Once again, reaching narrow political goals and scoring points with particular constituencies are well on the way to trivialize an extremely serious issue in our nation. Republican Peter King, U.S. Representative for New York’s 3rd District and Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee has created a storm with his decision to hold hearings on the radicalization of American Muslims. In the last few weeks, a lot has been written about King, his political past, and the ramifications of these hearings. But it is worth stressing a couple of important points.
Demonizing a whole community under the banner of security is not only unethical, it is also misguided from a policy point of view. Did our politicians learn anything from the plight of Japanese-Americans in World War II? And did they forget Senator Joseph Mc Carthy’s witch hunt to save America from what he perceived as a communist threat? These past governmental actions were morally bankrupt because they positioned the targeted communities and individuals as guilty until proven innocent. A lot of suffering ensued and the ramifications can still be felt decades later among some Americans. So, why are we repeating the same mistakes?
Like other religious groups, American Muslims are a very diverse group ideologically; some are conservative and others are liberal, some are traditional and others are secular. They also come from different ethnic backgrounds; there are African Americans, South Asians, Arabs, Iranians, Europeans, Africans, East Asians, etc… In addition, Muslims have been part of the American landscape for centuries and their personal experiences have varied from generation to generation and from region to region. Yet, the dominant discourses in the political scene and in the media continue to speak of “Muslims” as if they were a monolithic group and as if “Islam” was the only identity marker that mattered. Importantly, by maintaining this narrative, these discourses play in the hand of the Muslim “fundamentalist” groups that have, for a long time, pushed for exactly the same goal, namely making their version of Islam as the only identity marker that counts in the communities in which they operate.
At the same time, the animosity that certain conservative circles have constantly shown towards Muslims helped create a laughingly false image about this minority in the minds of uninformed citizens. Today, as some polls have shown, the majority of Americans are suspicious of all Muslims and their “jihad” and their “sharia.” These hearings and the way they were publicized and presented will only accentuate the fears of the American public about their Muslim neighbors. How in the world can Rep. King think that such situation would make America safer? If anything, this is creating more raw emotions on all sides and opening the doors to more clashes in the future.
As bad as all this sounds, it is not, in my opinion, the worst consequence of this questionable governmental action. Unlike many analysts that maintain that there is no truth to the presence of fundamentalism in American mosques, I believe that fundamentalism is present and that it is shaping the mind of a growing number of young Muslims. This is not to say that this fundamentalist perspective necessarily translates into violence, but it surely creates friction with the larger society and makes those who adhere to it more prone to radicalization. Unfortunately, instead of helping increase scholarly studies about the various religious ideologies that are battling for dominance in American mosques so that 1) we have a better understanding of the situation on the ground and 2) we empower mosque communities against indoctrination attempts through fostering dialogue and education, what the current policy ends up doing is the complete opposite. Rep. King apparently prefers anecdotal evidence and vague talks of “radicalization” and at the same time pushes the mosque communities further from critical self-assessment and towards a more defensive position. At the end, we are left with even more institutionalized ignorance about “American Muslims,” the various American Islams, and about the difficult question of religion and violence.