On Thursday, conservative New York Congressman Peter King held the first of what he’s vowed will be a series of congressional inquiries into the “radicalization of the American Muslim community,” a topic that has alarmed religious and civil liberties organisations in America for its narrow focus on one minority group and its inherent indictment of the entire “community”.
By the time King called the hearing to order, he’d already successfully wound up much of the country’s punditry. Muslim groups held a protest in New York’s Times Square on Sunday. Obama Administration officials were already trying to distance themselves from the suggestion that the US government – any arm of it – views Muslims with particular suspicion. And dozens of social-justice organisations had circulated petitions and press releases condemning what they likened to a political witch-hunt – as bad as anything Washington has seen since McCarthyism.
King, for his part, tried to sound bemused by all of the reaction on Thursday morning, as if he hadn’t worked so intentionally to provoke it. He was an easy target for the press leading up to the hearing, as a one-time vehement supporter of the IRA, it left him open to accusations of hypocrisy.
Some of King’s opposition was thoughtful, he conceded. But the rest of it – “both from special interest groups and the media – has ranged from disbelief to paroxysms of rage and hysteria,” he said in his opening statement. He appeared to relish ploughing ahead anyway.
“Let me make it clear today,” he continued, “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.”
But his critics weren’t calling for political correctness; they wanted facts, which were in short supply on Thursday. King and his witnesses offered scant statistics, and no objective testimony suggesting Muslim radicalization is on the rise or Muslim cooperation in decline.
The hearing also failed to acknowledge that while every Muslim American is not engaged in terrorism, every terrorist act in America is also not perpetrated by a Muslim (consider, within the past two years, the gunman who tried to assassinate Gabrielle Giffords, the disgruntled software consultant who flew a plane into an IRS office, and the extremist who gunned down an abortion doctor in a church – all white US citizens whom many commentators have been loathe to label as “terrorists”). A true hearing on the problem of homegrown radicalization, King’s critics argued, would examine the threat in all its forms.
Such a broad-based hearing, undoubtedly, wouldn’t have inflamed people so. But King scoffed at that idea.
“This Committee cannot live in denial, which is what some would have us do when they suggest that this hearing dilute its focus by investigating threats unrelated to Al Qaeda” he said. “The Department of Homeland Security and this committee were formed in response to the al Qaeda attacks of 9/11. 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.”
The biggest fear, though, was that in antagonizing the Muslim community, King might actually achieve the opposite of his intended effect, making America less safe.
“I cannot help but wonder how propaganda on this hearing’s focus on the American Muslim community will be used by those who seek to inspire a new generation of suicide bombers,” warned Representative Bennie Thompson, the first in a string of Democrats to take the microphone during the hearing to denounce it. The event, in fact, had an odd partisan pallor, with Republicans uniformly lining up to praise the investigation and Democrats clutching their pocket-sized constitutions in fury across the aisle.
Keith Ellison, one of two Muslims in Congress and a Democrat, even began to cry during his testimony, as he recounted the story of a 23-year-old Muslim first-responder who was killed on September 11.
Muslims, “they are our neighbours,” Ellison said, delivering one of the most tweetable lines of the day. “In short, they are us.”
If King did sincerely want to unearth solutions to domestic Muslim radicalization – however disproportionate the real problem may be to his outsized congressional theatre – the hearing never yielded much in the way of thoughtful strategy. Only one law enforcement officer was called to testify. And some questioners wanted to know more about how uncooperative he found Muslims in his community, rather than what his officers did to work successfully with them.
King also spent much of the time asking the Muslim representatives he had hand-picked to speak to explain why they agreed that his hearing was so necessary. He had clearly sought cover for an investigation targeting Muslims by putting a few agreeable ones at the microphone.
Sheila Jackson Lee, a fiery Texas Democrat, called out the irony in this stagecraft.
“Muslims are here cooperating!” she exclaimed. “They are doing what this hearing is suggesting they do not do!”