This article is co-authored with Rory Dickson (doctoral candidate, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada)
With faint echoes of Senator Joseph McCarthy's House Committee on Un-American Activities of the early 1950s, Republican congressman Peter King begins hearings on radicalization among American Muslims this week. To be sure, there is a statistically tiny number of American Muslims who take inspiration from figures like Osama bin Laden and now Anwar al-Awlaki. An even smaller number make contact with jihadist organizations overseas or "self-radicalize" and plan attacks within the United States. As King correctly realizes, this group of individuals, though small, does pose a real threat to Americans (including Muslims).
While there is no accurate count of the number of Muslims in America, the Pew Research Center estimates the population to be about 2.5 million. As Charles Kurzman's recent research pointed out, from 2001 to 2010, the total number of Muslim-American terrorism suspects and perpetrators rests at a remarkably underwhelming 161 individuals (or 0.00006 percent). It is also important to remember that there have been about 15,000 murders in the United States every year since 9/11. In 2010, there were actually more terrorist plots carried out by non-Muslims in the United States. It should be noted, however, that Muslims comprise about 1 percent of the U.S. population and, as such, are engaging in higher rates of terrorism proportionate to their population.
The question remains, then, will congressman King's public commissions help or hinder the work of American law enforcement in preventing terrorist attacks? According to congressman King, his FBI contacts report receiving an inadequate amount of cooperation from some Muslim communities. According to recent evidence, this appears contestable. According to Kurzman, of the 161 terrorism cases since 2001, the initial source of information for 25 of them is not known. For another 16, law enforcement only learned about them after the attacks were carried out. As Kurzman points out, "for the remaining 120 individuals, the largest single source of initial information (48 of 120 cases) involved tips from the Muslim-American community." The remaining 43 cases saw their initial information come from U.S. government investigations.
If King wants to help the FBI and other agencies get more help from Muslim-Americans than they have already been receiving, he would be better served by making American Muslims feel more at home in the United States, not less. Public hearings on radicalization among Muslims are very likely going to be counter-productive in encouraging increased cooperation with law enforcement. Such public commissions will only reinforce a sense among many Muslim Americans that they, as a community, are under scrutiny because of the actions of a few. Those Muslims who have cooperated with law enforcement in countering extremist ideology are not likely to feel encouraged by these hearings, and those Muslims previously unwilling to work with law enforcement are unlikely to develop an increased comfort with the idea of doing so.
These commissions, though ostensibly undertaken for the sake of improving cooperation, only perpetuate a sense of tension and conflict. For those Americans prone to seeing Muslims in America as a fifth column of fanaticism and hatred, these commissions will only add fuel to the fire of anti-Islamic sentiment, a sentiment that appears to be growing in the United States.
Will Herberg, in his classic work Protestant, Catholic, Jew (1955), notes that, though Americans have historically struggled to acknowledge and legitimate racial diversity, they have had a much easier time recognizing religious diversity. This is not to say that the recognition of religious plurality in America has been without struggle. The persistence of anti-Semitic organizations and anti-Catholic parties in American history bespeaks this fact. It was only in the 1950s and 60s that Judaism and Catholicism became respectable religions in American public life. However, in the latter half of the 20th century Americans developed a consciousness of their country as a "triple melting pot," wherein Protestantism, Catholicism and Judaism became accepted as religions integral to American life.
While the circle of respectability in America has grown to include Catholics and Jews, Muslims still remain largely outside of it. As Americans are in many ways predisposed to acknowledging identities based on religious community, there is great potential for Muslims to eventually establish themselves as fully recognized and integral members of American public life. These commissions, however, are unlikely to assist in this process.