The outlandish accusations of Muslim Brotherhood affiliations made against American government officials and agencies by Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and four other Members of Congress have rightfully been dismissed by many public figures and members of themedia as utter nonsense. While it's tempting to shrug this off, the incident could have significant repercussions for the individuals singled out for accusation and for religious tolerance generally.
The first amendment to our Constitution protects the rights of all individuals to practice their own religion and to freedom of speech. The authors of the misinformation which provide the basis of Bachmann's accusations have the right to spread whatever conspiracy theories they like. However, as policy-makers and elected officials Rep. Bachman and her co-signers --Trent Franks, Louie Gohmert, Thomas Rooney and Lynn Westmoreland -- are not only spreading vicious allegations, they are detracting from serious discussions over national security by using irresponsible and half-baked rhetoric.
Elected officials have a public audience that most of us do not. With online sources, the 24-hour news cycle, and the use of social media, members of Congress can get their messages out to millions of people in the blink of an eye. Accusations of a massive Muslim Brotherhood infiltration into the U.S. government have the power to stoke hatred against Muslim-Americans and other 'alien' groups and fortify conspiracy theories abroad.
These particular members of Congress have positions of power and oversight, including of the American intelligence apparatus, and the ability to trigger investigations of people deemed security threats. While cries of McCarthyism may be premature, the implications of these allegations should not be dismissed too readily as they raise serious questions about religion and discrimination in America.
Even the term, "Muslim Brotherhood," in the context of these letters is problematic insofar as it implies a subversive worldwide coordinated movement of jihadists and terrorists. In fact, Muslim Brotherhood groups today vary significantly from country to country. While they seek a prominent role for Islam in their own societies and their commitment to gender equality, minority rights, and fair elections is questionable, most renounced violence long ago, and many are currently competing for power democratically. As Islamist and Muslim Brotherhood groups take power in the Middle East, we will be able to judge their dedication to democracy and human rights. But by suggesting that a vaguely defined Muslim Brotherhood and its sympathizers aim to topple the United States, Bachmann et al. imply that practically any Muslim in America could very well be tainted with "Muslim Brotherhood ties."
Also troubling is the lack of regard for the people whose lives could be ruined by such accusations. In at least two cases, the letters question the security clearances of individuals, putting their very livelihood at risk. Other senior Administration officials are accused of having secret Muslim Brotherhood agendas. Among those fingered for possible Muslim Brotherhood links are Huma Abedin, an aide to Secretary Clinton, and former Freedom House board member Dalia Mogahed, a leading pollster at Gallup.
It's exactly these types of dark and elusive accusations against an ethnic or religious group that, if left unanswered, could lead to discrimination or worse. Millions of Muslims have sought the American dream, and that includes the freedom to practice their religion without the interference of the state. It is ironic that Congressman Franks is the chair of the International Religious Freedom Caucus in the House, and that Congresswoman Bachmann is a member of that group.
While it would be a mistake to ignore this latest Bachmann antic as the latest in a long series of sensationalistic publicity initiatives, we can be thankful that a number of prominent political leaders have already spoken out against what could have metastasized into a major religious freedom controversy. As Senator John McCain eloquently noted on the floor of the Senate, "When anyone, not least a member of Congress, launches specious and degrading attacks against fellow Americans on the basis of nothing more than fear of who they are and ignorance of what they stand for, it defames the spirit of our nation, and we all grow poorer because of it."
This post was originally published on Freedom House's Freedom at Issue Blog.