American Muslims - Liaquat Ali Khan - Saturday, March 12, 2011

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Despite calls to call off the proposed Congressional hearings on the inflammatory topic of “the radicalisation of American Muslims,” Representative Peter King, the Republican Chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security is determined to investigate the so-called home-grown Islamic terrorism.

Numerous faith groups, including the Catholics, oppose King’s hearings as a crude attack on the religious dignity of Islam. Jewish leaders and rabbis have been most vocal in condemning the undignified implication that “there is an inherent link between Islam per se and terrorism (which) is not helpful to religious tolerance in America.” Other faith groups warn that “singling out a group of Americans for government scrutiny based on their faith is divisive and wrong.” King remains un-persuaded, however, reaffirming regrettable popular opinions that Islam poses a threat to national security, that mosques are turning into centres of radicalism, and that American Muslims are actively planning to engage in acts of terrorism.

In addition to challenging the religious dignity of Islam, a religion now well-established in the US, King’s hearings violate the principle of human dignity, the bedrock of the law of human rights. Human dignity requires that the group identity should not be the sole criterion for judging individuals. Every individual, regardless of his or her racial, religious, or any other group identity, is entitled to human dignity. This principle of dignity of the individual, though it applies to all, is particularly protective of individuals of vulnerable minorities, such as American Muslims.

King knows that several million Muslims living in all parts of the US epitomise diversity and individuality. They all are not the same. Ignoring complex compositions of American-Muslims as individuals, King’s hearings endorse an inaccurate impression that American Muslims constitute a violent monolithic community; or, worse, that each and every American Muslim poses a threat to homeland security.

As public figures wielding influence, lawmakers are duty-bound to avoid harmful overgeneralisations that cause public panic or fear.

King underscores a legitimate homeland security concern. A few individuals would likely commit acts of terrorism and some already have. In 2010, Faisal Shahzad, a naturalised Muslim citizen, attempted to detonate a car bomb in Times Squares. In 2009, Major Nidal Hasan, a Muslim born in Virginia, killed 13 persons at Fort Hood. However, select acts of terrorism, no matter how despicable, cannot be inflated into the collective guilt of an entire community.

History teaches us, again and again, that overgeneralisations lead to error and tragedy. Most American Muslims are like most other Americans, engrossed in their daily lives. Committing the cardinal error of overgeneralisation, King, despite legitimate concerns he has for homeland security, comes across as a prejudiced lawmaker determined to demonise American Muslims as violent radicals. At a time when the US needs the goodwill of domestic Muslim communities to safeguard homeland security, King is widening the gulf of trust and mutual respect among Americans.

Homeland security is a legitimate congressional concern. Members of Congress are bound by oath or affirmation to defend the US Constitution against domestic and foreign enemies. Note, however, that it is the US Constitution that members of Congress must defend. No responsible lawmaker would reduce the Constitution’s complex rights-based architecture to mere homeland security. It is no secret that inflated concerns for homeland security can assault civil liberties and protected rights.

Rights-based democracies interweave homeland security into the precious fabric of rights and liberties. Congressional leaders, including the Speaker of the House, must not allow King to conduct these hearings that challenge the religious dignity of Islam and through harmful generalisation decline to treat American Muslims as individuals.

The writer is professor of law at Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, Kansas.


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