Erasures and Resistance: What Peter King’s Hearing Said. And What It Didn’t.

Representative Peter King’s (R-NY) first hearing on the radicalization of American Muslim communities exemplified the right wing’s ongoing commitment to constructing the idea of a radical, threatening Islam.  The hearing also exposed what is, at best, liberal acquiescence, and, at worst, liberal partnership in that dangerous agenda.   Most profoundly, the hearing made clear the extent to which the war on terror has robbed public discourse of any meaningful vocabulary for contesting the universe in which Islam poses legitimate concern for the American public.  The hearing was an attack, too, on our organizing efforts.  Looking back on the last year, the hearing—like the contestation of mosque-building or the construction of the threat of sharia law—was laying the tracks to maintain the domestic war on terror apparatus beyond Osama bin Laden.   

I attended the hearing to witness what I anticipated would be akin to circus-like political theater. Held in the chandeliered room of the Cannon House Office Building, the topsy-turvy events of that day masqueraded as civility and civil discourse.  But they must be understood as an attempt to construct a reality to feed the massive, continually growing, infrastructure of the war on terror.  Its tentacles have reached into our homes and movements via surveillance and informants, through our federal prisons via Communication Management Units and Special Administration Measures, and across oceans to Pakistan via killer drones and the CIA.   

There’s no going back, it seems, even now, with the assassination of Osama bin Laden.  Perhaps especially now—the most covered event in world history probably, a public act of extrajudicial killing, is being constructed as redemption and used as erasure.  This never-ending war, with the United States as captain, has no borders or limits.  It knows no shame.  It has been waged in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen—waged against Muslims, immigrants, communities of color, Palestine activists, and leftists within the United States—with hundreds of thousands dead and nations destroyed; countless tortured, deported, and detained, often with the sanction of law; more than a quadrillion dollars spent on weapons, prisons, personnel, and ideas to sustain the effort. And this brief accounting doesn’t even touch the ways in which this war has exported justification for intensified xenophobia around the world, the France niqab ban and Swiss minaret ban being but two examples.  

There are no signs of letting up.

Forget it all, we are told.  We caught the man.  

***

On March 10, 2011, Peter King presided over a five-hour hearing in the House Committee on Homeland Security.  The first panel consisted of Members of Congress: Keith Ellison (D-MN); Frank Wolf (R-VA); and John Dingell (D-MI).  The second panel consisted of the primary witnesses.  M. Zuhdi Jasser, President, American Islamic Forum for Democracy; Melvin Bledsoe and Abdirizak Bihi, both fathers of “radicalized” sons; and Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca.  All but Baca were hand-picked by King.  

The second panel was intended as the main act, and in large part, it was.  But Ellison’s presentation during the first panel is worth noting.  While talking about Mohammed Hamdani—a Muslim American who died in the attack on the twin towers on September 11, 2011—Ellison broke down into tears.  This moment has been criticized by the right as manufactured and by the left as pandering to concepts of the good and bad Muslim.  No fan of any iteration of the model minority construction, I, too, broke down with Ellison in that room.  Tears, like laughter, mark what words cannot touch.  His tears—my tears—grieved for what he was forced to do.  The first openly Muslim Member of Congress, an African American man, he was reduced to testifying before his colleagues that American Muslims are human too.  That he is human, too.  To do this, he complicated the central text of the war on terror, the event of 9/11: Muslims too went into and died in the towers in flames, he said.  His tears spoke what he did not seem to have the vocabulary or permissions for.  

The hearing’s primary objective was to further establish the idea that “radicalization” is an identifiable process by which Muslims become “radical”; that becoming “radical” is a necessary and sufficient stepping-stone to becoming a real live threat to the United States; and that American Muslims are radicalizing and pose a violent threat to the United States.  Like previous efforts to assert “radicalization” as an identifiable process, the testimony added to the characteristics that we should be concerned with when we witness them.  These characteristics are overdetermined and focused on ideas about Muslim religious practices and Muslim anti-Americanism.  Bledsoe, for example, recounted that while “radicalizing,” his son came home infrequently from college, let go of the family dog, and took down his MLK poster.  Bihi spoke of his son spending a lot of time at the local mosque.  To bring it back full circle, Jasser made a point that his resume is almost exactly like that of Nidal Hassan.   

Any Muslim can become a threat at any moment.  

***

Equally dangerous was the hearing’s secondary message: that the leadership in Muslim communities consists of a heavy-handed cabal of political Islamists.  The Republicans and their witnesses lambasted many of the major Muslim organizations: the Council on American-Islamic Relations in particular, but also the Islamic Society of North America, Muslim Advocates, and Muslim Public Affairs Council.  These liberal advocacy, documentation, and policy organizations were charged with brainwashing and coercing Muslim communities to avoid cooperating with law enforcement.  The same organizations that have met with the FBI and DHS and celebrated Attorney General Eric Holder in the face of serious criticisms about the role of law enforcement in Muslim communities. 

The leading example of such seditious leadership?  Muslim organizations and mosque leadership are counseling Muslims to not talk to the FBI without a lawyer present.  Elegantly sewing together the U.S. government’s attempt to suppress Muslims and leftists, King’s staff propped up their disloyalty claim with a National Lawyers Guild Know Your Rights poster advising of the 5th Amendment right to remain silent.  Loretta Sanchez (D-CA) pointed out that she would counsel all communities of color to invoke their right to counsel with law enforcement.  But hers was a lonely voice, the echo chamber strongly signaling that Muslims must waive their rights to counsel—perhaps more—to prove their loyalty.  I wonder how much would be enough.   

In addition to the attack on Muslims organizations and mosque leadership for advising individuals to retain counsel in interacting with law enforcement, members of the Committee attacked the term Islamophobia.   Repeatedly referring to the term as a “slur,” they ironically argued that the term was deployed to silence any real conversation about how to deal with the terrorist threat faced by the United States.  The term ‘Islamophobia’ is preventing aggressive policing of counterterrorism, so they argued.  

The attacks on Muslim “cooperation” and the term Islamophobia must be understood in the context of the recent history of Muslim communities and attacks on these Muslim communities in the United States.  

Muslim organizations and leaders have only recently started to advise community members to talk to counsel before chatting with law enforcement, or to hold Know Your Rights trainings in mosques.  It’s been a lesson learned the hard way—after the FBI, Joint Terrorism Task Forces, and local police departments have knocked on the doors of thousands upon thousands of Muslims, asking questions like “what do you think of the war in Iraq” and “which mosque do you attend” and “what names can you share.”  Questions that have turned into indictments, detentions, and deportations, usually based on very little to no evidence of criminal activity.  All of this facilitated by an expansive set of laws, aggressive enforcement, and a culture that constitutes Muslims as threats who have to prove their loyalty by “cooperating.” 

The term Islamophobia rapidly rose into common parlance in the United States this past year, no doubt as a result of the broad-coalition-based organizing efforts that have emerged out of the dire circumstances of Park 51, Qur’an burnings, and the construction of sharia law as a threat to the United States.  “Islamophobia” now stands in for the idea that within the United States, there is a particular kind of discrimination against Muslims and Islam, and that it is worth naming.  Though the mainstream has been careful to attach the term to conservative elements of American society and right-wing efforts—rather than to, say, our war efforts abroad—the existence of the term itself challenges the logical universe which the war on terror asserts in order to maintain its legitimacy.  

The war on terror rests on the idea that Muslims are inherently threatening, and that Muslims pose a uniquely situated threat requiring an extraordinary response.  Especially with the rise of the radicalization narrative as a legitimate basis for terrorism policing, “national security” requires the targeting of Muslims on the basis of religious practice and political opinion.  At the same time, national security trumps and erases concerns about discrimination, which are constructed as relatively paltry in relation.   

***

My ears are still ringing from the silences and erasures in that hearing.  Despite moving expressions of anger and frustration with Republicans by Democrats, not one person questioned the framework of cooperation and radicalization.  Democrats objected to the hearing for the way it publicly painted Muslim communities across the United States as threatening and uncooperative.  And L.A. County Sheriff Baca, the one witness lauded by both Democrats and Republicans, contested the hearing on the grounds that Muslims do cooperate.  

But not one voice raised questions—let alone objected—about the broad-brush strokes with which various government policies have criminalized Muslim communities.  Or, about how the radicalization narrative and preventative policing require and sustain surveillance, policing, and prosecution of Muslims based on religious practice and political opinion.  Or, about how the cooperation framework itself situates Muslims as inherently threatening—you must cooperate to show your loyalty.  Or, about how the domestic terrorism prosecutions touted as proof of the homegrown threat draw on government-instigated-and-orchestrated plots and the overbroad material support laws that criminalize speech and promote guilt-by-association.  Or, about how since 9/11 the guidelines governing the FBI have become lax to the point of non-existence.  Or, about the continuities and histories of race-based surveillance, policing, and prosecution of communities of color in the United States

Or, about how we’ve been at this war on terror for almost 10 years, now with a vast ideological and material infrastructure committed to it, and perhaps the government is now grasping at straws to justify it all.  

Except now we have Osama.

In that hearing room, as on the television screens and cover stories now, we are told to forget what we know and to trust what they tell us. 

Remember this:  their wars depend on it.  


This article benefited from the careful eyes of Ali Mir, Aisha Ghani, Darryl Li, Zainab Akbar, and Beena Ahmad.

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