Hunting for Muslim Radicals

The hearings called by Rep. Peter King set a dangerous precedent. Black leaders should testify to remind Americans about the dangers of stigmatizing an entire community.

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Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Mich.), one of two Muslims in Congress, will testify. (Getty Images)

On Thursday, Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, will hold hearings on the Muslim community and terrorism. "The main goal is to show the extent of radicalization within the Muslim-American community, how dangerous that is, how serious that is," he said on Fox television Sunday. "It's a real threat. It's a growing threat, and it's not just me saying this."

This is dangerous -- not only because the Muslim community is being singled out. And not just because King has refused to widen the scope of his inquiry to scrutinize right-wing domestic terrorism, despite a 2009 report by the Department of Homeland Security (Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment) that warned, "The economic downturn and the election of the first African-American president present unique drivers for right-wing radicalization and recruitment."

No. It is the word "radicalization" that causes worry. It's a slippery term when used by government officials. King and other Republican Party leaders objected to the 2009 report, calling it "offensive" because of its charge of right-wing "radicalization." There are parts of the world in which I have been as a reporter where the accusation -- just the accusation -- of being "radical" translates into "subversive" and gets you killed. This charge can be directed at an individual or a group, but it is always dangerous when leveled by government.

Consider these inflammatory words from Republican Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.), a Tea Party favorite who is African American. He had this to say while campaigning: "We ... have a fifth column that is already infiltrating into our colleges, into our universities, into our high schools, into our religious aspect, our cultural aspect, our financial, our political systems in this country. And that enemy represents something called Islam, and Islam is a totalitarian theocratic political ideology; it is not a religion." I live in Florida. Listening to these words, I felt I was listening to Sen. Joseph McCarthy in blackface.

I can't help assuming that the way Allen thinks about Islam is the way King is thinking, too. And we have seen this political card played over and over again throughout U.S. history, trumping civil and human rights -- or "freedom rights," as the young scholar Hasan Kwame Jeffries perceptively describes them in his book Bloody Lowndes, Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama's Black Belt.

An investigation like the one King is conducting always fails to get to the bottom of what might be real danger. And who, at this point, can doubt that the United States is a target of terrorists claiming to be on a jihad in the name of Allah? But this hardly characterizes the Muslim community in the United States -- or anywhere else in the world, for that matter.

This has to be of special concern to black people in this country. Only the black community and Native Americans -- with "community" being the key word here -- have undergone such similar hysterical assault by government. The attacks against the political left in the 1940s and '50s were not campaigns against whole communities but ideological assaults.

Black people need to understand that this hearing is a sign that we are in danger, too. Think of all the caterwauling over Barack Obama's legitimacy, including charges that he is a secret Muslim. Given the cultivation of enough fear, it does not take long for democratic principles and freedoms to be set aside. Just think of the removal to detention camps of 120,000 U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry in 1942. 

King will have his hearing. It cannot be stopped. Its real purpose is to play to public fear and prejudice, with the aim of scoring political points that will help advance political ambitions. What could be done, however -- and this is just a small step; it does not answer the long-term problem of Islamophobia -- is to turn the immediate public effect of the hearing away from King's intentions. How? Not with a press conference.

Some black leaders should ask to testify and let Americans hear how alarmed they are at this broad attack on a minority community. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), a Muslim convert, will be testifying. He and other black members of Congress should make the case that more than any group, the black American community knows about homegrown terrorism. Let them hear from Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who had firsthand experience with the violence in the 1960s South; or perhaps Julian Bond, an activist with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; or even Henry Louis Gates Jr., editor-in-chief of The Root.

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