Editorial: Terror hearings fuel anti-Muslim fears

  • Updated: February 25, 2011 - 8:12 PM

Misguided targeting will do little to make U.S. more secure.

Star Tribune Editorial

Next month, the chair of the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security plans to launch hearings on so-called domestic Islamic terrorism.

To justify the hearings, Rep. Peter King, R-New York, has made grossly irresponsible statements to right-wing broadcasters -- claiming that 80 percent of U.S. mosques are extremist hotbeds and that Muslims aren't cooperating with law enforcement.

He's even found right-wing Muslims to testify to those claims. In turn, a broad swath of political, religious and human-rights organizations, rightly alarmed by King's tone, are calling the hearings modern-day McCarthyism.

"These hearings will almost certainly increase widespread suspicion and mistrust of the American Muslim community and stoke anti-Muslim sentiment," leaders of 51 organizations, from Baptists to Unitarians, said in a protest letter.

Key law enforcement officials, from California to Minnesota, also say King's claims are off-base. In Minneapolis, FBI Special Agent Ralph Boelter, who investigated the Somalis who fled Minnesota to join the al-Shabab terror group, said Muslim-Americans couldn't have been more helpful.

Indeed, a new University of North Carolina study says 48 of 120 Muslims suspected of plotting domestic terrorist attacks since 2001 were caught because other Muslims reported them.

It's easy to imagine the chilling effect King's hearing could have on that kind of cooperation.

Americans should also be concerned about how the world will view the hearings. Rather than creating a more-secure America, King runs the risk of fanning anti-American sentiment in the Middle East and elsewhere if he doesn't change his tone.

Only a few months ago, Florida Pastor Terry Jones stirred an international uproar by calling for the burning of Qur'ans. Anti-Muslim bigotry also fueled outcry over a proposed Islamic Center near Ground Zero and other U.S. mosque projects.

Sadly, as the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, American Muslims continue to be scapegoated for the actions of Al-Qaida, an overseas terrorist network that U.S. Islamic organizations have repeatedly denounced.

Nearly 3,000 Americans were killed in their attacks, including American Muslims. Muslims were also among the 9/11 first responders, the firefighters and emergency medical crews at the scene.

"Many American policymakers seem to have accepted Al-Qaida's claim that it acts on behalf of Muslims in general, but the numbers indicate that the group is at war with Muslims as much as it is with the United States," a Los Angeles Times editorial said.

It cited a West Point study that said 85 percent of Al-Qaida's victims around the world between 2004 and 2008 were Muslim.

After 9/11, from Sept. 12 to Dec. 31, 2001, crimes against U.S. Muslims spiked from 28 to 481, including several murders.

Rather than promoting violence, American Muslims today are more likely to be victims of hate crimes or harassment -- sometimes at the hands of police who are supposed to protect them. If some fear the police, it's understandable.

Last year, a New York cabbie's throat was slashed by a passenger, reportedly because he was a Muslim. A Florida mosque was firebombed while 60 Muslims prayed inside. Arson fires ravaged mosques in Tennessee and Oregon.

Oklahoma voters passed a "Save Our State" referendum prohibiting judges from considering sharia law in rulings. In Tennessee, some lawmakers are trying not only to outlaw sharia, moral and religious rules that guide Muslim living, but also to make following them a felony.

In short, anti-Muslim rhetoric is fueling anti-Muslim violence and alienating American Muslims.

President Obama and former President Bush understood this, which is why they made numerous public statements to help diffuse the bigotry. "The war against terrorism is not a war against Muslims," Bush said.

If Congress cares about violent domestic extremists, perhaps it should broaden its investigative scope to the larger threat: right-wing militias, neo-Nazis and "Patriot" groups that spew racist, antigovernment ideology -- often in the name of Christianity. Their ideology led to the 1995 Oklahoma City federal building bombing.

A new report by the Southern Poverty Law Center shows that these radical hate groups are growing at an alarming rate. The paramilitary arm of the Patriot movement grew from 130 to 330 groups over the past year.

U.S. Reps. Keith Ellison, a Muslim, and Betty McCollum, both Minnesota Democrats, recently told the Star Tribune Editorial Board that King's hearings appeared to be an anti-Muslim "witch hunt."

Although he disagrees with the hearings' premise, Ellison hopes to testify, if only to counter negative stereotyping and misstatements about Muslims.

"Peter thinks he's doing something good," Ellison said. "He doesn't realize that what he's doing is isolating and implicitly blaming a community. If he lets me participate and forward names of people to testify, as he said he would, this could be a moment of education for a lot of people."

Let's hope that's the case.

Readers, what do you think? To be considered for publication as a letter to the editor, write a thoughful response no more than 250 words to opinion@startribune.com. Include your name and the city where you live.

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