Rep. Peter King (R-NY) plans to hold hearings this month in the U.S. House of Representatives on his inflammatory charges about “radicalized Muslims” in America. According to King, 80 percent of mosques in this country are controlled by radical imams—including the Long Island mosque in his district that he regularly used to visit. King also believes that Muslim Americans are unpatriotic and that they don’t cooperate with law enforcement in identifying extremists in their communities.
King’s blanket condemnation of a diverse religious community flies in the face of facts. According to recent statistics, Muslim-American communities have helped prevent more than one-third of Al Qaeda terrorist plots in the United States since 9/11. Furthermore, a study by Duke University and the University of North Carolina last year found that community mosques actually deter radicalization and extremism through a range of efforts such as publicly denouncing violence, confronting extremists, providing programs for youth, and cooperating with law enforcement. And a study released yesterday showed terrorist attempts by Muslim Americans significantly declined last year. The study further said tips from Muslim-American communities provided information that thwarted terrorist plots in 48 of 120 cases involving Muslim Americans.
King’s slanderous talk ignores the millions of hardworking, law-abiding Muslims in this country. Muslims have been part of America since before we were a nation, have fought in every war (including the Revolutionary War), and are an integral part of the vibrant mosaic that makes us who we are. Muslim Americans participate in virtually every sector of society and engage in interfaith efforts that bring together Christians, Muslims, and Jews to work for the common good. The fact that Muslim Americans strongly denounce terrorism, prove their patriotism, and serve their communities and nation every single day has been demonstrated in ways large and small.
Yet anti-Muslim hateful speech still thrives. Anti-Muslim hate crimes are on the rise as well. Last month police in Michigan arrested a man who was planning to blow up the Islamic Center for America, located in Dearborn. The mosque had been threatened and vandalized before, as have scores of other mosques, Islamic community centers, and individuals who are Muslim American.
Such actions and hate speech are a shameful reminder of past discrimination and intolerance, when Catholics, Jews, Mormons, and others were persecuted for their beliefs. For instance, in the 19th century, Catholics were beaten, their homes were burned, and their clergy were attacked by those who saw them as suspicious and foreign. In St. Louis, Catholics who tried to vote were assaulted and some were killed. Our history shows the hard-won progress we have made—and how far we still have to go—in making real the promise of religious liberty for all Americans.
Hateful speech and actions against Muslim Americans and Islam are not only morally wrong and personally dangerous, however. They can also weaken our national security. In “The Distorted Lens of Islamophobia,” we explain that using an “us vs. them” framework regarding Muslims echoes the frame of terrorists who claim that the United States is fighting a global war against Islam.
Such rhetoric not only mimics the words of those who want to kill us; it also harms our efforts to win allies in Muslim-majority countries. Make no mistake. Millions of people beyond our shores have satellite TV, which means they hear extremist views from our elected officials and political leaders and see acts of violence. They hear Rep. Allen West (R-FL) saying Islam is a “very vile and very vicious enemy that we have allowed to come in this country because we ride around with bumper stickers that say co-exist.” They hear Newt Gingrich decrying Muslim civic engagement as a threat to American values. They read Sarah Palin’s tweets that a mosque near Ground Zero is a stab in the heart of 9/11 victims.
As we head into a heated presidential election cycle, we need to get smarter. We need to learn that sharia is not a unified code of law but a personal system of moral guidance, based on diverse (and often conflicting) scholarly opinions. We need to learn that there is no monolithic “Muslim community” in the United States, but a number of diverse communities, made up of different ethnicities and races, immigrants and native-born, young and old, converts and those born to the faith.
And we need to realize that the world will be watching Rep. King’s hearings. He will have a global platform that will shape a narrative about whether America is a true home for Muslim Americans—or whether we see millions of our fellow citizens as alien and suspect because of their faith. America’s moral leadership and core values are two of her most valuable global assets. Let us hope that the King hearings do not trample on those values—and let us each do our part to make those values visible and real to neighbors at home and abroad.
Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. For more on this initiative, please see its project page.
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