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Congressman King seems bent on ratcheting up anti-Muslim hysteria

Jonathan Hicks | 4/12/2011, 4:45 p.m.

It is always deeply unsettling to hear anyone vilify an entire group of people in guilt-by-association, broad-brushed strokes. It's even more disturbing to see a ritual laced with bigotry unfold before our very eyes in the halls of Congress. But that's precisely what is taking place in hearings scheduled to be conducted by Congressman Peter King, the new chairman of the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee.

The Republican representative from Long Island is holding hearings to examine the "extent of radicalization" among Muslims in the United States. It's King's contention that the threat of terrorism in the U.S. is particularly acute within the nation's Muslim community, and that law enforcement officials insist that Muslim leaders have been uncooperative in assisting investigations of potential terrorist threats.

Just this week, King was on television insisting that American Muslim leaders routinely encourage potential terrorists by asking others within their community to turn a blind eye to law enforcement efforts to root them out. "These hearings are absolutely essential," King said on MSNBC. "I'm facing reality. My critics are not. They want to get tied up in some world of political correctness."

There are a number of realities to consider here that are being ignored by the congressman. First, King's hearings focus squarely and exclusively on the Muslim community in the U.S., essentially painting an entire religious group with one broad brush. The fact that the hearings are being undertaken clearly with the consent and encouragement of the leadership of the House is another indication of the disturbing tendencies of the new, Republican-controlled wing of Congress. For African-Americans, this is a clear and distressing warning sign of the kind of philosophical danger now seeping through Congress. If they target one group for investigation, what's to keep them from doing the same with another?

The congressman has reached some misguided conclusions. Just this month, the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, a research center run cooperatively by Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and RTI International, released a report that clearly refutes the premise under which King is operating. The Triangle Center's research shows that the number of Muslim-Americans who perpetrated or were arrested for terrorist acts declined sharply in 2010. The report also stated that a significant number of terror plots--slightly less than half--were thwarted because of tips from within the Muslim-American community.

The evidence would suggest that no group is more interested in eliminating the problem of terrorism from within the nation's Muslim community than members of that community themselves. And the congressman's premise--that Muslim-Americans are providing aid and comfort to terrorism--simply does not hold water. But more than that, it's a dangerous tactic to somehow paint that community as possessing a patently un-American or anti-American root.

So, what's this really about? King seems bent on ratcheting up anti-Muslim hysteria for political gain with the far Right. Meanwhile, the prospect of the hearings has caused Muslim-Americans to feel, correctly, that they are being targeted for congressionally sanctioned persecution. Congressman Keith Ellison, a Democrat from Minnesota who is African-American and the first Muslim-American elected to Congress, accurately called the hearings a "McCarthyistic" witch hunt that could demonize Muslims.

And so it's another shameful example of a Republican agenda that appeals to the most base underside of our national personality. While the motives may be political, the consequences in terms of suspicion, unfair treatment and even violence against American citizens who are Muslims are real and ominous. We witnessed the effect of anti-Muslim hysteria in 2001 and again last year with the controversy over an Islamic cultural center in Lower Manhattan. We don't need an encore played again. President Obama and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg have distanced themselves from the hearings, saying they are wrongheaded. The leaders of the House should do the same.