Thursday, March 17, 2011

The King Hearings Stir Heated Discussion about Islam in America

On Thursday, March 10th, the Congressional Committee on Homeland Security held the first in a series of hearings on the radicalization of Muslims in America, led by Rep. Peter King (R-New York). At a time when several states are considering legislative bans on Shariah law, mosques and Islamic community center projects are meeting with strong resistance, and aggressive anti-Islam rallies have drawn national attention, the King hearings have been interpreted by many progressives as another attack on Muslim Americans. However, Rep. King insisted that the hearings are meant to "inform and not to inflame", highlighting several prominent cases of extremist radicalization in the U.S. (To watch the hearings, visit the C-SPAN archive here.)

Given that many terrorist groups exist in the U.S., such as Christian anti-abortion extremists and the Sovereign Citizens movement, it is curious that Rep. King would devote a hearing specifically to radical Islam. At the 5:39 mark, King explained his focus on Islam, rather than other violent extremist movements.

"This committee cannot live in denial, which is what some of us would do when they suggest that this hearing dilute its purpose by investigating threats unrelated to al-Qaeda. The department of homeland security and this committee were formed in response to the al-Qaeda attacks of September 11th. There is no equivalency of threat between al-Qaeda and neo-Nazis, environmental extremists or other isolated madmen. Only al-Qaeda and its Islamist affiliates in this country are part of an international threat to our nation. Indeed, by the justice department's own record, not one terror-related case in the last two years involved neo-Nazis, environmental extremists, militias, or anti-war groups."
At the 2:43 mark, Rep. King scoffed at "political correctness" and stressed what he believed was the grave importance of the hearings.
"Let me make it clear today that I remain convinced that these hearings must go forward, and they will. To back down would be a 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. Despite what passes for conventional wisdom in certain circles, there is nothing radical or un-American in calling these hearings."

In response to King's statements, Homeland Security committee member Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Missipppi) voiced concern that the hearings could foment discord and distrust, both domestically and abroad. At the 12:28 mark, Rep. Thompson reminded listeners of the hearing's larger significance.
"As members of Congress, our words transcend this hearing room. We must be vigilant that our words and our actions do not inflame. Acknowledgement of an obligation to be responsible does not equal political correctness. We must be mindful that this country is conducting two wars. Our words and our actions cannot be used to endanger our soldiers . . . We live in troubling times. I've heard concerns that today's hearing will stoke a climate of fear and distrust in the Muslim community. It may also increase the fear and distrust of the Muslim community. For law enforcement officials, outreach and cooperation may become more difficult."
Rep. Thompson was not alone in his calls for mindful discussion. At the 17:45 mark, Rep. John Dingell, (D-Michigan) emphasized that the hearings should not fall into McCarthyism or stereotypes large swaths of the American Muslim population.

"Muslim Americans are honorable citizens, loyal Americans, and they are as much distressed as we are about what it is we see going on ... As I mentioned for years, I ran investigative committees. I kept a picture of Joe McCarthy hanging on the wall so that I would know what it was I did not want to look like, to do, or to be. And I believe that this committee, going into these matters wisely, carefully, and well, can achieve a fine result of alerting the nation to the real concern. I would beg you, Mr. Chairman and the members of the committee to do what I know you are fully intent upon doing and that is to see to it that as we go into these matters, we do not blot the good name or the loyalty or raise questions about the decency of Arabs or Muslims or other Americans en mass. There will be plenty of rascals that we can point at and say, "these are real dangers to the nation that we love and that we serve."
Several panel speakers gave testimony at the hearing, including Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota), the first Muslim congressman. Rep. Ellison spoke warmly of Mohammed Salman Hamdani, a Muslim paramedic who died in the September 11th tragedy, reminding listeners that Hamdani should be remembered for his sacrifice rather than his religion or ethnicity. Ellison lambasted the approach of the King hearings as "contrary to American values," warning that such an approach "threatens our security."

Responses to the King hearings have been mixed. One one hand, conservatives such as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and Dr. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention spoke positively of the hearings. On the other hand, several religious leaders and progressive religious organizations have criticized the King hearings as counterproductive and hostile.

With regard to King's negative comments about the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper said that King's premise to expose Muslim organizations in the U.S. was weak, according to the American Independent. Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center speculated that Americans would have reacted explosively if the government held similar hearings on Christian extremism. Criticizing King for spearheading "his version of the McCarthy hearings", Potok chided King for neglecting other extremist groups in favor of demonizing Muslims.

Progressive commentators have written prolifically about the King hearings, which many have interpreted as Islamophobic. Sarah Posner at Religion Dispatches placed the hearings in the context of a wider right-wing "cottage industry" of anti-Islamic conspiracy theorists. Religion Dispatches commentator Joanna Brooks observed parallels between governmental demonization of Islam and Mormonism, while Adam WarRock at Angry Asian Man noted parallels between modern suspicion of Muslims and earlier suspicion of Japanese Americans during World War II. Media Matters criticized Fox News for praising the hearings as part of a long history of promoting anti-Islam rhetoric.

Speaking for myself, I found the King hearings curious. While I do not deny that radical Islam is a real danger in my country, I also feel that other extremist groups are as much of a threat, if not more, to U.S. security. Of greater concern to me is fundamentalist Christian extremism, which has gained traction in the U.S. and poses a far more immediate concern.

The question is whether the King hearings are a good faith effort to address Islamic extremism, or an act of fear-mongering meant to cast the Muslim community in shadows. As additional hearings take place, the true tone of King's efforts will become clear.

For additional commentary, visit these links.

Religion Dispatches: King Witness' Story Undermined by Reality

Think Progress: Bush Security Official: Al Qaeda Could Use King's Anti-Muslim Narrative as a Recruiting Tool

Politics Plus: Peter King's Hearings: GOP Hate

The Fact Checker: Peter King's claim about radical Muslim imams: Is it true?

Washington Post: Rep. Peter King's Muslim hearing: Plenty of drama, less substance


  1. I agree with you about Christian Fundamentalist extremism, and I think that this anti-Muslim movement is one manifestation of that.

  2. Donna Banta -- I've suspected the same thing myself.

  3. This anti-Islamic movement is reminiscent of WWII when Japanese American citizens were placed in camps. The problem lies in ethnocentric extremists calling an entire culture/religion extremists.

  4. Cognitive Dissenter -- I really hope things don't become that extreme in our country. Nothing is gained by persecuting the innocent along with the guilty.

  5. Rep. King has long been a passionate promoter of terrorism (see: IRA).

    "I really hope things don't become that extreme in our country"

    Things won't get that extreme, unless there is another terror attack.

    Speaking of which, I deplore Rep. King targeting Islam as a whole. Or even bashing the vast majority of Muslims. But there are terrorist front groups in the US which deserve harsh criticism, such as CAIR (HAMAS fundraising front).


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