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Peter King hearing: Why won't media – or Muslims – address Islamism in America?

America’s freedoms aren't in danger from Islamists. But we can't ignore Islamist influences on Muslim-American organizations. It is not enough for Muslims here simply to assert their rights but also to address questions whose continued neglect fuels understandable anxieties.

By Peter Skerry and Gary Schmitt / March 10, 2011



Boston and Washington

How worried should we be about Muslims in America?

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That question lies at the heart of this week’s controversial hearing about radicalization in America’s Muslim community chaired by Rep. Peter King (R) of New York. Supporters call it a timely investigation. Critics call it a witch hunt.

But as Arab uprisings raise prospects for broader Islamist governance in the Middle East, both sides should use the hearings to reflect on how US policies toward Islamists overseas could inform the way we address Muslim activists here at home. Despite obvious differences, there are some parallels worth pondering.

Whether overseas or at home, we have typically muddled along, often pursuing the path of least resistance.

In Egypt, this meant supporting a dictator who kept the Islamists at bay. Here in the US, our approach has been more multifaceted, but ad hoc and opportunistic nevertheless.

A day of reckoning

Consequently, the day may come when we wake up, as we have in Egypt, to the realization that our aversion to more-demanding, far-sighted approaches leaves us with fewer and less-palatable options here at home than we would like.

At bottom, Islamists are Muslims who want to make the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad the basis of government. In Egypt, they are organized as the Muslim Brotherhood, exercising their clout through social, charitable, educational, and political channels. Islamists don’t enjoy similar influence here, but they have long been a prominent factor in the political life of American Muslims.

This does not mean that Islamists reflect the views of the majority of Muslims in either country. Nor does it mean that most Muslim-American leaders are members of the Muslim Brotherhood, though many have been and some may still be. The key point is that the leadership of the Muslim American community does have historical ties and intellectual debts to Islamism. Here, as in Egypt, Islamism has importantly shaped the discourse and the organizations that Muslims are now using to carve out civic and political space for their religion.

Does this mean that America’s freedoms are in danger from these same Islamists? We think not. But we are struck as well by the tendency of many in the United States, including the media and various government agencies, to ignore the Islamist influences on established Muslim-American organizations and their leaders. For example, the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), which has origins and ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, is routinely described and treated as though it were just another civil rights or advocacy organization.

The price of ignorance

In turn, such studied ignorance in the face of this easily verified history, has created a backlash among other Americans that something important is being hidden from them – a sure recipe for generating conspiracies and popular distrust of Muslim Americans more generally.

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