WASHINGTON — The wreckage of the World Trade Center still smoldered after the 2001 terrorist attacks when a voice rose above the pain and suspicion to demand that American Muslims not be blamed or mistreated. “Islam is peace,” declared George W. Bush, speaking from a mosque and sounding almost like an imam.
Peter King told The Associated Press that radical Islam is a distinct threat that must be investigated regardless of whose sensibilities are offended. The congressman, a Republican, pointed to his support in the 1990s for hearings into right-wing militias, on grounds that they were the danger of that time. He supported the Irish Republican Army’s political wing in the 1980s and 1990s, a time when the IRA was involved in violence in Northern Ireland. He says now that the IRA and al-Qaida are very different and that the IRA never attacked America.
As a storm gathers over hearings this week on radical Muslims in the U.S., it seems of another time to recall that it was President Bush – the bullhorn-wielding avenger who wanted Osama bin Laden dead or alive, who warned the world “you’re either with us or against us” – who told Americans their Muslim neighbors were with us. Not just that, he said, but they WERE us.
Nearly 10 years and one president later, suspicions persist. The nation hasn’t figured out how to accommodate a sizable and long-established religious minority while pressing full throttle against growing extremist elements and an increase in allegations of homegrown terrorist plots.
Now comes New York Rep. Peter King, forcing the issue with congressional hearings about radical Islam in the U.S. The first is Thursday, and the protests have already started. Among his fiercest critics, comparisons to McCarthyism, the era of hunting communist sympathizers, are being heard.
“We see no productive outcome in singling out a particular community for examination in what appears to be little more than a political show trial,” a coalition of 50 liberal groups said in a letter to King on Tuesday.
With the number of suspected plots increasing and Republicans newly in charge of the House, King now has the power to call attention to the issue as chairman of the Homeland Security Committee.
Of the current situation, he said in an interview, “”You have a violent enemy from overseas which threatens us and which is recruiting people from a community living in our country. That’s … what this hearing’s going to be.”
Despite Bush’s unifying words at a Washington mosque that September day in 2001, the president’s domestic security apparatus never won the trust of many American Muslims, and his war in Iraq only made those tensions worse.
Enter Barack Obama, son of a Muslim father and a man who has traveled to Turkey, Egypt and Indonesia in his presidency as part of a sustained effort to heal rifts with the Islamic world.
But his administration, too, has not come to grips with the divide at home. And discovered domestic jihadist plots have risen during his presidency.
The Obama administration faces the same challenge as the Bush administration did in deciding whether to assign responsibility to religion as a motive for attacking the U.S., says Stewart Baker, a former senior Homeland Security official.
“If you don’t, then it’s a very abstract discussion of why terrorism is bad,” Baker said. “If you do, you raise the profile of religion in ways that make Americans uncomfortable. That concern hasn’t gone away in the new administration – if anything, it’s stronger.”
The government sees a rising threat at home.
In the past two years, authorities say they have uncovered more terrorist plots or have foiled attacks – 24 of them – than were found during the final seven years of Bush’s presidency, when there were 21. Some of that is probably explained by better law enforcement – and, notably, by instances of Islamic community leaders helping the authorities. It is also against a backdrop of increased radicalization seen in the number of converts to Islam among plotters and, in some cases, links to terrorist operatives or trainers abroad.
Suspicion works both ways. Muslim leaders accuse FBI agents of spying and serving as “agent provocateurs” in mosques, contributing to radicalism that can turn violent.
House Republicans leaders do not appear enamored with the hearings. They don’t want a possibly inflammatory distraction when they are trying to keep Congress’ emphasis on the economy. Law enforcement officials are nervous, too, concerned that carefully cultivated relationships with Islamic leaders could be compromised if the hearings stir a hornet’s nest.
But the White House, at least in advance, sounds sanguine.
“We welcome congressional interest in this issue,” Obama spokesman Jay Carney said, though he added quickly: “Muslim Americans are part of the solution here. They’re not the problem.”
This is hardly Congress’s first look at the issue. Radicalized Muslims have been the centerpiece of most of the congressional hearings on violent extremism since the terrorist attacks, a dozen at least. But the latest push comes from a blunt Republican who, at various times, has said that America has too many mosques and that as many as 85 percent of Muslim leaders were not cooperating with authorities.
King has backed off both remarks but asserts Muslim leaders should be doing more to help.
“If we thought the hearings were going to be sober and objective, we wouldn’t have any concerns about them,” Corey Saylor of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said in an interview. “But given King’s history of making statements against the Muslim community, I think it raises a concern in reasonable people as to what form the hearings will take.”
As with most congressional hearings, the true goal is less about fact-finding than about buttressing existing points of view of the lawmakers. King is bringing forward Muslim Americans who say they saw their relatives slip into extremism when the local Islamic communities might have helped prevent that. Democrats will give examples of Islamic leaders who came to the aid of authorities and helped keep the nation safe.
Scholars point to a rising level of activism and civic engagement among young Muslims in America, distinct from religious extremism. They see more volunteering on political campaigns, voter-registration drives outside mosques and interest in civil rights, in contrast to older generations whose primary concern was U.S. foreign policy.
The founders and leaders of mosques are the ones driving this civic participation, said Sally Howell, associate professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and author of several books and essays on Arabs and Muslims in Detroit. “Their main motives are to make sure that their children are becoming good Muslims but at the same time becoming good Americans,” she said.
The hearings are not likely to go deep on that aspect of Muslim American life. As is often the case in Washington, the everyday lives of neighbors can be lost in the din.