Commentary: Fuel for the bigots of our world
Unlike Moses Herzog, the eponymous character of Saul Bellow's novel "Herzog," I do not feverishly compose mad letters to public figures and sinister government agencies (the IRS, for instance). But I often yell back at the TV set. This happened Sunday when Candy Crowley on CNN asked Rep. Peter King what his hearings into Muslim radicalism are really about. "Good luck, Candy," I yelled, having asked the same question of King's staff just the day before. Here, I am sure, is the answer: The hearings are about Pete King.
King is the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. On Thursday, he will inaugurate hearings into something or other. Their official title is "The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and That Community's Response." The last part -- "That Community's Response" -- is already clear when it comes to King. The Muslim American community has taken umbrage and has demonstrated its outrage in, among other places, King's district on Long Island. King thinks they are being overly sensitive.
It happens to be an awkward fact that just last month, a University of North Carolina terrorism expert, Charles Kurzman, reported a drop in attempted or actual terrorist activity by American Muslims -- 47 perpetrators and suspects in 2009, 20 in 2010. This does not mean that there is no threat, but, when measured against ordinary violent crime, it is slight. In fact, the threat from non-Muslims is much greater, encompassing not only your run-of-the-mill murderers but about 20 domestic terrorist plots, including one where a plane was flown into an IRS building in Austin, Texas. Herzog merely wrote imaginary letters.
The findings of the Kurzman study just get more and more awkward. It turns out that in exposing alleged terrorist plots, "the largest single source of initial information (48 of 120 cases) involved tips from the Muslim American community." Not only does this contradict King's implicit charge that the American Muslim community is one vast terrorism enabler, but it suggests that an outcome of his hearings will be the further alienation of this community -- and less cooperation with the authorities.
King is setting a dangerous precedent. The government has no business examining any peaceful religious group because a handful of adherents have broken the law.
In the case of the Muslim American community, there is no evidence of any centralized conspiracy involving terrorism or that Muslims are any less appalled and opposed to terrorism than non-Muslims. Not a single government official has suggested otherwise and whatever (insignificant) information is produced by these hearings will be hugely offset by the comfort they provide anti-Muslim bigots. A political insane asylum has formed in America organized around the mad conviction that President Obama is a Muslim and not therefore a real American.
This is the real damage King does. Inherent in his rhetoric and his insistence on holding his hearings is the insinuation that Islam is not itself American. This, of course, is what some people once thought of Roman Catholicism. The aptly named Know Nothing movement of the mid-19th century was organized around such sentiment.
Terrorism remains a threat and there is such a thing as Islamic terrorism -- or, to put it another way, terrorism conducted in the name of Islam. In this country, much of the internal threat comes from a very small number of addled young men whose incompetence is often just plain awe-inspiring. They no more represent the American Muslim community than some randy priest does Peter King. As low as the standard is, Congress has better things to do.
Richard Cohen's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.