March 9, 2011
Why Congressman Peter King is making a mistake
We are, respectively, an imam and an Orthodox rabbi. Last month, our two congregations initiated a series of joint gatherings to enable our people to get to know one another, and study our respective sacred texts together. We were motivated simply by the recognition that the histories and the destinies of our peoples are inextricably intertwined, and that in a vacuum of genuine personal knowledge and understanding of one another, terrible, regrettable things can occur. Ignorance is the oxygen that feeds suspicion, mistrust, and enmity, and relationship is the antidote.
We are both alarmed and disturbed by the fact that the American-Muslim community is now under official investigation, as House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) has opened hearings to investigate “the Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community’s Response.” Both of us recognize the reality and the severity of the terrorist threat that our country faces, and the essential need to forcefully combat it. But we also firmly believe that the particular strategy that the Congressman has embraced for doing so is both morally misguided, and much more likely to exacerbate the problem than to remediate it.
Most Americans don’t possess first-hand familiarity with the Muslim-American community. Ignorance—not meant pejoratively, rather matter-of-factly—is the prevailing reality. As a result, Rep. King’s investigation brings with it great potential to plunge the entire Muslim-American community into the dark shadow of suspicion. Most Americans are unaware of the high level of cooperation between Islamic communities and Federal and local law-enforcement. (The Islamic Center of Southern California, for example, has hosted Homeland Security forums, works actively with Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca’s Muslim-American Homeland Security Congress; in addition, I, Imam Turk, serve on a counter-terrorism advisory board with LAPD Deputy Chief Mike Downey.) And most Americans likely do not realize that American Muslims largely came to the United States specifically to escape the now-well known political oppression in their own countries, and consequently value the U.S. specifically because of the freedoms and mutual respect that are found here. Under these conditions of relative ignorance, the news story that Homeland Security is formally investigating the entirety of the Muslim-American community can only serve to reinforce people’s prejudices and fears.
As it is, Muslim Americans are routinely the objects of suspicion and bias. Increasingly, Islamic women who cover their hair experience verbal harassment. Young people are bullied, are called “terrorist” and other hurtful names. Islamaphobia is an undeniable feature of American life. (Witness, for example the success of the author/lecturer Brigitte Gabriel, whose Islamaphobic message is epitomized in the title of her book “Because They Hate”.) There are real consequences to painting a whole community with a governmental brush of suspicion, both for the community in question and for the fabric of our society at large.
It is also easy to imagine that this calling out of the entire Islamic community for investigation will serve to reinforce the impression that young American Muslims already have, that they are perceived as unwelcome strangers here. This belief can have the effect of rendering them more vulnerable to the very extremist rhetoric that Rep. King is investigating, the rhetoric from which their parents and teachers are trying to immunize them. The most effective counter-weight to radicalization is to ensure that Muslim Americans feel welcome and vested in our pluralist and free society.
Although Muslim and Jewish histories differ in many ways, it is nonetheless meaningful to invoke the experience of Jews as a community that has suffered the catastrophic consequences of collective suspicion, marginalization, and distrust. Jews have a unique perspective on being thrust into the general category of “mistrusted other” and bear a responsibility to at the very least refrain from jumping on the bandwagon when another community is being thus demonized.
We are living at a juncture of history when we need to be active and vigilant in order to maintain the peace and freedom we desire. This involves thwarting the work of all those who intend to do us harm. And it equally involves zealously guarding the values that our peace and freedom rest upon, values like tolerance and equal dignity. This is a time for cultivating understanding and building relationships, and for recognizing that encouraging suspicion of the other only pushes us further away from achieving our collective goals.
Yosef Kanefsky is the Rabbi of Bnai David – Judea Congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.
Jihad Turk is the Director of religious Affairs at the Islamic center of Southern California.