The truth about Muslims in America
Throughout our history, the United States has endured periodic outbreaks of fear and hysteria — from the Red Scare to the Yellow Peril. To that ignoble list, we can now add the “Muslim Menace.”
Echoing “takeover” rhetoric from the past (communists in government, Asians in the workplace), demagogues and anti-Islam groups are using legitimate concerns about homegrown terrorism as an opportunity to stir fears of a stealth Muslim takeover of the United States.
Against this backdrop of growing Islamophobia in America, Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., begins hearings today in the House Homeland Security Committee on “the extent of radicalization of American Muslims.”
King has tried to tamp down anxiety in the Muslim community about the hearings with statements about the many “good Muslims” who are “outstanding Americans.” At the same time, however, he keeps repeating an unsubstantiated allegation that “over 80% of the mosques in this country are controlled by radical Imams.” And he claims that many American Muslim leaders “acquiesce in terror or ignore the threat.”
With King’s imam-bashing as the starting point, it’s not surprising that American Muslims — as well as many Americans of other faiths — worry that congressional hearings will be used to further conflate terrorism and Islam in the public imagination.
It’s already getting ugly out there.
Last week video images surfaced of angry hecklers in Orange County, Calif., shouting “terrorists go home” and other insults to American Muslim families attending a fundraiser last month to fight homelessness and hunger. Small children can be seen huddled close to their parents as they navigate through shouting protesters and ugly signs to get in and out of the building.
In Tennessee, two state legislators are pushing legislation that would criminalize “Shariah law,” a proposal based on a confused and distorted definition of Islamic religious law that, if enacted, would violate the First Amendment. This effort follows the passage last November of an unnecessary and, I believe, unconstitutional amendment to the Oklahoma constitution banning courts from considering Shariah law.
All this comes after months of anti-mosque protests across the country led by “stop Islamization of America” groups working hard to convince Americans that many Muslims in the U.S. want to subvert the Constitution and impose Shariah law.
If Rep. King really wants to combat homegrown terrorism, he can start by exposing the American people to the truth about Islam and Muslims in America. Contrary to King’s unsupported belief that mosque leaders are the source of radicalization, a study released last year by scholars at Duke University and the University of North Carolina concluded that American Muslim leaders have created programs in mosques that can be credited with preventing radicalization and violence.
Another study, released last week by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, shows that the number of American Muslims who perpetrated or were arrested for terrorist acts aimed at domestic targets declined sharply in 2010 (down to 10 from 18 in 2009). In many cases of suspected terrorist activity in the U.S. since 9/11, tips from the American Muslim community led to a terrorist plot being thwarted.
The Triangle Center study also notes that there were more than 20 terrorist plots by non-Muslims in the U.S. in 2010. King has no plans to address these plots during his hearings.
Homegrown terrorism — of whatever stripe — is a serious issue that deserves serious attention. But a congressional hearing singling out one religious community and framed by vague, unsubstantiated charges against the leadership of that community is an affront to religious freedom.
Speaking at a mosque last Sunday, White House advisor Denis McDonough offered a different starting point: “When it comes to preventing violent extremism and terrorism in the United States, Muslim Americans are not part of the problem, you’re part of the solution.”
If you must have hearings, Mr. King, that’s the place to begin.
Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C., 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.