad. One look at the world today makes it clear that the American tradition of religious freedom has allowed a multitude of faiths to thrive in the U.S. in ways unmatched elsewhere in the world. And that same freedom has ensured that our nation has not experienced the same type of religious strife seen, for example, in Europe. America does not pit faith against faith; we celebrate all faiths. That is the noble legacy that has been our hallmark for more than 200 years and has made us the envy of the world. For that reason, and so many others, hearings such as these that come across as anti-Muslim (or anti-any religion) undermine America’s strength and the sense of common purpose.