Op-Ed Columns

The King Hearings: Prejudice or Prudence?

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Representative Peter King of New York, the chairman of the House Homeland Security committee, is convening Congressional hearings to gauge the “radicalization” of Muslims in the United States. He claims to have heard accounts from federal law enforcement officials about U.S. Islamic leaders declining to cooperate with police or fomenting radical views among young Muslims.
Ever since Mr. King, a nine-term incumbent from Long Island, first announced his plan for the Congressional inquiry back in December, 2010, widespread criticism was lobbed his way by an assortment of civil rights groups and Muslim activists. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) called Mr. King an “Islamophobe” and his plan “a flashback to McCarthy’s witchhunt”; Abed A. Ayoub, the legal director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said that the King proposal “has bigoted intentions”; and Mahmoud El-Yousseph, an American Muslim Air Force retiree, wrote on Al Jazeera that Mr. King is “fixated on Muslims in America, like a drug addict hooked on drugs.” Noting that Representative King has expressed particular concerns about American mosques serving to promote radical Islam, Mr. El-Yousseph asks “Does this law maker [sic] prefer Muslims to build more casinos, brothels, or hookah bars…?”
Even U.S. Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota contended that for the hearings to target American Muslims exclusively would be “to vilify this community,” something he characterized as “very scary and [that] clearly has McCarthyistic implications.”
Mr. King, however, insists that the goal of his hearings is not to create a negative picture of the American Muslim community. Although he has charged that “the leadership of the [Muslim] community is not geared to cooperation” in fighting terrorism, he insists that “The overwhelming majority of Muslims are outstanding Americans.”
Islamist-inspired violence like the 2009 Fort Hood and Little Rock shootings leave little substantive argument that hearings like those being convened by Peter King are unwarranted. The charges of “McCarthyism” are to be expected, and should be ignored. The House of Representatives, for all its shortcomings, is not the Ku Klux Klan, and will not allow a legitimate inquiry aimed at better protecting the country from terrorism to devolve into the demonization of a religion or a community.
Concerns, though, have been expressed about the direction the hearings may end up taking. The Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Reuel Marc Gerecht suggests that it would make sense for elected officials—whether as part of the public hearings or less openly as a result of them—to authorize agencies to dig deeper into soil that may nourish the roots of American Islamic terrorism: the mosques and Islamic schools that help mold the worldviews of many American Muslims.
At first thought, that seems precisely the right way to go. If it turns out, as some suspect, that foreign-financed institutions in our country are helping foster attitudes that endanger Americans, that will be an area ripe for applying existing laws, or passing new legislation, to undermine the outrage.
Should investigating the teachings of religious institutions, however, be encouraged? Religious teachings can all too easily be presented without their contexts in negative ways. Does the United States really want to open that Pandora’s box?
Perhaps not, but it is important to note that the legal bar for what can be prosecuted as incitement to violence is high. It was spelled out by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 1969 case, Brandenburg v. Ohio, in which the conviction of a racist for seeming to advocate violence against blacks and Jews was overturned. The Court ruled that “The constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.”
In other words, for better or worse, government has no right to prosecute—and hence will have no justification for investigating—religious institutions for their teachings, even teachings that advocate lawlessness, unless the institution is plausibly seen as actually calling for “imminent” criminal behavior.
Only the most oblivious observer could deny that a disproportionate amount of both would-be and actual terrorism against Americans derives from some Muslims’ understanding of Islam. And only the most credulous could imagine that radical Islam is not a clear and present danger. And so, concern over whether Islamic institutions may be incubating tomorrow’s terrorists is not prejudice but prudence. And any investigation of such institutions less resembles Big Brother seeking to curtail freedoms than a police investigator dusting for fingerprints at a crime scene.

Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. © 2011 Ami Magazine

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