Last week’s congressional hearings on the Muslim community didn’t go quite the way Rep. Peter King hoped and expected. Their content turned out to be more of a referendum on whether such hearings themselves were a good idea, interrupting the fear mongering political theater that King had set up. There’s more racial scapegoating to come from some congressional quarters though, and those of us who love the ideals of religious freedom and racial justice will have to keep honing our fightback tools.
King seemed in good shape as early polls showed 50 percent or more support for the hearings among Americans. But he got himself in trouble early last week when reporters revealed his long-term support of the Irish Republican Army in the 1980s. He lamely responded that the IRA was different because it never tried to attack Americans.
During the hearing itself, King was forced to defend his decision to have it, as most of the testifiers warned against the slide into McCarthyism. Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim to be elected to Congress, stole the show by crying as he told the story of 23-year-old paramedic Mohammed Salman Hamdani, who became the subject of speculation that he’d collaborated with the hijackers after he disappeared on 9/11. It turned out that he was actually among the first responders who died in the towers. Hamdani’s mother, Talat, went to D.C. several weeks ago with other family members of 9/11 victims for a scheduled meeting with Peter King, but he stood them up.
King argued that Muslims have a greater responsibility to turn each other in than other Americans, as he thinks that every Mosque has a bomber hiding in its basement. King refused to broaden the hearing to include other groups, asserting that there is no equivalent between Muslim extremism and, say, neo-Nazis. But of course there was the case of Byron Williams, who was intercepted by California Highway Patrol on his way to shoot up the ACLU and the Tides Foundation last year. And just last week, police arrested Kevin Marpham (a member of the neo-Nazi National Alliance) for appearing to construct a bomb with which to greet marchers at Spokane’s MLK Day rally. In a recent report, Charles Kurzman notes that in 2010, there were more than 20 terrorist plots by non-Muslims. A certain segment of white men appear to be very, very angry.
The law enforcement community was notably absent at Thursday’s hearing, and the only officer to testify, Sheriff Lee Baca from Los Angeles, said that Muslim Americans had a great history of cooperating with law enforcement. Before the hearing, the White House represented itself through Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough, who didn’t condemn the hearings (that would have been a strong statement that, sadly, I don’t expect from the White House) but spoke at a Virginia mosque mostly about how cooperative Muslim communities had been.
All of this theater really turns on the notion that Muslims aren’t actually Americans. It is of a piece with last summer’s mosque mania, and the Republican Party’s ongoing effort to win votes by playing to white Christians’ anxieties about the brown Muslims next door.
But there is some room for change. While most polls, taken ahead of the hearings, showed just over 50 percent support for King’s effort, that broke down heavily along political lines, with Republicans at about 70 percent and Democrats at around 40 percent. Seven in 10 people polled by the Public Religion Research Institute said King should expand the scope of the hearing to other groups. In a Gallup poll, most people said that Muslims are not too extreme in their religious beliefs or supportive of Al Qaeda. Importantly, a good 10 percent were undecided, and that represents a large number of people.
People who want to protect Muslims from undue suspicion and targeting need to focus on these open spaces. We need to keep humanizing Muslims and defending their status as members of American communities. As the tenth anniversary of 9/11 approaches, the grandstanding to force Muslims to prove patriotism will be ratcheted up in a big way. As Republicans try to distract us from their union busting hijinks in statehouses and Congress, their attempts to end birthright citizenship will include a focus on immigrants who are Muslims, South Asians and Arabs. All of us who are committed to the idea that it is not okay to attack people based on their race or religion need to be prepared for these moments.
We should take our cue from Ellison, who let his own humanity shine while he defended that of a young hero. We should act as Talat Hamdani does, and make Muslims increasingly visible and harder to stereotype. Most of all, we should prepare ourselves to speak on this question of who belongs in America—at the dinner table, around the water cooler, and in the halls of Congress.