Director of the Islam in the West Program
MINERVA Chair, National War College
With the contentious Congressional hearings on the “radicalization in the American Muslim Community” now open, there is an opportunity to reflect on how fear can tear at American security and social cohesion.
Hearing supporters cite an increase in the last two years of the number of Muslim-Americans indicted for terrorism-related charges. This includes well-known figures like Fort Hood murderer Major Nidal Malik Hasan, Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, and Colleen LaRose, a.k.a. “Jihad Jane.”
Despite this rise, hearing opponents insist that the number of violent extremism acts planned or conducted by Muslims remains negligible. A study published February 2 2011 by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security in Durham, N.C. shows that from September 11, 2001 to the end of 2010, the number of Muslim-Americans involved in terrorist plots against domestic targets remains quite low at 70. Brian Jenkins, a senior terrorism expert with the RAND Corporation, documented 46 cases of domestic radicalization between September 11, 2001 and December 2009.
Hearing supporters, however, counter that the quantity of the attacks does not reflect the potential destruction that some Muslim terrorists seek. In other words, it’s not the number of perpetrators, but the potential destruction, that is so worrisome.
It can also be argued that hearing proponents base their support for the hearings on the false assumption that practicing Muslims are a danger for American society. But most data, including a 2007 poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, and a 2009 Gallup survey, suggest the opposite: that Islamic religiosity and cultural identification are not obstacles to loyalty to America, but vehicles to civic engagement. Not surprisingly, these attitudes are consistent with those of practicing members of other religious groups. Moreover, the current discussion on religion and loyalty should not revolve solely around mosques, as surveys also show that a majority of Muslim-Americans do not even attend mosques.
For these hearings to have any positive outcome, a more efficient approach would be to move the core of the discussion to: how to include Islam and Muslims in our nation’s narrative? This is work that needs to be done, first and foremost, by America’s leaders, as well as the media, civic and religious groups, and individual members of society. As New York Times columnist Bob Hebert wrote on March 8, “(T)here have always been people willing to stand up boldly and courageously against such injustice.”
On March 10, the hearings provided a platform for at least two individuals who used the occasion to weave Muslims in the American narrative. In his testimony, Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN), the first Muslim elected to Congress, tearfully etched into America’s consciousness the story of Salman Ahmad, a Muslim paramedic and New York Police Officer cadet killed trying to help fellow New Yorkers on 9/11. Giving Muslims a historical hug, Congressman Brian Higgins, a Catholic, stated in his remarks that America’s tradition is not just “Christian-Judeo,” but “Christian-Judeo-Islamic.”
This is not empty feel-good talk, but the prefiguration of how historical references can be used to achieve symbolic integration and counter the dominant narrative that tends to present Islam and Muslims as an alien religion.
Updating a national narrative is a huge political and symbolic task, something equivalent to the effort that led to the integration of the African American and Native American past into the dominant American narrative. This could be accomplished by telling the stories of the estimated 10 percent of all African slaves brought to the United States who were Muslim, or the long-standing presence of Islam within several ethnic and cultural communities, and the hybridization of Islam to the American pop culture. What better antidote to the shadow of Bin Laden than Malcolm X?
Unless the hearings are the first step to such a discussion, they will offer little help to either reducing the risk of radicalism or increasing American cohesion. If they move us closer to a more inclusive narrative, then something will have been accomplished.