Peter King, an Irish-American representing a district with a heavily Jewish constituency, has taken on an unwittingly ironic role: a crusader against what’s characterized as a foreign religion being brought into America by people from backwards countries threatening our American way of life.
As Americans of mixed heritage, we grew up hearing stories about how our Jewish grandparents faced similar prejudice in the early 20th century and how our Irish ancestors faced more of the same when they arrived in the mid-19th century. Chinese workers faced even harsher legal restrictions with the Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese-Americans were interred through World War II. Countless others have been through similar treatment. And these are willing immigrants and their descendants; African and Indigenous Americans have suffered much worse.
Up into the 1930s, Republicans attacked the Democrats as “the party of rum, Romanism, and rebellion,” and a Democratic president’s heritage was questioned with sneers at “Franklin Rosenfeld.” Haven’t the American people learned? King is perpetuating an American tradition, but one that should have been sent the way of Jim Crow segregation, not to preserve as part of our “American way of life.”
King complains that Muslim community leaders are not cooperating with law enforcement. We have to wonder what sort of cooperation he is looking for. If an Imam says, “We have none of that here,” it is more likely a statement of fact than an evasion. Or in some cases those susceptible to violent acts keep it secret from their community. Last December when Mohamed Mohamud was drawn into what he believed to be an al-Qaeda cell he never told anyone at his mosque, knowing they would disapprove, as nearly all Muslims would.
As with the young Somali, the FBI has been far more successful in recruiting Muslim malcontents into sting operations than al-Qaeda has been in carrying out the real thing. Whether on an urban street corner or at a Tea Party rally, finding angry, alienated young men who can be talked into foolish acts is no great challenge. It was angry young men in earlier days who donned white hoods to protect “good, Protestant Americans” not just from the “menace” of racial integration, but the “dire influence” of Catholics and Jews. We have seen the same anger and alienation in films of racist hate rallies, whether in anti-Semitic rallies in Germany in the 1930s, in Alabama in the 1960s, or in Yorba Linda this February.
What kind of “cooperation” does King want? In reporting instances of planned violence, Muslims have been not just cooperative, but proactive. The Nigerian would-be airplane bomber was reported by his own father. The attempted Times Square bomber was first identified by a Muslim street vendor. Would that Ted Kaczinsky and Timothy McVeigh had lived in such alert communities!
King’s hearings are a signal to Muslims that we are not accepted as a part of American society. This can only promote more alienation and anger. He is not only exploiting Islamophobia to build a political base of fear and prejudice; his message of divisive suspicion also will undermine Muslim efforts to integrate into our society, to enrich America as our Catholic and Jewish ancestors did, not by abandoning their religion, but by bringing it into the American mainstream.
We are American Muslims dedicated to democracy and pluralism; we support women’s equality and GLBT rights. We recognize that there are religious extremists in our religion as there are in others and we struggle with prejudices within our community and without. We see bridges between peoples and inclusion leading to integration and mutual cultural enrichment as evidenced by our own mixed backgrounds.
We are American Muslims of mixed Irish and Jewish backgrounds, and have great faith in the strength of cultural diversity. But just when we would like to think that racial and religious prejudices have been left in the past, we see frightening new repetitions of old patterns. We ask Peter King and his constituents to recognize the language of hatred and fear, to remember how our families endured humiliation and abuse, and to offer Muslim Americans, native and immigrant, the friendship that our Irish and Jewish ancestors and so many other new Americans should have enjoyed.