Flaws of the King hearing on Islam
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?
Representative Peter King's hearing did not transcend the faulty frame he created for it.
The title of the hearing was, "The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community's Response." While previous congressional hearings have focused on terrorist acts on American soil that were carried out in the name of Islam, this hearing appears to have been the first attempt to hold the entire American Islamic community accountable for those acts. To be sure, King said, "the overwhelming majority of Muslim-Americans are outstanding Americans and make enormous contributions to our country." Nonetheless, he suggested the American Muslim community is responsible for preventing these terrorist acts and that it is failing to do its job adequately.
The government does not use that standard for any other religious community when some who claim to be a part of their community commit acts of terror. Of course, we want American Muslims to continue to be part of the struggle to defeat violent extremism. But there is a difference between asking for their continued assistance and conducting a Congressional hearing asserting that they are responsible for that violence and calling them on the carpet for not doing enough. Instead, as Representative Keith Ellison said, "all of us - all communities - are responsible for combating violent extremism."
The framing of the hearing also was faulty because, while the government is the right body to combat terrorism, including terrorism carried out in the name of Islam, it is the wrong body to conduct an inquiry into a religious community as such. Governmental officials certainly do not have to ignore the context in which acts of terrorism occur, but they should always make clear that their mission is -- simply but crucially -- to prevent violence and threats of violence, whatever the motivation for it. The government is not competent to investigate religious beliefs and religious communities as such.
Unfortunately, Representative King also did not use his platform yesterday to correct previous misstatements he has made, like his declaration that "over 80 percent of the mosques in this country are controlled by radical Imams." In recent days, King has admitted that there is no evidence to support this statement. Yet he has thus far declined to correct it, saying "I don't think it matters that much."
Representative King is the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee of the United States House of Representatives. What he says about these issues matters a great deal. Especially with anti-mosque sentiment still raging in a number of cities and towns across the nation, and harassment and hate crimes against Muslims all too common, King has a solemn duty to correct this misstatement and studiously avoid others like it.
The hearing did not provide much reason for hope on this score. The plain reading of Representative King's comment that "moderate leadership must emerge from the Muslim community," is that there is no moderate Muslim leadership in our country at the moment. It's just one in a long line of misleading statements that may stoke fear among non-Muslim Americans and undermine our ability to work together on serious issues like terrorist threats.
Additionally, King's hearing was deeply flawed because he failed to call any of the well-respected scholars who have studied this field. To be clear, the witnesses who told of personal tragedies their families have experienced are brave Americans whose testimony was valuable. But data is also essential to understand the scope and scale of the threats we face.
The policy solutions proposed by one of the witnesses King did call raised some troubling questions. Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, a physician and founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, repeatedly suggested that the government needs to support think tanks, institutions, websites, and social media that would preach a Muslim reform agenda including advocacy for separation of mosque and state.
What does Jasser mean by separation of mosque and state? In September 2009 , he chastised a Muslim group for commenting on the healthcare debate, saying it "clearly and malignantly cross[ed] the line of mosque and state in an aim to impose the Islamization of every topic related to the domain of government and public policy upon the Muslim community and ultimately the greater American community." Jasser continued: "What [Muslim groups] fail to realize, is not only are they crossing the line of mosque and state, but they are alienating a large segment of the Muslim community who are not looking to our faith-based organizations to weigh in on issues like health care policy." He explained:
I would never think of bringing our American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD) into this political struggle between conservatives and liberals in America. My approach to the health care debate is focused on reason, principle, and small government. My faith has nothing to do with health care policy other than guiding me with regards to the personal compassion with which I treat my patients on a daily basis. And even with that, I do not wear my faith on my sleeve or in a banner across the waiting room. I and others at AIFD may be engaged personally in the health care debate, but certainly not in our role with AIFD under the banner of our Islamic organization which is dedicated to the separation of mosque and state and the contest of ideas against political Islam.
Does Dr. Jasser want government support for the position that Muslim organizations should not play a role in policy debates? If so, must Christian and Jewish groups stay out of those debates as well? After all, during the health care debate, many of them wore their religion very much on their sleeves. Perhaps Dr. Jasser's argument is with the Supreme Court, which has said: "Adherents of particular faiths and individual churches frequently take strong positions on public issues . . . . Of course, churches as much as secular bodies have that right." Evangelical, Catholic, Baptist, and Jewish groups have that right. Muslim groups do, too.
King said yesterday's hearing was the first in a series. If future hearings are not overhauled or canceled, some other governmental body or well-respected nongovernmental entity should commence a parallel set of hearings to examine the very real threat of violent extremism in ways that respect First Amendment freedoms. These issues are much too important to allow Representative King to continue to occupy the field.
March 11, 2011; 8:25 AM ET
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