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Hearings on Muslims could harm us all

Beginning this week, Rep. Pete King, R-N.Y., will use his role as chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee to convene hearings on what his website calls “al-Qaeda’s coordinated radicalization and recruitment of people within the American Muslim community.” This premise has set off alarm bells, especially in the Muslim community, but also among many others.

As an American, and as a Christian, I dispute the way King has framed these hearings, and I am very concerned about their possible implications. My reasons will be clear shortly. But I do not dismiss the legitimate fears that lie behind widespread public support for such hearings.

We have indeed seen a steady flow of high-profile Islamist terrorist plots and arrests over the past decade. Since 2001, according to a recent study from the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security (Duke University/University of North Carolina/RTI International), 161 American Muslims have been publicly accused of planning or carrying out terror attacks. Eleven succeeded, killing 33 people.

Well beyond 9/11 fears

Most recently, a Saudi student named Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari has been charged with plotting terrorist attacks in Texas and elsewhere. His alleged targets included the home of former president George W. Bush. Last year, we encountered Faisal Shahzad, the man who allegedly plotted a car bombing of Times Square. Before that, came the Christmas Day attempt to down a jetliner bound for Detroit. The steady drumbeat of sensational plots has had its impact on American public opinion. It’s not just about 9/11 anymore.

Further, as lead Triangle Center researcher Charles Kurzman has noted, Islamist extremists are involved in wide-ranging terrorist recruitment efforts via the Internet and elsewhere. This is standard operating procedure.

So what’s the problem with the hearings? King is overlooking or misstating critically important facts about what is going on in the American Muslim community. He is ignoring clear data about the full range of terror threats facing our country. His hearings have the potential to inflame already tense relations between American Muslims and the rest of their fellow citizens. And they threaten the perceived legitimacy of any practice of Islam in the United States, therefore risking one of our most fundamental liberties — freedom of religion.

Let’s begin with the American Muslim community. I have had the privilege of working with key leaders in this community, and I do not recognize the hateful portrait being painted of them in portions of the mainstream media, not to mention the gutter-precincts of the Internet.

More than 2 million Muslims live in the United States, the vast majority of whom, as King himself has rightly noted, are “hardworking, dedicated Americans.” Kurzman points out that the data show American Muslims’ “level of recruitment (into terrorism) is extremely low.” Islamist recruitment efforts are not making real inroads in the U.S. Meanwhile, many Muslims serve in our military, law enforcement, diplomatic and intelligence services. More careful framing of the hearings might make it sound less like King believes the American Muslim community as a whole is becoming a local branch of al-Qaeda.

Further, the Muslim community has no pattern of aiding and abetting terrorism. To the contrary: according to the Triangle Center study, 30% of the U.S. Muslims suspected of terrorist activity since 2001 have been stopped through tips by fellow American Muslims. King has made the inflammatory claim that law enforcement has received “little or — in most cases — no cooperation from Muslim leaders and imams.” Unless he can support that claim with data, he should withdraw it.

Plenty of other terrorist threats are out there. Consider this: A 2007 study of state law enforcement agencies by the University of Maryland found that “just as many state-police agencies view neo-Nazis as posing a serious threat to their own state’s security as consider Islamic Jihadists to pose a serious threat.”

When state law enforcement agencies were asked in that same study to identify the actual extremist groups operating within their state, “Islamic Jihadi” groups ranked 11th. Law enforcement authorities in 92% of responding states named neo-Nazis as operating within their borders, while 62% of the states named Muslim extremists. Here is the Top 10, in order: neo-Nazis, militia/patriot, racist skinheads, freemen/sovereign citizen, extreme animal rights, extreme environmentalists, KKK, Christian Identity, extreme anti-tax, and extreme anti-immigrant.

Consider all the threats

Clearly, the threat from the homegrown extreme right is profound. According to data compiled by the Muslim Public Affairs Council, since President Obama’s election there have been more than twice as many terror plots (45) by domestic non-Muslim extremists as there have been among Muslims (22). Yet King derides requests to broaden the hearing as mere political correctness.

I am concerned about all terrorist threats to our nation. But effective national security requires getting our facts straight. If right-wing extremists together with Islamist extremists are clearly the two major domestic terror threats we face, then, just as clearly, both groups should receive serious public scrutiny.

But there is another unique dimension to these hearings. The focus, after all, is on the purported radicalization of the “American Muslim community.” Not a tiny pocket. But all Muslim Americans can fall under this umbrella of suspicion.

It is always a very dangerous thing when one group is singled out in front of the rest. It is humiliating, shaming and stigmatizing, and almost invites average citizens to marginalize and mistreat members of the targeted group. When religion is involved, and a minority religious group to boot, the danger grows exponentially.

These hearings might intensify fear, hatred and mistreatment of Muslims. Some Christian leaders are already succumbing, such as former Arkansas governor and Fox News host Mike Huckabee, who recently described Muslims collectively as people who believe that “Jesus Christ and all the people that follow him are a bunch of infidels who should be essentially obliterated.”

I fear that the tolerance and restraint generally shown by Americans after the 9/11 attacks is fraying, and that anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence will intensify in the wake of the King hearings.

It will become even more disastrous if King or his guests succumb publicly to the rapidly spreading anti-Muslim hysteria among us. I dread the possibility that he might repeat some of his past claims, such as that “there are too many mosques in this country” and that Muslims are “an enemy living amongst us.” Will this be the time when the halls of Congress echo with hysterical claims that Muslims are secretly trying to impose sharia law on America?

Representative King, please consider your responsibilities soberly. Be very careful with your language, and with the guests you invite. So much is at stake.

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