Today I was informed about your proposed hearings, scheduled for March 8, on the subject “The Radicalization of Muslim Communities in America.” As I assume the hearings will go forward, I wanted to take a few minutes to offer some things you might wish to keep in mind.
Most Americans, including most Muslim-Americans, sympathize with the national security concerns that you are trying to address in your new role as Chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security. But given the label placed on the hearings, I can only urge you to keep in mind that most Muslims lead lives as ordinary as you and I, and have about as much knowledge of terrorists and terrorist activities as you or I have about the next bank robbery being planned by someone who lives down the road, or in our town, or in our city. Proximity to the illicit does not make one blameworthy. I suspect you would agree.
You have indicated that you are worried about a "lack of cooperation" from Muslim-American leaders when it comes to assisting government with its anti-terrorism activities. What "lack of cooperation" actually means is something about which I look forward to your clarification. But in the meantime, it should be clear that Muslim-Americans should not be required to live up to some special standard of "cooperation" that is imposed upon them from outside, a standard, that is, that applies to no other community. American Muslim religious leaders have no special obligation to seek out, actively, opportunities to serve as "moles" and "spies," unless, perhaps, it is your view that a similar onus be placed on members of hard right, Christian fundamentalist communities, which have been the birth places of home-grown terrorism and actual threats of sedition and even actual treason (in the form of serious secession rhetoric).
It has been many years since 9/11, yet 9/11 seems as though it is an endless day, does it not? Have we seen a day since September 11, 2001 in which "9/11" has not passed the lips or flowed from the pens of an army of journalists? It was a deadly attack, yes, but also crude. Yet it has held this country hostage to fear ever since. It has paid an almost infinite return on the sick investment of a ragtag band of criminals. We cannot avert our eyes from the pain and humiliation of that single day. We are frozen, lashing out not merely at the perpetrators, but at all the evil in the world (as we see it), as though we were able to stop it. In a way, 9/11 is no longer merely an event, it has become an idea, an idea stuck in our brains like a splinter, and ideas, as we know, are hard to kill, even harder to kill than terrorists. The idea of 9/11 is charged with very dangerous political energies, energies that can drive a nation to madness, and even to eat its own. And what is the idea? It will take more than this letter to explain it, but it goes something like this: America is good, and because it is good it is justified, and when it is attacked it must be by something evil, and so it must use its power to destroy the evil for the sake of righteousness, and it must destroy it regardless of what it takes, because, being good, God is on its side. That's the idea. It is an exceedingly dangerous one, because it prevents us from a proper view of the world, and a proper view of our own actions in it. The idea runs counter to a more humble one uttered by Mr. Lincoln: "Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side." To scandalize a community is not to be on God's side, on the side of right, on the side of goodness; it is to be morally wrong, and politically foolish.
There is too much focus on a religion, the members of which are as peaceful as those of any other religion. By now you must know that the motives of many terrorists have more to do with cultural and political agendas (and, in many cases, warped minds) than with a faith that certainly permits violence under certain circumstances (just as Christian philosophy and Christian just war doctrines permit it under certain circumstances) but that never condones the killing of innocents via acts of terrorism or in any other form. Yes, there certainly are features of Islam that make it vulnerable to hijacking for political purposes, but this is true of other faiths and even political philosophies. The American doctrine of "Manifest Destiny," which was a catalyst for American adventurism, and the institution of slavery both emerged within a nation-state that trumpeted grand and splendid notions of freedom, autonomy, and self-determination, and justified that doctrine and that institution by reference to Christian theology and Christian scripture. Bodies are still being piled high, whether on the streets of Iraq or in the prisons and ghettos of America, as the result.
Muslims are not any different from Christians or atheists or anyone else when it comes to the challenges of living, although their faith gives them a unique set of resources to cope with and overcome them. Some have family problems; some don't do well in school; some abuse their spouses; some cheat on their taxes; some commit suicide; some have affairs that destroy their families; some are just plain slackers; and some are, indeed, political extremists - in more or less the same proportions as people in just about every other community in America. Muslim-Americans should not have to claim any sort of superpatriotism or assert some sort of superior virtue to serve as counterbalances to the stereotypes that have been cast upon them, just so they may be accepted by other persons who are only as American as they are - and some, perhaps, given their conduct, less so.
Muslim-Americans are Americans either by birth or by assent. As your own party's George F. Will has put it, to be an American is not a matter of blood or food or sacred days, but a matter of "assent to a collection of propositions." Assent and you are in; you are as much an American as Thomas Jefferson or Ronald Reagan or Susan B. Anthony were Americans. This is, in its aspirations and in its governing documents, the country of The Proposition, not the country of blood, or of a particular religion. I suspect, however, that there are those among us who, despite their knowledge of our Constitution and our Declaration of Independence, don't really believe what Mr. Will has said. For them, to be an American means something a bit thicker than "mere" assent. But if they don't believe Mr. Will, the table turns against them. The question becomes less a question of whether Muslim-Americans are "real" Americans; it becomes a question of whether they are. For Mr. Will is, of course, correct.
As you know, Mr. King, scapegoats are abundant in history, and it is quite easy to make the Muslim community and its leaders in America scapegoats for the acts of people living in lands far away. America has suffered through a "Red Scare" that was largely understandable, as its conditions were not all of its making. However, the "Brown Scare" that hearings and inquiries such as yours may continue to stir up will be a creature almost entirely of America's own making. It cannot be laid at the feet of 9/11 - all attempts to do so are untenable and misguided and, in the hands of some, racist and nativist.
The continued efforts on the part of some to scandalize American Muslims will only, and quite naturally, create resentments, the same sort of resentments maintained to this day by other communities that America has scandalized. These resentments will only cause rifts, make it unlikely or impossible for American Muslims (a growing population) to participate in both dominant parties (as any community that is not monolithic should), and create suspicions that will linger for generations. No community that is scandalized by those in power and in the majority takes it well. The Irish did not take it well when facing starvation in freezing flats was coupled with the humiliation of signs on store fronts and in building lobbies that instructed them that they "need not apply" for jobs within. The Italians did not take it well when they were branded as slick and degraded "wops." The Catholics did not take it well when they were imperiously instructed that they were not really of the right temperament to hold high office, and that the Catholic Church was a corrupting force, the "Whore of Babylon" in America. The Africans and Native peoples most assuredly did not take it well when both of those communities were stripped of all respect and dignity, dehumanized, and relegated to a path of genocide and isolation from the political and social intercourse of the nation. Neither the Chinese, who suffered all sorts of taunts and ill-treatment, up to and including a massacre in 1871 and the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, nor the Japanese, who had found a home here but who were herded into camps during the Second World War, took it well. Human beings, as it turns out, do not take it well. How can something so unmistakably a part of our history be forgotten?
The search for security or control "at any price" (and the cost to America has been enormous and is still mounting) often leads to the creation of classes of scapegoat, when the reasons for the threats are almost always complicated and their causes traceable to many factors, even to those most concerned with the unwanted conditions that are seen as threats. The world is on fire not because of Muslims, or Christians or Jews as singular groups - but because of all of us. It is on fire because of a hunger for power that seizes and extracts without concern for what it leaves behind (whether in the form of hegemony or of thuggish dictators); it is on fire because of a lack of interest in the thoughts and ways and yearnings of people in other regions of the world, and in our own neighborhoods; it is on fire because we live in a world in which the doctrine of "political realism" rather than the Muslim-Jewish-Christian-Buddhist-Humanist-Hindu ethic of love is the guiding light of political relations. It is not the Muslim land that first pointed weapons of demonic destruction (WDDs) at civilians in other countries, but such weapons were forged in nations with histories mostly rooted in Christianity; and yet it was not the principles of Christianity, a religion of love and peace, that forged these weapons, but hearts darkened by base human appetites, by the desire for supremacy, for total control, for revenge, for winning at something that cannot be the subject of a sane contest, and by the Blut und Boden tribalism that comes in many forms, even, perhaps, in the form of a Congressional committee hearing.
Just as Christianity must be separated from its hijackers, Islam must be held as distinct from the terrorists who claim it as their religion. They may claim it, but Muslims the world over, in the vast majority, have replied that Islam cannot be so claimed. Ask the average Muslim, and he or she will tell you that what awaits the terrorist is not a reward from Allah, but punishment and death. The dead terrorist, whether Arab or Indonesian or American, whether Chinese or Spanish, is not a martyr, but merely a dead coward, the sociopathic murderer of children and women, families and friends, a narcissist who is so sure in his own mind and so confident in his own righteousness that other human beings become no more than dispensible objects to be crushed underfoot on his way to glory. This is the position of the vast majority of Muslims the world over, just as it is the position of most of humanity.
Because of the idea that is 9/11, we have all lost our way. The way home is not to scapegoat Muslims, but to accept Muslims as brothers and sisters, as fellow citizens, as countrymen and countrywomen, woven into the fabric of the commonweal just as tightly as anyone else. The only thing that will come from scapegoating American Muslims is a long night of resentment. And it is resentment that fuels the world's insanity, and that keeps the fire burning.
So as you begin your hearings, think upon these things. I do not charge you with bigotry or nativism, but only wish to warn of the dangers that await down certain roads. They are all roads we have gone down before. If the goal is to lessen the threat, if the goal is to make us more safe, I suggest that the best way to achieve both is through respectful engagement, rather than heavy-handed inquisition.
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