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Muslim Radicalization Hearings: A Political Spectacle That Perpetuates Prejudice

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This column appears via the Religion News Service.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King is intent on doing a foolish thing that even former President George W. Bush -- himself no slouch in fighting terrorism -- consistently refused to do. On Thursday (March 10), King will open the first hearings on the problem of "radicalization" among American Muslims. Ever since 9/11, King has been troubled by what he believes is a failure of American Muslim leaders to combat extremism. "The leadership of the (Muslim) community is not geared to cooperation," he recently told Politico. In 2004, he complained that Islamic fundamentalists control 85 percent of U.S. mosques: "This enemy is living among us," he said then. Now, he wants to expose the supposed enemy in public. Most experts agree some forms of violent extremism in this country have found inspiration and legitimacy in Islam. Most citizens agree the government, whose primary job is to protect its citizens, has a need to know which communities might be hatching terrorist plots against its citizens and their institutions. Law enforcement, too, must be vigilant -- aware of the extent of violent radicalism, informed about its causes and active in combating its worst effects. Congressional hearings can be an important instrument in ensuring the security of the homeland and its citizens. There can be no objection in principle to public discussion of the relationship between religious communities and extremism, including violent extremists within Islam. But King's hearings are likely to have the opposite effect and undermine that security. They will also demean millions of upstanding American Muslim citizens in the process. Here are the realities:
  • The structure of the hearings indicates that we will be no wiser after the hearings than we were before -- either regarding the extent and causes of radicalization, or American Muslims' response to it. No government or non-government experts on Islam or terrorism are invited, only non-experts. We will have witnessed only a public display of a merely alleged danger. As someone who grew up under the thumb of communist authoritarianism, the hearings smell a bit like a democratic version of the infamous show trials.
  • At a minimum, the hearings will cast a shadow of suspicion over all American Muslims, both the leaders and the rank-and-file. A 2007 Pew Research Center study found that the vast majority of Muslims in this country are "decidedly American": they identify with America as a nation and embrace American democratic ideals. Yet against clear and uncontestable facts, many Americans still harbor prejudices against Muslims. The hearings will strengthen this propensity, and may even help bolster what might be described as a "green scare" that's analogous to the "red scare" of some 60 years ago.
  • There is no more effective way to radicalize American Muslim youth than for political leaders to make public displays of prejudice against all Muslims. Suspicion will undermine their sense of identification with America and alienate some from both the culture and from politics. Treated as potential enemies, some may be more likely to become actual enemies; the hearings are more likely to produce traitors than to rat them out.

In short, the hearings will be a political spectacle, not an instrument of truth finding. They will perpetuate prejudices and perpetrated injustices against Muslim communities and will only serve to undermine our national security.

Devout Muslims seem to be a particular concern to King. But in the case of devout Muslims -- maybe especially in their case -- we can build on common values.

"A Common Word," a widely publicized 1997 document of impeccable and broadly accepted Muslim authority, argues that what binds Muslims to Christians and religious Jews is a shared commitment to love God and neighbor. What's more, as many great Christian teachers through the centuries have recognized (including the Second Vatican Council's "Nostra Aetate"), Muslims and Christians worship the same God. True, they understand God somewhat differently, but the similarities in their convictions about God are much greater than are the differences.

As a consequence, Muslims share with Christians (and Jews, on this score) a set of fundamental values, including some version of the Golden Rule -- a principle that compels you to treat others as you would want to be treated. Reaffirming such common values, and holding each other accountable to them, would do much more to improve Americans' safety
than will the King hearings.

Though the hearings may give Chairman King some partisan advantage, they will ultimately diminish his stature as a political leader (as the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations did in the case of Sen. Joe McCarthy). Much worse, the hearings will neither expose wrongdoing nor help rectify a social condition (as the Watergate hearings did), but instead perpetrate a wrongdoing and undermine national security.

We as a community of citizens, of all faiths and traditions, believers and non-believers, can do much better than this unjust, dangerous and self-defeating political charade.

Miroslav Volf is the author of the new book, 'Allah: A Christian Response.' He is the Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School, and the Founding Director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture.

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