Argument

Peter King's Witch Hunt

Congress's anti-terrorism hearings risk tarring the entire Muslim American community.

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, will begin a series of public hearings on the "radicalization" of Muslim Americans on March 10. King has adopted an ominous tone for the proceedings, basing them on the premise that the Muslim American community is dangerously prone to radicalization and has been systematically uncooperative with law enforcement. "With al Qaeda trying to recruit from within their community," King told a reporter in December, "it's important that they cooperate."

Civil rights advocates and religious leaders of all faiths are particularly concerned that the hearings will only serve to advance pervasive myths about Muslim Americans' support for extremist violence. A broad coalition of 80 leaders, representing all major faiths and denominations, recently issued a statement urging King to cancel the proposed hearings. They made the case that the hearings would only undermine American values and jeopardize national security. "[W]e fear your hearings will only sow greater distrust and division at a time when unity and moral courage are needed," read the letter.

Things could be worse -- but not by much. King has thankfully declined to call any known anti-Muslim activists with little or no expertise in the subject, such as Pamela Geller or Frank Gaffney, to testify. But he did originally plan to feature American Enterprise Institute fellow Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who is on record claiming that "Islam is a cult," and Fox News analyst Walid Phares, a figure with ties to violent sectarian Lebanese militias. He will also call other dubious "experts" to testify, such as American Islamic Forum for Democracy founder Zuhdi Jasser, who has been featured in alarmist films such as the Clarion Fund's The Third Jihad and America at Risk: The War With No Name -- films that dishonestly attempt to portray Muslims as followers of a violent and subversive faith bent on international domination.

But even with this pernicious cast of characters, King himself may be the greatest threat to a fact-based discussion of the status of the Muslim community in the United States. With no apparent evidence or study, he has stated that as many as 85 percent of American mosques are controlled by "radical imams," that there are "too many mosques in this country," and -- incredibly -- that Muslims are "an enemy living amongst us."

Such broad-sweeping statements could never be made about any other religious group. Even just a few short years ago, responsible political leaders of both parties would have avoided such sweeping generalizations about Muslim Americans and Islam. As recently as the 2000 elections, both parties openly courted Muslim American voters -- who eventually voted overwhelmingly for George W. Bush.

But in the ensuing decade, a number of factors have conspired to take anti-Muslim sentiment into the mainstream. The tragedy of the 9/11 attacks, the departure of Bush -- who warned repeatedly to separate the few violent terrorists from the vast majority of peace-loving Muslims -- and the persistent smears about President Barack Obama's faith have all served to increase American suspicion of Islam. And today, some politicians have cynically sought to exploit such fears.

There is more at stake here than Muslim Americans' feelings. National security and counter-terrorism experts fear that lending an official sanction to an effort to blame an entire religious community for the acts of a few terrorists will play into the hands of al Qaeda propagandists and recruiters who are determined to perpetuate the myth of a war between Islam and the West.

Responding to these concerns, House Committee on Homeland Security ranking member Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) wrote a letter to King on Feb. 1 requesting that the hearings include "a broad-based examination of domestic extremist groups regardless of their ideological underpinnings." But one week later, King rejected Thompson's request outright.

Of course, most people within Muslim communities in the United States abhor violent extremism. But one thing is abundantly clear: Terrorist recruiters attempt to exploit any source of alienation from the West that they can find, whether it's the ongoing conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, the presence of U.S. troops in "Muslim" lands, or the collateral damage of drone attacks in Pakistan. Up until now, Muslim Americans have differed from their European coreligionists in their absence of internal alienation for al Qaeda recruiters to exploit.

This dynamic is at risk of changing, however. With the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, no resolution in sight to the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Obama administration's inability to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, some young and disaffected Muslims could grow increasingly vulnerable to the extremists' call. Take for example the self-styled cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, now based in Yemen and perhaps al Qaeda's most effective current recruiter, who brought the Fort Hood shooter Maj. Nidal Hasan, would-be Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and others into the terrorist fold. American-born, Internet-savvy and fluent in both English and Arabic, Awlaki targets his hateful and violent online message at desperate and confused Muslim Americans, attempting to convince them that the United States is implacably hostile to their faith. King risks reinforcing these malignant conspiracy theories, ceding yet another propaganda victory to the United States' enemies.

The hearings could also foster mistrust between law enforcement agencies and Muslim communities, thereby weakening a crucial link in efforts to combat terrorism. Although King may believe otherwise, the Muslim community in the United States has cooperated and partnered with law enforcement for years. Tips from Muslim Americans have led directly to the foiling of a number of murderous plots. According to the Muslim Public Affairs Council, Muslim communities have helped U.S. security officials prevent more than 40 percent of al Qaeda plots threatening the United States since the 9/11 attacks. In the past year, that number spiked to three-quarters of all such plots.

Potential terrorist attacks that have been foiled with Muslim help include the arrest of five Northern Virginia men accused of attempting to join the Taliban and the May 2010 Times Square bomb plot, which was foiled when a Muslim vendor notified police of a suspicious-looking vehicle. These examples highlight the importance of community-oriented policing by U.S. law enforcement agencies. Why poison this crucial relationship through misguided and alarmist hearings?

To be fair, there is a chance that the hearings will serve as an opportunity to shed light on the reality of the terrorist threat. King's recently announcement that Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), one of two Muslim Congressmen, will testify are welcome signs.

But the risk that the hearing will reinforce dubious religious stereotypes and stir already high levels of anti-Muslim sentiment outweighs the potential benefits. If the hearings devolve into a political circus, here's hoping that sensible Americans will be willing to stand up for the rights and dignity of the Muslim American community.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Argument

America Shouldn't Hijack Egypt's Revolution

Obama must resist the urge to help Egyptian democrats -- unless they demand it.

Let's face it: Hosni Mubarak was a strategic asset to the United States. He ensured access to the Suez Canal, upheld the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, and kept the Islamists down. He also presided over a foul regime that abused its citizens and violated every principle that Americans hold dear. The fact that the United States supported this now-discredited government for three decades is not lost on Egyptians. And it shouldn't be lost on Washington, either, as it attempts to forge a new relationship with Cairo.

Washington has a long wish list for the new Egypt. Despite its baggage-laden history with the country, the United States wants Egypt to be democratic, economically successful, and a reliable ally. It wants Cairo to regain its luster as a regional leader so that it may bring its considerable diplomatic weight to bear as an interlocutor on Arab-Israeli affairs and a counterweight to Iran's regional ambitions. The United States also wants Egypt to serve as a model for political reform, inspiring countries throughout the Arab world toward a more just political order. This ambitious vision is unlikely to be fully realized, but if Egyptians achieve only a portion of their revolutionary aspirations, the Middle East will be a better place.

Policy analysts and democracy-promotion specialists are already racing to formulate a strategy that matches substantial resources to these lofty aims. They want to provide technical assistance to help Egypt develop political parties, impartial electoral laws, judicial independence, and legislative oversight. They also have plans for economic reform, which include U.S. assistance for debt relief and incentives for foreign investment and increased bilateral trade.

Sounds wonderful -- in theory. But it's time to tap the brakes on these grandiose plans, for there are significant drawbacks to a robust American role in post-Mubarak Egypt. If Washington is to realize its goals, it should approach the country's coming transformation with a lighter touch and a certain amount of humility.

The main reason is that Egyptians remain distrustful of Washington and its intentions. Why shouldn't they be? Successive administrations -- Republican and Democratic alike -- supported and benefited from their close ties to Mubarak. Even George W. Bush, who pressed Mubarak hardest to undertake reforms, never penalized him for his stubborn resistance to change. A high-profile approach to Egypt's transition will consequently raise suspicions about Washington's intentions and goals, complicating efforts to develop the kind of relationship with the new Egypt that President Barack Obama's administration wants.

Happily, anti-Americanism was not the main theme of the millions of Egyptians who took to the streets in late January and early February. But Americans should draw no conclusions from the absence of anger directed toward Washington during the 18 heady days of demonstrations. The political dynamics of the new Egypt will encourage the country's leaders to diverge from Washington, if only to establish their nationalist credentials. Prime Minister Essam Sharaf and Foreign Minister Nabil al-Arabi have already signaled that they will split from their predecessors and the United States on the Israeli blockade of Gaza and on Egypt's relationship with Iran.

Even if Washington pledges its total neutrality in Egyptian politics, a bold and public democracy-promotion effort could quickly lapse into support for one party, group, or movement. U.S. officials will be sorely tempted to gravitate toward liberal elements within the revolutionary movement, such as Ayman Nour's al-Ghad party, the newly licensed al-Wasat party, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, and a host of independent figures. Furthermore, it is hard to believe that Congress will remain neutral should the Obama administration choose to work with the Nasserists and the Muslim Brotherhood, both of which maintain views on Egyptian foreign policy, especially when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict, that are inimical to American interests.

Already, a bipartisan group of lawmakers has expressed its concern about the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest and best-organized Islamist group. Republican Sen. Mark Kirk released a statement on Feb. 2 cautioning that the United States "must heed growing warnings about the Muslim Brotherhood, their leaders and plans for taking Egypt back to the 13th century." Rep. Howard Berman, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has also expressed his desire to use U.S. funding to bolster liberal Egyptian political movements, and said that he is "skeptical" about the Muslim Brotherhood's democratic bona fides.

An aggressive American effort in Egypt also risks alienating leaders who would otherwise be willing to work with the United States. The perception that certain groups enjoy American largesse could complicate their efforts in a new, more democratic Egypt. The political environment in Cairo will naturally be hostile to anything even remotely connected to the Mubarak era -- including the United States. By taking a high-profile role in Egypt's transition, the United States increases the risk that potentially pro-American political leaders will be tarred with "Mubarakism."

The United States must also understand how this revolution fits into the last century of Egypt's political struggles, which have largely focused on achieving independence from international forces that seemingly conspired to rob Egyptians of control over their own destiny. Egypt's 1919 nationalist revolution aimed to end the British occupation that had compromised the national dignity of its people for 40 years. The 1952 coup that brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power had many causes, but above all else it was a new phase in the anti-colonial effort to bring an end to Britain's continued influence in Egypt. Mubarak, by continuing his predecessor Anwar Sadat's alignment with Washington, compromised his country's independence in the eyes of many Egyptians. In time, it became conventional wisdom among his opponents that the relationship emasculated Egypt's regional influence while contributing to repression and stagnation at home.

The revolutionaries of Tahrir Square have now managed to alter the history that ostensibly all-powerful internal forces -- with the help of external patrons -- had written for them. As they see it, they brought down their dictator without anyone's help, and believe that they are capable of constructing a decent political system worthy of a great country. This is a source of empowerment for Egyptians, and a point of pride and dignity.

In the current environment, it is best for outsiders -- particularly those with ties to the ancien régime -- to keep a low profile. In practice, this means that Washington's message should focus exclusively on first-order principles: non-violence, tolerance, pluralism, and accountability. It also requires that the United States hew carefully to the needs Egyptians themselves articulate. If Egyptians want American help, then by all means, Washington should give it to them. But the sight of U.S. bureaucrats pushing out comprehensive programs, training, and grants -- along with congressional benchmarks and conditions -- is likely to embitter all parties involved.

Having long sought to manage their own destiny, Egyptians likely will be reluctant to take unsolicited advice from outsiders. Egypt has eminent jurists, learned scholars, and a large number of talented activists who understand what they want and how to get there. They need a lot less help than we think. If the United States wants to achieve its goals in Egypt, it should allow Egyptians the opportunity to triumph or fail on their own.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images