Many American Muslims are fearful and angry about the Congressional hearings on Islamic radicalism that will start Thursday, with some arguing that they are a mere provocation meant to incite bigotry. But as a scholar, I view the hearings, to be led by Representative Peter T. King, the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, as an opportunity to educate Americans about our community’s diversity and faith.
The topic is urgent, and the hearings overdue. It is undeniable that the phenomenon of homegrown terrorists appears to be increasing in frequency. A successful attack would set back relations between Muslims and non-Muslims for many years. The backlash would effectively sweep away the slow but steady progress in interfaith dialogue that has been achieved since 9/11.
Muslim leaders must acknowledge that many Americans are fearful of religiously motivated terrorism. Simply to protest the hearings and call for them to be canceled, as some have done, strikes many non-Muslims as uncooperative, or as intended to conceal dark secrets or un-American behavior.
Instead, Muslims should embrace the chance to explain their beliefs fully and clearly. We have nothing to hide. But members of Congress also need to act responsibly. They should avoid broad accusations, and be aware that the hearings will be closely followed worldwide. The actions of both groups will shape America’s relationship with Islam, and the relationship of American Muslims with their country.
To better understand the Muslim community and its attitudes toward American identity, I spent much of 2008 and 2009 traveling the United States. My research assistants and I visited 75 communities, from Dearborn, Mich., to Arab, Ala., and 100 mosques around the country. We conducted hundreds of interviews, and compiled some 2,000 responses to a long questionnaire.
We discovered that well before the debate last year over a proposed Islamic center in Lower Manhattan, American Muslims felt under siege. We heard heartbreaking stories: schoolchildren assaulted as “terrorists,” women wearing the hijab attacked, and mosques vandalized and firebombed.
Adding to their sense of being unfairly singled out were commentators in the news media talking as if it were open season on Muslims. Bill O’Reilly compared the Koran to Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” and Tom Tancredo, a Republican who was then a congressman from Colorado, said the United States could respond to a future terrorist attack by bombing Mecca.
But I also saw much to encourage me during my travels. Muslims told me in the privacy of their homes that this country was “the best place in the world to be Muslim.” A Nigerian in Houston said he placed Thomas Jefferson “at the top of my heart.” The bearded leader of a major Muslim organization called Jefferson, a defender of religious freedom, a role model.
In Paterson, N.J., an elderly woman from Cairo who got an education in America after her Egyptian husband deserted her told us, “America saved my life.” In the only mosque in the small city of Gadsden, Ala., we met a Muslim man who had lived in the area for decades and married a Christian woman. In a distinctively Southern accent, he summed up his identity as “Muslim by birth, Southern by the grace of God.”
The Muslim community in America is not a monolith. Very broadly, it comprises three groups: African-Americans (many of them converts), immigrants (largely from the Middle East and South Asia) and white converts. And Muslims from every part of the world study and work in the United States.
Yet the diversity of the Muslim community is frequently obscured by ignorance and mistrust. We were often asked by non-Muslims whether Muslims could be “good” Americans. The frequency with which this question was asked indicated the doubts that many harbored. Too many Americans acknowledged that they knew virtually nothing about Islam and said they had never met a Muslim.
Representative King, the New York Republican who has called the hearings, has raised the issue of Muslim cooperation with law enforcement agencies. On our journey, especially in mosques, we confronted an underlying unease and suspicion toward these agencies. Frequently, even while we were being welcomed and honored, people would ask us with a nervous laugh whether we were working for the F.B.I. The community complained that crude attempts by the agencies to “study” them were both insulting and ineffective. They believed that thinly disguised informants who claimed to be converting to Islam were acting as provocateurs.
In a Texas mosque dominated by the Salafi school of thought — widely equated with religious fundamentalism — the congregants condemned terrorism. They complained that the agencies had used clumsy infiltrators instead of simply talking to congregants. “Homeland Security and F.B.I. put us under surveillance, asking people, ‘Where are the terrorists?’” one interviewee, a Salafi who professed nonviolence, told us. “We know exactly where they are!”
At times, we did see evidence of the kind of extremist beliefs the hearing is intended to scrutinize. In one of the first mosques we visited in the Midwest, after I gave a talk advocating interfaith dialogue, I was accosted by members of the congregation who vehemently disagreed and dismissed my fieldwork because I had “white kids” with me. Later we learned that these men had threatened and assaulted other congregants who did not agree with them.
In our review of cases involving radicalized American Muslims, we learned that many homegrown terrorists said their actions were grounded in American foreign policy, particularly when it resulted in the deaths of women and children, rather than in their interpretations of Koranic precepts. In public statements, they expressed anger about American military and intelligence intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan and other Muslim countries. For example, Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani immigrant who confessed to the attempted car bombing in Times Square last May, was motivated by a desire to avenge drone strikes in his native province.
If a civil, respectful level of discussion and debate is not maintained in these hearings, and if a demonization of Muslims results, the news coverage in the Muslim world could feed into the high levels of anti-Americanism in countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan. This would play against the interests of American diplomats and troops in Muslim nations who have advocated the winning of Muslim hearts and minds.
To better inform the public debate, Representative King should invite religious and social leaders who have credibility in their communities. Equally important, he should include scholars who could present empirical findings and analysis with neutrality and integrity. Unfortunately, some of the names who have been associated with the hearings so far have neither research nor credibility to support them.
At the same time, Muslims must realize that to be truly accepted as “good” Americans, they need to more explicitly embrace American identity, culture and history — from political debates like Representative King’s hearing to the ideals of this country’s founders.
America, in turn, must realize its best aspirations by better understanding Islam. No appreciation of the founders is complete without an acknowledgment of their truly pluralist vision.
Akbar Ahmed is an Adjunct Scholar and on the Board of Advisors at ISPU.
This article was published by the NY Times on March 9, 2011: