by Christopher Lin
Sometime during the week of March 7, 2011, the House Committee on Homeland Security will hold hearings examining whether Muslim Americans are becoming radicalized and pose a threat to the nation’s security. Civil rights groups are worried that the hearings will turn into a political witch-hunt, akin to the anti-communist investigations conducted during the Cold War. As political leaders the world over begin to decry the “failure” of multiculturalism, one wonders if the United States will also begin to doubt the benefits of its pluralistic society. While “American culture” may be difficult to fully define, attempting to do so is an inherently political exercise; the fear is that the hearings will leave Muslim Americans increasingly ostracized.
The hearings follow on the heels of several domestic attacks involving Muslim Americans. A report by the Congressional Research Service entitled “American Jihadist Terrorism: Combating a Complex Threat” notes that between May 2009 and November 2010, “arrests were made for 22 ‘homegrown,’ jihadist-inspired terrorist plots by American citizens or legal permanent residents of the United States.” Two of the plots resulted in attacks, producing 14 deaths. However, between the 9/11 attacks through May 2009, there were only 21 such plots with two attacks (1). The rise in the number of attacks in the past two years may have provided greater impetus to the hearings, and kept the issue in the minds of members of Congress.
High-level politicians in other countries have also begun to focus on the perceived domestic dangers of radicalized Muslims. In October last year, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, “the approach [to build] a multicultural [society] and to live side-by-side and to enjoy each other…has failed, utterly failed.”(2) While Merkel was speaking about immigrants as a whole, with Germany’s large Turkish population and Hamburg’s history with radicalized Muslims, focusing specifically on Muslim immigrants and the children of Muslim immigrants offers German politicians an easy target for mobilizing xenophobic anger to the polls. Here in the United States, congressional lawmakers and local elected officials may believe they can benefit from stirring up the same anti-Islamic passions, especially if they represent constituencies devoid or containing a very small minority of Muslims.
In a speech in January 2011, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, co-chairman of the ruling Conservative Party in England, noted the growing acceptance of Islamophobia in today’s society: “Indeed, it seems to me that Islamophobia has now crossed the threshold of middle-class respectability [….] For far too many people, Islamophobia is seen as a legitimate – even commendable – thing. You could even say that Islamophobia has now passed the dinner-table-test.”(3) The fear is that in the United States, the upcoming House hearings will serve to further legitimize Islamophobia, alienating Muslims even more in the minds of many Americans.
Congressman Peter King (R-NY), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, has been the focus of criticism for those worried that the hearing will degenerate into attacks on the patriotism of Muslim Americans. King represents a solidly-Republican district in an area surrounded by Democratic-controlled districts.(4) As an outspoken critic of how the Muslim community has responded in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, King’s relationship with Muslim Americans throughout the country (including those within and near his own district) has been fraught with tension.
On February 1, 2011, the organization Muslim Advocates, representing a coalition of 51 “community organizations and groups concerned about civil and human rights and national security,” wrote a letter to House Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi objecting to the upcoming House hearings (5). On the same day, the ranking member on the House Homeland Security Committee, Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS), wrote a letter to Chairman King arguing that the scope of the hearings should be expanded beyond just Muslim Americans. In the letter, Thompson notes that a Department of Homeland Security poll of state law enforcement agencies showed that “there are a variety of domestic extremist groups more prevalent in the United States than Islamic extremists, including neo-Nazis, environmental extremists, anti-tax groups, and others.” For example, while Islamic extremist groups were named a threat in 31 states, neo-Nazi groups were cited as a serious threat in 46 states (6). This is why many Muslim Americans and their supporters have viewed Chairman King’s hearings as a mere witch-hunt; the threat from radicalized Americans extends far beyond the threat of jihadists. While Chairman King may feel that the greatest threat is from Muslim Americans, critics view the threat as far more diverse, and believe that focusing on Muslims is purely a product of prejudice.
The controversy goes to the heart of the dual-role that our elected officials play: they are both representatives and delegates. While elected to carry out the specific wishes of their constituents (the representative role), they are also trusted to make decisions that will benefit the community as a whole (as delegates). This latter role is especially important concerning issues that were not foreseen or require greater specialized knowledge. Therefore, representatives and senators not only seek direction from their constituents but provide direction in return, however subtly. Prejudice that is given voice by elected officials becomes self-reinforcing; it is further “legitimized” through legislation like the anti-Chinese laws in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Prejudice then receives “the government’s stamp of approval”; it becomes more difficult to expunge from society.
On February 5, 2011, British Prime Minister David Cameron delivered a speech at the Munich Security Conference in which he attacked the concept of multiculturalism. In the speech, Cameron suggested that part of the root which fuels Islamic radicalism is the crisis of identity engendered by multiculturalism: “Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream. We have failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong”(7). Yet this is the great irony; how will Muslim Americans feel part of the mainstream when our political leaders continue to assert that they are not? The issue of cooperation with authorities is a serious concern. In the past, other subsections of American society have been accused of the same (such as the African-American community). Those who feel singled out by the authorities will not assist them. Law enforcement officials are often the most visible arms of the government, and a refusal to cooperate with them reflects a greater protest of government authority as a whole. Hopefully, the upcoming hearings will not reinforce this alienation. As political leaders the world over attack multiculturalism, it is time for the United States to confront its own views head-on.
1. Jerome P. Bjelopera and Mark A. Randol. American Jihadist Terrorism- Combating a Complex Threat. U.S. Congressional Research Service, Washington D.C. 7 Dec. 2010. LexisNexis® Congressional Research Digital Collection. Web. p. 2. 2 Feb. 2011.
2. “Merkel says German multicultural society has failed.” BBC News, London, England. 17 Oct. 2010. Bbc.co.uk. Web. 3 Feb. 2011. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-11559451>.
3. “Baroness Warsi Speech: Bigotry against faith.” University of Leicester, Leicester, England. 20 Jan. 2011 Www2.le.ac.uk. Web. 4 Feb. 2011. <http://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/press/media-centre/baroness-warsi-speech/sayeeda-warsi-delivers-2011-university-of-leicester-sir-sigmund-sternberg-lecture-1>.
4. “New York 3rd District Race Profile- Election 2010.” New York Times, New York. 12 Dec. 2010. Elections.nytimes.com. Web. 4 Feb. 2011. <http://elections.nytimes.com/2010/house/new-york/3>.
5. “Coalition Ltr re King Hearings, 2-1-11.” Muslim Advocates, Washington D.C. 1 Feb. 2011. Muslimadvocates.org. Web. 5 Feb. 2011. <http://www.muslimadvocates.org/Coalition%20Ltr%20re%20King%20hearings%2C%202-1-11.pdf>
6. “Letter to Chairman King.” House Committee on Homeland Security: Democrats, Washington D.C. 1 Feb. 2011. Chsdemocrats.house.gov. Web. 5 Feb. 2011. <http://chsdemocrats.house.gov/SiteDocuments/20110201170912-79822.pdf>.
7. “PM’s speech at Munich Security Conference.” Prime Minister’s Office, London, England. 5 Feb. 2011. Number10.gov.uk. Web. 5 Feb. 2011. <http://www.number10.gov.uk/news/speeches-and-transcripts/2011/02/pms-speech-at-munich-security-conference-60293>.