"I will not allow political correctness to obscure a real and dangerous threat to the safety and security of the citizens of the United States" spoke Representative Peter King at his most recent round of hearings examining the presence of what he fears is homegrown Islamic terrorism. Representative King's laser-like focus on a singular subset of extremist terror groups is troubling given the government's religious neutrality, the broad array of other sources of violence, and the potential negative impact on struggles within Islam.
A congressional investigation into perceived internal threats is nothing new to America, in fact, the pattern is depressingly familiar. In the 1930s, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was established to look into threats foreign and domestic. Its first high-profile hearings dealt with the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, the closest thing America has come to concentration camps. Later HUAC contended with the supposed scourge of atheistic communism, leaving the ugly mark of the McCarthy era on America's conscience. This winter, Rep. King's Committee on Homeland Security is investigating "the ongoing threat to our nation from Islamic jihad... [it is] uniquely diabolical and threatening to America's security."
Rep. King may be driven by prejudice to follow in Joseph McCarthy's footsteps, but the issue isn't just a black-and-white condemnation of bigotry. Like McCarthy's investigations that contained the kernel of truth that some communists were attempting to infiltrate the United States government, King's concerns about Islamic jihadists are not completely groundless. From the Times Square car bomb to the Washington D.C. metro bomb plot, we have evidence of fundamentalist Muslims determined to strike within the United States. But fundamentalist Muslims are by no means the only group capable of terrorism. King's inappropriately narrow focus could cause our government to be looking the other way when the next Timothy McVeigh arrives on the scene.
The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates over a thousand domestic hate groups are active in the United States -- an all time high. Among them are white supremacists, black separatists, neo-Nazis, and anti-Semites. If these groups were equally targeted by King's committee, the religiously sensitive concerns would not be so paramount, but in response to a critic's proposal that he broaden his aims King said, "To include other groups such as neo-Nazis and extreme environmentalists in this hearing would be extraneous and diffuse its efficacy."
Rep. King's hearings target Islamic Americans for special scrutiny, but what King fails to recognize is that the Islam he blames for violence here and abroad is not Islam as a whole, but minority fundamentalist sects within the tradition. Fortunately, when we're looking at Christianity and Islam, their fundamentalist sects don't represent their entire faiths. Rep. King seems not to grasp this critical element, and as a result, his hearings may have the opposite effect of that he intends.
As Reza Aslan, a noted Islamic scholar and journalist, observed in his history of Islam, "What is taking place now in the Muslim world is an internal conflict between Muslims, not an external battle between Islam and the West." Indeed, Aslan calls our current period of history "the Islamic Reformation," a time when moderate and radical Muslims are battling to decide whose interpretation will hold sway in the future. Humanists and other progressives can play a crucial role in this civil war by recognizing the struggle underway. Viewing Muslims through a monolithic, nativist lens not only damages our efforts to live in a culture of tolerance and respect, but it is dangerous because it aids those radicals who seek to engender extremism within Islam. The danger is that extremists will use evidence of widespread and government endorsed prejudice as a means to anger and convert moderates to their cause.
In a society where Islamophobia is so prevalent that the building of an Islamic Center is widely protested can criticism of any kind be voiced without giving rise to more prejudice? In a country where free inquiry is paramount to our success, we must find a way to offer critique when it's warranted and support the majorities interested in peaceful coexistence. Adopting a tone of measured criticism against those aspects of fundamentalist Islam that we find offensive, while not attacking the religion as a whole, provides support to the progressives within Islam and helps us work toward our shared aim of a world where fundamentalism loses its grip on power.
When it comes to the government's role in this discussion, legitimate investigations into the threat of domestic terrorism may be valuable, but when political ideology and xenophobia are the driving motivations, government investigations are sure to overstep their bounds. If Rep. King's hearings are to continue, which they should not, he should take an honest look at all forms of extremism. To persist with the focus on Muslim Americans only fuels Islamic fundamentalists by giving them evidence that the Western world is seeking to undermine the religion of Islam. Representative King would do well to heed recent history, and in doing so, fulfill his real commitment: protecting all Americans, regardless of faith or creed.
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