People attend the “Today, I Am A Muslim, Too” rally in New York City March 6, 2011. The rally was held in response to the upcoming Congressional hearings led by Peter King (R-LI) to protest the targeting of American Muslims and Arabs. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi
By Ingrid Mattson
I am in no position to determine Rep. Peter King’s motives for his hearings on “the extent of the radicalization of American Muslims.” Is Rep. King approaching this issue sincerely and with integrity, or is he indulging in bigotry? I can’t answer this question and, in any case, my concerns are larger. My first concern is that the Republican Party is coming to be associated with Islamophobia, and King’s hearings seem to be contributing to this trend. My greater concern is that, while individuals are attracted to radical ideas for many different reasons, perceptions of marginalization and persecution for one’s beliefs or identity are well-documented contributors to radicalization.
A friend of mine who recently retired from the Army Reserve after more than twenty years of service has been a lifelong Republican. A small business owner with a strong belief in limited government, she told me that she even agreed with much of the political philosophy of tea party with their emphasis on reducing the scope of the federal government. This distinguished veteran was alarmed and frustrated, however, that as a Muslim, there seems to be no place for her in American conservative politics. I have heard the same lament from other American Muslims with the same political leanings.
The opportunistic use of Islamophobia in the last presidential and midterm elections by a number of Republicans could only be seen as an attack on the patriotism of all Muslim Americans. The only good Muslims, it seems, are those who renounce their religion, or at least, disassociates themselves from their communities. Maybe the political right has made the calculation that they do not need the votes of American Muslims, and that demonizing Islam will “rally their base” bringing even more votes. What a sad and cynical political calculation this is, and a violation of the obligation of all seeking public office to represent all Americans. No matter what one’s political affiliation, we should all acknowledge that we are less secure domestically and internationally if one of the two major political parties in the United States is associated with hatred of Muslims.
I was speaking this morning, for example, with an influential businessman in Kuwait. Recall that substantial U.S. resources – both financial and human – were expended to defend Kuwait from Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War. The first thing this man told me is that he was alarmed by the Peter King hearings and worried that it demonstrated an increasing hostility in America to Muslims. I am sure that he is not the only Kuwaiti, much less the only Muslim in an allied nation, who has heard about the hearings and has similarly interpreted them as an attack on Islam. I am certain that hostile regimes are actively promoting this view.
Why should we care about this? The fact is that such perceptions contribute to the attractiveness of the radical message. As Denis McDonough, Deputy National Security Advisor to President Obama has said, ” – based on extensive investigations, research and profiles of the violent extremists we’ve captured or arrested, and who falsely claim to be fighting in the name of Islam, we know that they all share one thing–they all believe that the United States is somehow at war with Islam, and that this justifies violence against Americans.”
Now, this is not the first time that news of hostility expressed towards Muslims by some American politician or government official has circulated around the world. Fortunately, in those cases, and today as we discuss the King hearings, responsible leaders are giving a different message, and this is what I told my Kuwaiti friend and asked him to convey to others. As always, many American faith leaders – Christian, Jews, Sikhs and others – have stood up for Muslim Americans. Sunday, hundreds of people attended the “Today I am a Muslim Too” rally organized by Russell Simmons and Rabbi Marc Schneier of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.
For his part, Denis McDonough made the above statement Sunday in a meeting at the All-Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) Center in Virginia. In his compelling speech, McDonough expressed the Obama administration’s consistent message that Muslim Americans are making positive contributions in all areas of life – as valued physicians, intellectuals, athletes, entertainers and scientists – and have been eager partners in trying to refute the message of the extremists and bring greater security to the nation.
It is important to recognize that McDonough did not deny the fact that al-Qaeda has been successful in recruiting some Muslim Americans to their radical and violent ideology. He rightly noted, however, that the Muslim American community is at least as concerned, if not more, than other Americans about this. After all, worldwide, the vast majority of people killed in al-Qaeda inspired attacks have been other Muslims – soldiers and policemen, doctors and nurses, teachers and ordinary people trying to build their own countries and make better lives for their families.
On the domestic front, as on 9/11, Muslims would perish in any attack on American civilians. For the last 10 years, Muslim Americans have shared the heightened level of anxiety of other Americans as we walked through Times Square, descended into the subway, or boarded airplanes with our children. This has been reason enough for Muslim Americans to contribute to the effort towards greater security. In addition to this real concern for our lives that Muslims share with other Americans, we are also emotionally and spiritually wounded by the misuse of our cherished religion to justify such attacks. It is the ultimate heresy. I can only imagine how devastating it would be to learn that one’s own child had been lured into radical ideology by the emotional manipulation of terrorist recruiters.
For the last ten years, since the terrorist threat became apparent, the Muslim American community has put enormous resources into disseminating fatwas against terrorism, organizing conferences and workshops to teach how to respond to the radicals’ message, and strengthening relationships with law enforcement.
At the same time, it is also true that some Muslim Americans are wary about working with law enforcement – especially the FBI – on this issue. Is this because they sympathize with the terrorists’ message as some suggest? In my conversations with some community leaders and ordinary Muslims, their wariness comes from a lack of trust in law enforcement. For many immigrants, this wariness immigrated with them when they fled authoritarian regimes where the intelligence services committed the worse violations of human rights. For Americans who lived through the worst abuses of COINTELPRO in the 1960s and 1970s, their trust was broken long ago. As Fordham University professor Brian Glick’s book War at Home demonstrates, many Americans are still concerned that the FBI has not abandoned unethical practices in their investigations.
Is it only conspiracy-theorists and those subscribing to marginal political views who are wary of the FBI? Not at all. A 2008 survey of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Scientists showed that “Only 35 percent of scientists would share research results with the FBI. By comparison, 87 percent of the scientists said they would discuss their work with the public. ‘They would rather talk with a total stranger from the general public than an FBI agent about their research,’ says Michael Stebbins, the director of biology policy at the Federation of American Scientists. Stebbins helped plan the survey. ‘That is just shocking to me,’ he says. ‘To see that so many of them didn’t trust the FBI on a fundamental level really showed that there is an uphill battle that the FBI has to face.’” Perhaps even more telling is the fact that only 12% of scientist sent the survey even responded. An NPR story about this suggests that the FBI’s accusation of an innocent army scientist in their investigation of the 2001 anthrax killings made many scientists wary of working with the FBI.
Because of these concerns, major Muslim American organizations and communities around the country have invited the FBI to hold town hall forums and meetings to build trust. We recognize that effective intelligence gathering is essential to our common security. Muslim Americans must have confidence in law enforcement so they will call when they suspect that someone might be up to no good. It is because we understand the importance of trust that many of us are troubled by some of the sting operations and planting of what seem to be agent provocateurs in some incidents, while in other cases, individuals reporting suspicious activities have been pressured to become informants.
Now, while the majority of Americans would probably have little reluctance to make a call to the FBI to report suspicious activity, I suspect that the majority would not want to take on the risk to themselves and their families of becoming informants. Putting this kind of pressure on an individual who only wants to report suspicious behavior can deter others from making a similar call in the future. In addition, I have heard from at least one community that they did not call the FBI when a new person spouting extremist beliefs turned up in their mosque because they were sure he was sent by the government to lure others who might have extremist views, as they read had happened in some other communities. The result was a kind of “cry wolf” effect, where the community, certain that this individual was not a legitimate threat (as turned out to be the case), simply shunned him and he quickly disappeared. This is exceedingly dangerous and if the King hearings can focus on how to better build trust and maintain effective communication between law enforcement and Muslim American communities, they could make a positive contribution.
Ingrid Mattson, PhD
Director of the Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, Hartford Seminary, Hartford, CT