Representative Peter King (R) of New York is holding congressional hearings on the “threat of homegrown Islamic terrorism” today. Mr. King has lodged a number of accusations against American Muslims, alleging that they have been uncooperative with law enforcement officials in preventing terrorism plots here in the United States. His accusations, however, are built on distortions of the facts that have been refuted by top law enforcement officials. The problem with the King hearings is not simply that they amount to shameful bigotry; these hearings are counterproductive. They fail to address the root causes of homegrown terrorism and alienate rather than engage one of the greatest assets in the fight against Islamic extremism – American Muslims.
As Attorney General Eric Holder stated recently, “The cooperation of Muslim and Arab-American communities has been absolutely essential in identifying, and preventing, terrorist threats.” According to the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, Muslim American cooperation led to thwarted terrorist plots in 48 of 120 cases involving Muslim Americans. Last year, the RAND corporation reported that the low rate of would-be violent extremists indicates that American Muslims are opposed to “jihadist ideology and its exhortations to violence” and therefore, "a mistrust of American Muslims by other Americans seems misplaced.”
Since 9/11, millions of research dollars have been spent on understanding American Muslims: how many there are, how religious they are, and how satisfied or “happy” they are living in the US. A 2007 Pew study, reassuringly titled “Muslim Americans: Mostly Middle Class and Mainstream,” found them to be largely assimilated, politically moderate, and similar to other American religious groups in their values, degree of religious observance, and, yes, even happiness.
Muslim Americans: moderate, mainstream
In a Duke University study, counterterrorism researchers found very low numbers of what they termed “radicalized” American Muslims and that American mosques were taking pragmatic steps to counter extremism. Some of these community-based initiatives include public and collective denunciations of terrorism, self-policing, developing community resources, and nurturing civic engagement.
In the face of this research, King still insists that 85 percent of American mosques have “extremist leadership” and that ordinary American Muslims are not opposed to terrorism. But a 2004 survey of mosque congregations in greater Detroit conducted by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding found that the vast majority of mosque participants shun extremist views (92 percent) and are virtually unanimous (93 percent) in supporting community service and political involvement.
Muslims worry about extremism too
While studies show that most Muslim Americans shun extremism, King might ask: What about the remaining outliers who don’t? What are we doing about them? Even if they only make up a tiny percentage of American Muslim communities, the scale of their violent destruction could be incalculable.
American Muslims are painfully aware of the fact that the actions of a few can have global, deleterious consequences on our society in general, and on Muslim communities in particular. That’s why Muslim leaders are educating their youth, cooperating with law enforcement, and repeatedly, publicly condemning terrorism. King and others concerned about homegrown terrorism ought to support them. Instead, King’s hearings treat all Muslim Americans as dangerous outsiders, which undermines the counter-terrorism efforts within American mosques.
Bigotry alienates, not engages
While both the Bush and Obama administrations have gone to great lengths to defend Muslim Americans as patriotic citizens, 9/11 re-legitimized the once-discredited practice of racial profiling. In the 1990s, racial profiling had largely been dismissed as an inefficient, ineffective, and unfair policy that George W. Bush had openly condemned. But after 9/11, there was a new public consensus that racial profiling was essential for the nation’s survival.
In the wake of 9/11, Gallup polls found that one-third of New Yorkers supported the internment of Arab Americans and that even the majority of African Americans surveyed (71 percent) supported the racial profiling of Arabs. A 2006 Gallup poll showed that 39 percent of Americans believe all Muslims, even US citizens, should be forced to carry special identification cards.
Clearly, such anti-Muslim sentiments have not abated over time, evinced by the grass-roots opposition to the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” in 2010. The protests devolved into a campaign against mosques throughout the country, in red states and blue states, in cities and small towns. Recently, more than a dozen states have introduced or approved measures to “ban sharia.” Republican Tennessee state Senator Bill Ketron claims his proposed “sharia ban” is “a powerful counter-terrorism tool.” However, the language of his bill is so sweeping and so misguided about what sharia is and is not, that, if passed, it would essentially make it a felony to be a devout Muslim in Tennessee.
If King and other officials are genuinely concerned about preventing homegrown terrorism, they might consider the anti-Muslim climate they are perpetuating and do a bit of homework. Recent reports from the CIA and the NYPD indicate that two of the very few traits that Muslim “homegrown terrorists” share is a sense of moral outrage over the suffering of Muslims worldwide and a personal experience of discrimination and social alienation. If there are disaffected Muslim American youth who are susceptible to extremism, King’s hearings and the “sharia bans” are likely to aggravate, not alleviate, their alienation.
Diverts energy from combatting homegrown terror
Furthermore, this hostile political climate undermines Muslim community-based efforts to combat homegrown extremism by diverting precious energies and resources away from intra-community challenges toward shielding against external pressures, such as Islamophobic hearings and legislation.
Recently, the Muslim Public Affairs Council produced a counter-terrorism YouTube video featuring the who’s who of American imams condemning terrorism and absolving Islam of any association with it. The video, “Injustice Cannot Defeat Injustice,” has a reasonable message, but an apolitical tone. Although it purports to be addressing disaffected Muslim youth, the video’s real audience seems to be non-Muslims. American Muslims have upheld their responsibility to combat extremism, but they need to take the political grievances of disaffected youth more seriously.
Ultimately, the most powerful counterterrorism strategy has come not from Capitol Hill but from Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt. The peaceful protests in the Middle East have demonstrated that global Muslim suffering is real and that its source is political, not religious. More important, those demonstrations prove that Muslim youth in the Middle East – and the US – can work for social justice and civil rights successfully, like American minorities before them, armed with patience and courage, rather than weapons.
Zareena Grewal is an assistant professor of American Studies and Religious Studies at Yale University and director of the Center for the Study of American Muslims at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.