Peter King's Anti-Muslim Bigotry Haunts Terrorism Hearings

The new Homeland Security chairman opens hearings on American Muslim terrorists this week. Peter Beinart on the GOP's shameful religious intolerance obscures the real homeland threat.

Peter King. Credit: Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP Photo

Republicans like to claim that Democrats are the “European” party: the party that wants a big welfare state, believes in international law, and doesn’t think America is an exceptional nation. But I’ve noticed a certain Europeanification of the GOP of late, as regard to Muslims. For years, Republicans have explained that their brand of patriotism has nothing to do with blood and soil. Unlike right-wing European parties, which often fashion themselves bulwarks against the Muslim menace, Republicans—in their telling—defend the universal ideals of unfettered capitalism, traditional morality, and bucketloads for defense. They welcome anyone who adheres to those principles, no matter their complexion and faith (except perhaps if they don’t have one).

It would be nice if someone explained that to Representative Peter King. King, a Long Island Republican, will hold hearings this week on terrorism by American Muslims. Think about that for a second. King isn’t holding hearings on domestic terrorism; he’s holding hearings on domestic terrorism by one religious group. Is most American terrorism Muslim terrorism? Actually, no. Over the last decade or so, there’s been at least as much domestic terrorism by folks like Timothy McVeigh, Theodore Kaczynski, Eric Rudolph (who bombed the 1996 Atlanta Olympics), Bruce Edwards Ivins (the main suspect in the 2001 anthrax attacks), and most recently, Jared Lee Loughner. But even if American Muslims are statistically more likely to commit terrorism than non-Muslims, it is still wrong to define the problem in religious terms. I’m pretty sure that in the 1950s, Jews—given their overrepresentation in the American Communist Party—were overrepresented as Soviet spies. Italians may have been overrepresented in organized crime. Yet for a member of Congress to define either Soviet subversion or organized crime as the province of a particular religious or ethnic group would still have been wrong.

But wait, you say, there’s a difference: It wasn’t their Jewishness that made Jews disproportionately join the Communist Party or their Italianness that made Italians disproportionately join the Mafia. Well, in a sense, it was. At a certain moment in time, certain aspects of Jewish-American or Italian-American sociology disproportionately predisposed Jews and Italians to certain problematic behavior. That may be true for Muslims today, but what the government should be targeting is the behavior, not the religious or ethnic group.

You might think Peter King would understand that not all the terrorist sympathizers in America are Muslim. After all, for many years he himself sympathized with the notoriously brutal Irish Republican Army. According to Mother Jones, King refused to condemn an IRA attack that killed nine police officers. He even complained that the FBI was harassing him for his IRA ties.

King’s anti-terror credentials are spotty. His anti-Muslim credentials, on the other hand, are excellent.

King’s anti-terror credentials, in other words, are spotty. His anti-Muslim credentials, on the other hand, are excellent. In 2007, he told Politico that “we have, unfortunately, too many mosques in this country.” (King claims his quote was taken out of context, which Politico denies.) His fellow committee member, Georgia Republican Paul Broun, recently complained to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano that he had seen a man of “Arabian or Middle Eastern descent” go through security without any special scrutiny. “We’ve got to profile these fellas,” he explained.

Were it only King and his committee, perhaps all this might be laughed off. But anti-Muslim bigotry is not a fringe view in today’s GOP. Most of the party bigwigs denounced the “ground zero mosque,” insisting that Muslims should have the good taste not to practice their religion in a place where non-Muslims might be offended, no matter how irrationally. Across the country, Republicans are rushing to head off the threat that America will soon be governed by Sharia (Islamic law). What’s next? The threat represented by Halacha (Jewish law)? After learning that the University of Michigan offers foot-washing stations to facilitate Muslim prayer, Mike Huckabee recently declared that “the accommodation we’re making to one religion at the expense of others is very un-American.”

Actually, once upon a time, Republicans claimed that the accommodation and respect America offered people of all faiths was part of what they, as conservatives, championed. As recently as 2000, George W. Bush sought the Muslim vote by condemning religious profiling. As president, he backed government support for all manner of religious charities because he knew that if Christ redeemed lives wrecked by addiction and abuse, so did Allah. Peter King’s Islamophobia, in other words, does not merely threaten the values of secular liberals; it threatens the kind of American exceptionalism in which the GOP claims to believe. It undermines the claim that a religiously informed party need not be a religiously bigoted party. It undermines the claim that Republicans espouse a set of traditional principles, not a particular religious or ethnic heritage.

I once ate a Shabbat meal in Salt Lake City, where my hosts—staunch Republicans and Orthodox Jews—talked with wonder about the extreme courtesy with which their Mormon neighbors accommodated their religious needs. Conservatives, they explained, were actually more tolerant of minority faiths than liberals. I’d like to believe that a Muslim family in Utah or Alabama could say the same today. In a sense, the Republican Party’s honor depends on it. Standing up to Peter King would be a good start.

Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His latest book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is available from HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.