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.
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