Engaging Muslim Americans is crucial
Speculation is an important exercise in philosophical debates and social gatherings, but not in public policy reviews or criminal investigations. Yet this is what happened during the hearing conducted by the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee on Friday, Nov. 19.
Senator Joe Lieberman, the committee chair, decided to press ahead with his investigation of Fort Hood fatal shootings despite calls by President Obama on lawmakers not to turn the shooting into a "political theater" and to wait until his administration and the military investigations are complete. The Senate Armed Services Committee responded positively and cancelled a scheduled closed-door hearing with Secretary of the Army John McHugh and Army Chief of Staff George Casey.
Lieberman told a press conference on Thursday that he was "not interested in political theater," and that he wanted instead to get "the facts and correcting the system." Yet none of those who spoke on Friday at the hearing had access to the facts of the Fort Hood shootings. And while the motives of the perpetrator of the Fort Hood rampage are still investigated, Lieberman called the fatal shooting a "homegrown terrorist attack" in a clear rush to judgment and a blatant attempt to link the Fort Hood shootings to the "war on terrorism."
Although the discussion was not helpful to understanding the facts or the sequence of events that led to the Fort Hood tragedy, the panelists who spoke at the hearing raised a number of issues that need to receive a broader discussion and greater national attention.
Juan Carlos Zarate, a former deputy national security advisor in the Bush administration, focused his remarks on the "violent extremist ideology" that he thought could explain the shooting incident. "Unlike any event since 9/11," he stated, "[Fort Hood] has fueled discussion about the specter and threat of a violent extremist ideology in our midst."
Frances Townsend, former homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush expressed concerns that "political correctness," and fear of violating Major Hasan's free speech rights, may have prevented the FBI from sharing information with the military earlier this year, when a counterterrorism team examined his e-mail exchanges with Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Yemani blogger, but found nothing amiss.
Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert at the RAND Corp, expressed concern about increased "radicalization" of Muslims in the United States, citing over 30 attempted plots by "independent homegrown terrorists have been broken up in the U.S. since 9/11."
Gen. John Keane, the Army's former vice chief of staff, stressed the need not to confuse the criminal act with good work of over 10,000 Muslims serving in the military. He then called for involving soldiers in effort to point out potential threats in their ranks. "It should not be an act of moral courage for a soldier to identify a fellow soldier who is displaying extremist behavior," he stressed, "it should be an obligation."
The experts' testimonies raised issues of considerable importance and should become part of a broader national discussion. "Radicalization" and the possible penetration of "violent extremist ideology" are potential threats to national security and have become of great concern to many in the country, including Muslim leaders and national Muslim organizations.
Radicalization often results from marginalization and a deepening sense of exclusion and unfair treatment by establish social groups and government agencies. Similarly, the extremist ideology responsible for violent outbursts is often rooted in the systematic demonization of marginalized groups. National Muslim organizations and Muslim leaders of mosques and local Islamic centers across the nation have been working hard for years to ensure that the Muslim American community is well integrated and fully participating in the social, economic, and political spheres of society.
Rather than being seen as an asset and an important force to prevent radicalization, national Muslim organizations have, since 9/11, come under relentless attacks by far right individuals and groups whose aim have been to delegitimize the authentic voices of the American Muslim community. Last month, four republican congressmen used a Capitol Hill press conference to launch a book by anti-Muslim authors with the aim to undermine the credibility of main Muslim organizations. Similarly, an influential religious leader used Fort Hood tragedy to castigate the entire Muslim community. Political leaders in general, and GOP leaders in particular, should speak out against the far right propaganda machines and reject their divisive rhetoric against Islam and Muslims, and hence steer our society away from the path of radicalization.
Jenkins stressed in his testimony that Nidal Hassan's radicalization has been private and personal. "If some of the markers of radicalization and recruitment are missing, it is because, except for Hasan's reported correspondence with the imam, Anwar al-Aulaqi, his journey may have been entirely an interior one." He further warned against relying solely on law enforcement strategy to deal with radical outbursts. "We do not, nor would we want, to live in a police state where every dubious remark, questionable correspondence, or relationship deemed suspicious is noted, recorded, and scrutinized for signs of dangerous deviancy."
Missing from the hearing was the Muslim American voice and the voices of those who can shed light on the Muslim success in preventing serious radicalization, including those of Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson. In a recent article published in the Foreign Policy magazine under the title "The Real Shock of Fort Hood," Simon and Stevenson discussed the increased racism faced by American Muslims since Sept. 11. They also criticized the negative media coverage of Islam and Muslims. "Media coverage dwelling on the violence associated with radical Islam and ignoring the respectable lifestyles of most American Muslims, along with Christian right-wing rhetoric casting the campaign against terrorism as a clash of religions, has contributed to the public's misunderstanding of Islam," they stated.
Simon and Stevenson argued that the real shock is that Muslim Americans continue to show unquestionable loyalty to their country and reject extremism despite all the pressure brought on them both internally and externally. They warned against allowing the pressure to continue. "[T]he Fort Hood massacre arguably showed that the continued civility of the Muslim population against undeniable pressures cannot be taken for granted," they cautioned. "To preserve it, the American public will have to resist the paranoia to which last week's tragedy could potentially lead," they added.
The work of the Senate Homeland Security is very important, and all Americans, including those of the Islamic faith, must ensure that the committee should not become fixated on the "war on terror" approach of the Bush years, and that we enter into a new phase of promoting peace and security by rejecting the divisive voices from the far right.
Dr. Louay Safi is executive director with the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). He writes and lectures on issues relating to Islam and the West, democracy, human rights, leadership, and world peace. His commentaries are available at louaysafi.com
Topics: American Muslims