Representative Peter King’s (R-N.Y.) congressional hearings on the extent of radicalization in the American Muslim community are not designed to uncover facts and resolve conflicts. Like the McCarthy hearings of a bygone era, and indeed like the very extremism they claim to fight, the hearings are designed to fuel emotions – not noble emotions like patriotism, solidarity, and love of humankind but base emotions like fear, suspicion, and hatred. No matter how much we wish to argue against emotions with facts, emotions will always be more powerful than raw data. This makes emotions the source of our greatest weakness as well as our greatest strength.
Facts do not support the narrative of increasing Muslim-American radicalization. According to the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, in 2010, the number of American Muslims involved in terrorist acts dropped by more than half compared to 2009. More non-Muslims than Muslims were involved in terrorist attacks overall. A fact-based approach would suggest that it is essential to let law enforcement officials testify on hearings that are supposed to “prove” how American Muslim leaders have failed to cooperate with law enforcement. As an American Muslim leader who has worked with FBI agents on eradicating extremism since right after 9/11, I am saddened that Rep. King feels that security professionals’ and counterterrorism experts’ testimony constitutes irrelevant data on this subject. Yet again, the hearings are not about data and facts. They are about emotions.
Muslims in the United States are certainly not immune to radicalizing emotions. No single group of people is. Radicals of every creed and religion often feed off of each others’ hate and fear, fueling a vicious cycle of anger and violence. Similarly, moderates within creeds and religions have regularly broken religious lines to express solidarity with their supposed enemies. The largest single source of initial information on planned terrorist attacks by Muslims in the United States involved tips from the Muslim-American community itself. Can we really afford to alienate this vital moderate majority and tell Muslim Americans that they, their religion, their prayers, hopes and dreams for a safer world are unwelcome?
Singling out and alienating a religious community is not the antidote to extremism. The antidote is to unite against fear and anger, and for security, across all boundaries. Uniting against extremism means working across all religions and creeds, including with agnostics and atheists, towards the common human goals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It means refusing to ostracize a quarter of humanity simply because they are Muslims. It also means making sure we have the correct facts and are motivated by the right emotions for the wellbeing of all. This has been my goal and the mission of the Cordoba Initiative, the multi-faith, multi-national organization I founded to break the cycle of mistrust, misunderstanding and irrational fear that exists between many Muslims and Westerners.
In these difficult times, we would do well to remember Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s words, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself–nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Today, I urge all Americans to move away from one set of emotions towards another, from fear to courage, from self-destructive retreat to meaningful advance.
The actual battlefront of our times is not between Islam and America, but between moderates of all faiths against the extremists of all faiths, between the purveyors of fear and the champions of love. If we will not be convinced by the right facts, shouldn’t we at least be motivated by the right emotions?