Republicans clearly think that they have found a political winner in Muslim-bashing. Peter King, Republican representative from New York’s Third Congressional District (in Long Island), is the new chair of the House Homeland Security Committee. He was way ahead of the Muslim-bashing curve. Most Republicans didn’t get excited about the possibilities of using an anti-Muslim platform as a wedge issue until 2010, after the wild popularity of the "Obama is a secret Muslim" meme and the meteoric rise of the anti-"Ground Zero Mosque™” and "stop Shariah Law" campaigns – all of which conveniently coincided with the Republican gains in the 2010 election. King has been talking about “the Muslim problem” since as early as 2001.
King was an early and frequent skeptic of the post-9/11 Republican mantra, started by President George W. Bush, of constantly talking about inclusiveness and the importance of American religious freedom (even as they supported discriminatory policies like the PATRIOT Act, but that’s another story). Despite his earlier record of working with the Muslim community in his district, soon after 9/11, King repeatedly made such outrageous claims as "We have too many mosques in this country." In response to criticism for that statement, King insisted that he was taken out of context and that what he really meant was that “too many mosques in this country do not cooperate with law enforcement.” And that brings us to Peter King’s Congressional hearing on the so-called radicalization of Muslim Americans and their supposed collective failure to cooperate with the nation’s counterterrorism efforts.
The sad irony of King’s Homeland Security hearings couldn’t be more stark: He is organizing a panel on the supposedly growing numbers of Muslim American radicals just as more and more non-Muslim Americans are following right-wing Islamophobic celebrities like Pamela Geller to organize hate rallies, like the one on February 13 in Orange County, CA, where speakers—including elected officials--taunted American Muslims and one speaker openly called for the murder of Muslims. But King is not interested in hearings about threatening extremism unless it can be labeled Muslim. For King, the facts about domestic extremism and violence cannot get in the way of his opinions and his exercise of political power.
The facts completely contradict King’s opinions about Muslim Americans. This category went from relative obscurity through the 1990s to one of the most-studied groups of people in the United States in the 2000s. Virtually all of the many reports, polls, and studies show that Muslim Americans, by and large, subscribe to political views that are squarely in the American mainstream. The Pew Research Center titled its 2007 study of Muslim Americans “Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream,” finding that “Muslim Americans are a highly diverse population, one largely composed of immigrants. Nonetheless, they are decidedly American in their outlook, values and attitudes. This belief is reflected in Muslim American income and education levels, which generally mirror those of the public.”
Despite attempts by King and others to push the argument that Muslim Americans haven’t done enough to combat terrorism, the evidence shows that Muslims are very concerned about terrorism. Individually and collectively, Muslim Americans have turned in or contributed to the arrest of many suspected terrorists, including the Times Square bomber and the Hutaree, and some Muslims have helped intelligence agencies to infiltrate the al-Qaeda network. (For a thorough debunking of the idea that Muslims collectively don’t help counterterrorism or law enforcement, see The American Muslim’s article on the King hearings.) Moreover, top counterterrorism officials like Attorney General Eric Holder, FBI Director Robert Mueller, and many police and intelligence officials have repeatedly met and worked with Muslim American community leaders on a variety of counterterrorism efforts over the years. Mueller has testified before Congress and stated publicly several times that Muslim Americans have been extremely helpful to his agency’s counterterrorism efforts. For example, in 2004 Mueller said: “Since September 11th, we have had substantial assistance and cooperation from the Muslim-American community, the Arab-American community, [and] the Sikh-American community within the United States. And for that all of us are tremendously thankful. Special Agents In Charge around the country meet often with the leaders of the Muslim-American communities. I periodically meet with the leadership here in Washington.”
One of the many ways that Muslim American organizations have helped law enforcement is through cultural awareness training for police officers around the country. Muslim American advocates worked with the Department of Justice to create training videos and other materials to help teach police officers about Arab, Muslim, Sikh, and South Asian cultures. (More work like this is sorely needed, to stop profit-seeking bigots from posing as “experts” who have reportedly trained some police to target Muslims.)
In addition, Muslim American organizations have, on occasion, protested some policies and practices that violate American civil liberties. For example, after the attempted Christmas Day 2009 “underwear bombing,” Muslim American organizations (and other civil liberties advocates) protested as discriminatory a TSA security procedure to be used only on travelers from 14 specific nations (13 of which were majority Muslim). For their efforts at exercising their very American right to peacefully criticize their government, these Muslim American civil liberties advocates have faced constant criticism from supposedly pro-democracy right-wing groups who insinuate that Muslim advocacy organizations are “pro-terrorist” and “radicalized.” (Is America ready for democracy?)
In this atmosphere, King’s selective hyperbole and his planned hearing on “American Muslim radicalization” has been criticized extensively as a terrible idea by people including Representative Michael Honda (D-CA), hundreds of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religious leaders and members of the clergy. Even conservative commentator and frequent Muslim-basher Daniel Pipes thinks that King`s hearing is misguided. The liberal advocacy organization Muslim Advocates and other advocacy groups all agree: the hearings are counterproductive to stopping terrorism at best, and will very likely be nothing more than a prominent showcase of racist misinformation. A cadre of experts gathered on Capitol Hill last week to offer a briefing to Congress on Islamophobia and to show why the King hearing would be counterproductive. Many advocates have implored King to change the focus of his hearing away from singling out Muslims and toward investigating violent extremists of all kinds. The lack of any evidence that the hearing is necessary for improving counterterrorism efforts shows that it isn’t really about “Muslim radicalization” at all. The hearing is all about Peter King, and his role as an ideological kingmaker for his party.
Even before the hearings have begun, they have produced two major outcomes: a massive boost to King’s national profile and an equally massive boost to Muslim bashing. King is fast becoming a star in the Republican cosmos, and he may very well have ambitions of higher office. But the boost to King’s profile comes at a steep cost to American civil liberties in general and to Arab, Muslim, Sikh, and South Asian Americans in specific. The King hearing has already fanned flames of Islamophobia, divided American communities, and spread fear of more hate crimes and discrimination affecting Arabs, Muslims, Sikhs, South Asians, and others racialized as “looking Muslim.” If American democracy is to live up to its most basic ideals, blatant attempts to demonize entire groups on the basis of race and religion must be regarded as the real anti-American politics.
There’s still a chance that King will heed the advice of experts and call off or change the parameters of his hearing, which currently is scheduled to start this week. If King ignores the advice of people with expertise and civil liberties sense, he will prove himself worthy of the title increasingly attached to his name, "America`s New McCarthy."