Earlier this year, Fareed Zakaria gave voice to what many U.S. policymakers have long feared, namely the radicalization of Pakistan’s military. “[Pakistan’s] military is undergoing a deep internal crisis of identity, its most serious since Pakistan’s founding in 1947,” Zakaria wrote in the Washington Post. “How it resolves this crisis will determine its future, the future of the Afghan war — and much else.”
But if U.S. Congressman Peter King (R-NY) is to be believed, radicalization isn’t just a threat to the Pakistani armed forces, but to the United States’ own military as well. On Wednesday, the chairmen of the House and Senate Homeland Security Committees, Rep. Peter King and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) will hold the latest in a series of hearings on Muslim radicalization. This time, the subject will address the radicalization of Muslim Americans within the U.S. military, and how the armed services can better protect themselves against homegrown attacks.
According to King, “There is an attempt by Islamists to join the military and infiltrate the military, and it’s more of a threat than the average American is aware of right now.” Yet by singling out the Muslim community as potential threats to national security, the congressman is perpetuating the belief held by some that the United States is at war with Islam. It’s a belief that poses every bit as much of a threat to U.S. forces fighting in Pakistan and Afghanistan as the vow by Pastor Terry Jones to burn the Quran last year, a statement that was met with fierce criticism from Gen. David Petraeus and then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Congressman King’s apparently simplistic view of the world is deeply offensive – and counter-productive. As an academic, I am dismayed by his cavalier treatment of the truth and his peddling of prejudice rather than facts during his recent Congressional hearings, just as I am troubled, as a former soldier in the British Army’s Parachute Regiment, by his support for the IRA, whose white Roman Catholic terrorists have claimed hundreds of lives.
The hypocrisy of the remarks by King is breathtaking. According to the University of Ulster, through 2001, about 1,800 people were killed by the IRA as part of their battle for “religious freedom.” Rather than take advantage of the ballot box, they obtained arms from Libya and financed their terrorist operations by robbing banks and post offices, kidnapping for ransom, dealing drugs, money laundering and other criminal activities.
More than 600 of those killed were my fellow soldiers, who were consistent targets of the IRA. In February 2001, a bomb exploded outside our Territorial Army base in West London just before we were about to leave for training. The only casualty was a 14-year-old cadet, whose hand was blown off. A month later, another IRA bomb exploded opposite the same Army barracks in another random, pointless act of terror.
With all this in mind, it’s difficult to take King’s religious radicalization hearings seriously. Yet by holding them anyway, he could become the Joseph McCarthy of our time.
The three hearings already held this year on the radicalization of the Muslim American community have created an outcry among religious leaders and civic groups who contend that they are pointless, divisive and are fostering negative stereotypes. King’s comment, for example, that “80 to 85 percent of mosques in this country are controlled by Islamic fundamentalists…this is an enemy living amongst us” has been denounced as both Islamophobic and factually incorrect. But by continuing his hearings, he is only offering more fuel for the bigots.
Rep. King has a fixation on the events of 9/11. This is perhaps understandable, but it appears to have blinded him to the fact that terrorists can be of any race or any religion. And he has ploughed on, appearing to disregard the facts when it suits. This was amply demonstrated by testimony from Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, who said that contrary to King’s suggestion, there was actually regular and successful cooperation between American Muslims and law enforcement for fighting radicalization.
Fear and bigotry are powerful means of generating support among voters. But even with this reality in mind, it’s difficult to see how the public could back someone who offers supportive words for some terrorists, while demonizing others.
King has said that these hearings will continue, regardless of the criticism they have received. But what could have been an opportunity to talk about terrorism in a constructive manner has instead descended into the exploitation of ethnic misunderstanding.
Bigotry has no place in a democracy. As Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Mr. King really should know better.
Dr Azeem Ibrahim is a Fellow and Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and a former Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and World Fellow at Yale. More of his writings can be found here: www.azeemibrahim.com. Follow Azeem Ibrahim on Twitter: @AzeemIbrahim