Muslims are rising up against tyranny throughout the Arab world. They have ousted autocrats, consistently called for democracy, and inspired people from Beijing to Madison to rally for justice.
And yet, for some here in the homeland, Muslims are still the problem. Consider two campaigns recently launched from Washington, DC. The first is the upcoming Homeland Security Committee hearing on Muslim radicalism, sponsored by Rep. Peter King (R-NY). The second is a campaign against sharia law, spearheaded by the Center for Security Policy. Both suggest the American empire needs an enemy -- not only abroad -- but at home as well.
In November, more than 70 percent of Oklahomans who voted in the mid-term elections supported a referendum banning sharia law, a "totalitarian socio-political doctrine," according to the neoconservative Center for Security Policy. Oklahoma is not exactly the center of the Islamic world -- less than one percent of the population is Muslim. More than a dozen states are now gearing up to introduce similar anti-Islamic initiatives. According to the promoters of this campaign, radical Islam threatens to take over not just Egypt or Tunisia. The Muslim Brotherhood and its ilk are perilously close to cladding Lady Gaga in a burqa and bringing a radical mosque to every main street.
Not surprisingly, the promoters of this state legislative campaign know next to nothing about sharia. The sponsor of the Alabama bill couldn't define the word when asked by a local reporter. Nor could he point to any examples of sharia being used either in Alabama or anywhere else in the United States.
The average American hears the word sharia and thinks only of the stoning of adulterers. But sharia translates into, roughly, "rule of law" in the Muslim world. To be sure, the Taliban in Afghanistan, with their public floggings and discrimination against women, certainly gave sharia a bad name. But as legal scholar Noah Feldman points out in The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State, sharia has a distinguished history with considerable appeal to those living in lawless societies: sharia promises "a just legal system, one that administers the law fairly - without bias, corruption by the rich, or government interference." Given the proliferation of autocrats in the region -- Mubarak, Ben Ali, Gaddafi -- sharia starts to look like a reasonable alternative.
Regardless of how sharia is interpreted in the Muslim world, the notion that sharia "threatens" the U.S. legal system is as ludicrous as the Cold War fantasies that communists were taking over the school system or poisoning the drinking water.
In a recent 172-page report, Shariah: The Threat to America, the Center for Security Policy cites exactly one case of sharia law playing any role in the U.S. legal system. In 2009, a New Jersey Superior Court judge refused to grant a restraining order to a woman who testified that her Muslim husband forced her to have non-consensual sex, ruling the husband's actions were consistent with his beliefs and practices. The appellate court overruled him. The non-Muslim judge did not reference sharia, nor did shadowy Muslim organizations conduct any campaign to support the husband and turn the case into a precedent. One minor case, with the most slender connection to sharia, does not translate into an imminent threat.
"The people who are saying 'no sharia'? It's like they're saying, 'we want no unicorns,'" playwright and political commentator Wajahat Ali told me in an interview we'll publish later this week at Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF). "People get upset about the threat of unicorns. They galvanize their base. They try to amend the law. And if they're successful, they say, 'See we protected America from unicorns!' Any sane person would say, 'Yes, but there are no unicorns in America.'"
The man behind this extraordinary scam is Frank Gaffney, a right-winger so out there that he's been banned from speaking at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). In addition to continuing to insist that President Obama is a Muslim, Gaffney has accused CPAC members Grover Norquist and Suhail Khan of ushering the Muslim Brotherhood into CPAC through the backdoor. Such accusations should get Gaffney banned from not just CPAC but from the mainstream media as well. But Gaffney is the Charlie Sheen of political analysts: CNN's Anderson Cooper and others just can't resist his intemperate rants.
Nor it seems can Peter King, the congressman from Long Island who has brought Islamophobia back to Capitol Hill. On Gaffney's radio show earlier this year, King declared that Muslims were not cooperating with law enforcement officials to fight terrorism. King had just recently announced that as the new chair of the Homeland Security Committee, he would hold hearings on the threat of Muslim radicals in America, disingenuously claiming these would improve relations with the Muslim community. Of course, some Muslim American radicals have planned or engaged in acts of extremism. But King has had a rather difficult time explaining how stigmatizing an entire community as the primary source of extremism in America, calling a range of non-experts to testify on an extraordinarily sensitive topic, and ignoring the statistic that Muslims provided tips in 48 out of 120 terrorist cases in the United States, will somehow make Muslim Americans feel all warm, fuzzy, and patriotic.
Nor is King the best person to ask in the first place about improving relations with the Muslim community. At one time, he supported U.S. military intervention on the side of predominantly Muslim Bosnia and Kosovo and maintained close ties to Muslims in his district. But since 9/11, he has become one of the lead propagators of Islamophobic myths. He has claimed that "85 percent" of mosques in America have radical leadership - an allegation reminiscent of Joe McCarthy's imaginary list of 205 communists in the State Department - and complained that there are "too many mosques in this country." He has written a novel, Vale of Tears, in which his literary alter ego Sean Cross (also a Long Island congressman) foils a radical Muslim plot to blow up New York. King seems to be having some difficult distinguishing between fact and fiction. As he told New York magazine, "I guess you can say that the book I wrote, some of the things I worried about then, are happening now."
As a result of his statements, his self-aggrandizing fiction, and his spectacularly ill-timed hearings, King's relationship with the Muslim community has precipitously declined. Recent protests by Muslim Americans in his district have been joined by Long Island clergy and other people of faith. Over the weekend, hundreds of people attended the "I Am a Muslim, Too" rally in Times Square in an attempt to force a cancellation of the hearings. Everyone from Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has tried to marginalize King.
Peter King is not entirely to blame, of course, for the resurgence of Islamophobia. Liberals have played a role, too. "The right-wing hardliners set the framework that Muslims are a backwards, evil, anti-American group, then the liberals say that some of the Muslims are nice, some of them don't oppress their women," explains Raed Jarrar in an interview with him and Niki Akhavan in the FPIF special focus on Islamophobia. "This is like one person saying, 'I think all black people are thieves' and another person says 'I don't believe that all black people are thieves.' If you are using that as a reference point, then you are actually reaffirming the framework."
Meanwhile, King asserts he will not back down. He affects a brave stance, just as he did when he supported the IRA in the 1980s and called Michael Jackson a "lowlife" after the pop star's death in 2009. His hypocrisy on the issue of extremism and his obvious lack of cultural diplomacy skills should automatically disqualify him from holding a hearing on extremism in the Muslim American community. King soldiers on nonetheless. Like the character in his novel, he will save the world all by himself if necessary.
By standing with Frank Gaffney, with the protestors who mocked a Muslim praying in front of the White House last week, and with the hate-filled jeerers at an Islamic fundraiser in Orange County last month -- Peter King is not brave at all. Brave are the Muslims who are standing up for their freedom in the Arab world and the Muslim Americans who are asserting their rights in the face of rising Islamophobia. In comparison, Peter King is a chicken.