American Muslims Deserve Respect

03/15/2011 05:37 pm ET Updated May 26, 2011

Rep. Peter King's hearings about the "radicalization" of the American Muslim community was just the first in a series of similar inquiries. Moving forward, I hope King takes to heart the sincere and fair-minded critique of his inflammatory rhetoric and sweeping generalization about the Muslim community. Controversial topics and contentious debates need not be avoided, but we need to engage them with substance rather than bluster.

I was proud to stand with diverse faith leaders, national security experts and civil rights groups in strong opposition to King's prejudiced premise. The fundamental disagreement, though, is even bigger than whether King's actions in this specific instance were right or wrong. This is now a debate about whether American values are bedrock pillars that help keep us safe or mere pretenses that we cast aside in the face of serious threats or political opportunity. This debate cuts to the core of who we are as a nation.

In response to the very real threat of terrorism, casting a cloud of suspicion over the Muslim-American community violates our ideals of religious liberty and equality. It also doesn't work. The authoritative report from the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security states that building relationships between Muslim leaders and law enforcement is crucial to preventing the radicalization and alienation that can lead to violence. Impugning Muslims as insufficiently committed to protecting our nation ignores overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and it undermines the bonds of trust and community across religious and ethnic lines that make us unique in the world.

In King's opening remarks he said heeding his critics would amount to "craven surrender to political correctness" and "an abdication of what I believe to be the main responsibility of this committee: to protect America from a terrorist attack."

This clichéd juxtaposition -- the cowardice of "political correctness" versus the courage to defend our country in the face of criticism -- is not only a false choice, it's a dangerous one. If King thinks national security and counter-terrorism experts, law enforcement officials and interfaith leaders are all just being "politically correct" for stating that sweeping accusations against Muslims are untrue and counterproductive, he is rejecting the help of key partners. We can't achieve the unity we need to effectively fight terrorism if we caricature all stakeholders as either tough guys who confront Islamic terrorists or cowards who coddle them.

Throughout the lead-up to this hearing, King made numerous decisions that put him at odds with faith leaders. He started by explaining the hearings as an investigation of the entire Muslim community. He repeated and defended his baseless claim that more than 80 percent of mosques are radicalized. His first proposed witness was someone who claimed there's no such thing as moderate Islam. Rather than relying or empirical arguments or nonpartisan expert opinion, he based his entire case on individual anecdotes that reinforced his predetermined narrative. King wasn't marching forward in spite of controversy; he was openly provoking it. His later statement that the vast majority of Muslim Americans make enormous contributions to our country was welcome, but it begs the question of why he couched the hearings in such sweeping terms in the first place. (However, none of King's rhetoric in any way justifies the threats he received earlier this week.)

But ultimately, this isn't about King. It's about our future. I don't want my son to grow up in a country that treats an entire religious community like second-class citizens. Investigating how to best prevent terrorism is essential, but we can and must do so without questioning the loyalty of Muslim citizens and leaders. It strains credulity to argue that Congress would ever hold inquiries into the radicalization of the Christian community or the Jewish community, and it's not just because these religions are rarely publicly associated with terrorism. It's because you just don't do that to those faiths; they're simply held in higher regard. I hope the overwhelming display of unity from the interfaith community moves us closer to treating Muslims with the same esteem. They deserve the respect, and it's the American way.