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Despite calls to call off the proposed Congressional hearings on the inflammatory topic of “the radicalization of American Muslims,” Representative Peter King, a Roman Catholic, the Republican Chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security–who was a strong supporter of the Irish Republican Army–is determined to investigate the so-called homegrown Islamic terrorism. Numerous faith groups, including the Catholics, oppose King’s Hearings as a crude attack on the religious dignity of Islam. Jewish leaders and rabbis have been most vocal in condemning the undignified implication that “there is an inherent link between Islam per se and terrorism (which) is not helpful to religious tolerance in America.” Other faith groups warn that “singling out a group of Americans for government scrutiny based on their faith is divisive and wrong.” King remains un-persuaded, however, reaffirming regrettable popular opinions that Islam poses a threat to national security, that mosques are turning into centers of radicalism, and that American Muslims are actively planning to engage in acts of terrorism.
Denial of Human Dignity
In addition to challenging the religious dignity of Islam, a religion now well-established in the U.S., King’s Hearings violate the principle of human dignity, the bedrock of the law of human rights. Human dignity requires that the group identity should not be the sole criterion for judging individuals. Every individual, regardless of his or her racial, religious, or any other group identity, is entitled to human dignity. This principle of dignity of the individual, though it applies to all, is particularly protective of individuals of vulnerable minorities, such as American Muslims.
King knows that several million Muslims living in all parts of the U.S. epitomize diversity and individuality. They all are not the same. American Muslims are South Asians, Arabs, African-Americans, and Caucasians; they are immigrants and native born; they are men, women, and children; they are cab drivers, students, doctors, engineers, and lawyers. Ignoring complex compositions of American-Muslims as individuals, King’s Hearings endorse an inaccurate impression that American Muslims constitute a violent monolithic community; or, worse, that each and every American Muslim poses a threat to homeland security.
As public figures wielding influence, lawmakers are duty-bound to avoid harmful overgeneralizations that cause public panic or fear. Opponents of the Hearings point out that Representative King is following Senator Joseph McCarthy, who in 1950s tilled the popular American fear that Soviet-sponsored communist spies had infested the nation and were planning to overthrow the U.S. Constitution. McCarthy was right to the extent that communist spies had indeed infiltrated the U. S.
What was wrong with McCarthy’s Red Scare was an irresponsible overgeneralization under which every egalitarian person, every critic of free markets, and every opponent of the U.S. foreign policy was regarded as a communist spy. Patriotic Americans, who disagreed with McCarthy’s conservative agenda, were seen as state enemies. McCarthyism is now associated with a phenomenon that morphs legitimate concerns into an unlawful overgeneralization.
Unfortunately, King’s Hearings are charting the McCarthyist path. King underscores a legitimate homeland security concern. A few individuals would likely commit acts of terrorism and some already have. In 2010, Faisal Shahzad, a naturalized Muslim citizen, attempted to detonate a car bomb in Times Squares. In 2009, Major Nidal Hasan, a Muslim born in Virginia, killed 13 persons at Fort Hood. However, select acts of terrorism, no matter how despicable, cannot be inflated into the collective guilt of an entire community.
History teaches us, again and again, that overgeneralizations lead to error and tragedy. Most American Muslims are like most other Americans, engrossed in their daily lives. They commute to work, they take children to school, they work, they come home, and they look forward to a restful evening. Committing violence against their own country does not cross their mind. Committing the cardinal error of overgeneralization, King, despite legitimate concerns he has for homeland security, comes across as a prejudiced lawmaker determined to demonize American Muslims as violent radicals. At a time when the U.S. needs the goodwill of domestic Muslim communities to safeguard homeland security, King is widening the gulf of trust and mutual respect among Americans.
Inflated Concerns for Homeland Security
Homeland security is a legitimate congressional concern. Members of Congress are bound by oath or affirmation to defend the U.S. Constitution against domestic and foreign enemies. Note, however, that it is the U.S. Constitution that members of Congress must defend. No responsible lawmaker would reduce the Constitution’s complex rights-based architecture to mere homeland security. It is no secret that inflated concerns for homeland security can assault civil liberties and protected rights. (Middle Eastern autocrats, as we witness the revolt against them, have for decades denied the people’s freedoms in the name of homeland security.)
Rights-based democracies interweave homeland security into the precious fabric of rights and liberties. The internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War was a grave error precisely because the internment policy threw away rights and liberties for the sake of homeland security. Congressional leaders, including the Speaker of the House, must not allow King to conduct these hearings that challenge the religious dignity of Islam and through harmful generalization decline to treat American Muslims as individuals.
Ali Khan is professor of law at Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, Kansas and the author of A Theory of Universal Democracy (2006).