Peter King's Muslim hearings: He whips up hysteria, then blames the media.

How you look at things.
March 11 2011 9:08 AM

Muslim-Bait and Switch

Peter King whipped up hysteria about American Muslims. Now he blames the media for it.

US Republican Representative Peter King of New York. Click image to expand.
Rep. Peter King gavels in the first hearing on American Muslim radicalization

Peter King, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, held his long-awaited hearing on Muslim radicalization yesterday. And, as my colleague David Weigel reported, it was a dud. Keith Ellison, one of the two Muslim members of Congress, sobbed. * Democrats tried their best to ignite outrage. But Republicans didn't play their part. Where was the inquisition? The bigotry? The explosions?

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

In a press conference afterward, King blamed the media for having built up "baseless" expectations of Islamophobic McCarthyism. He accused his critics of "mindless hysteria." But that isn't what happened. The press expected a broad indictment of the Muslim community because that's what King had promised. But he didn't deliver. He baited Muslims and switched.

Two days before the hearing, when King was asked about "the Muslim American community" and its cooperation with law enforcement, he asserted, "I talk to cops and counterterrorism people on the ground all the time, and they get virtually no cooperation." Then, when he was accused of assuming "that the Muslim American community … is somehow abetting and aiding and giving shelter to this process of radicalization," he flatly replied, "It is the truth."

At the hearing, however, King produced no evidence to support these broad allegations. His witnesses stuck to personal anecdotes about certain mosques or imams in Nashville and Minneapolis.

As to the charge that they were picking on Muslims, King and his Republican colleagues had a ready answer: Targeting Muslims wasn't their idea. It was al-Qaida's.

The rap on King is that he blames all Muslims for the crimes of a few and implies that they're generally suspicious. As Lee Baca, the Los Angeles County Sherriff, put it at the hearing, the committee's exclusive focus on Muslim extremism "makes a false assumption that any particular religion or group is more prone to radicalization than others."

But King and the Republicans didn't depict Muslims as particularly prone to radicalization. They depicted Muslims as particularly targeted for radicalization.

King opened the hearing by quoting President Obama's deputy national security adviser, who said last Sunday that al-Qaida designs videos, Internet forums, and online magazines "to convince Muslim Americans to reject their country and attack their fellow Americans." He cited a poll that found "15 percent of Muslim-American men between the age of 18 and 29 could support suicide bombings. This is the segment of the community al-Qaida is attempting to recruit." Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, underscored this point. "Some have attempted to mischaracterize this hearing as an attack on American Muslims," said McCaul. "It is not this committee that is doing that, but al-Qaida that is targeting and attacking our Muslim youth."

Our Muslim youth. Trust me, I never heard congressmen talk that way when I was growing up in Texas.

Throughout the hearing, Republicans and their witnesses emphasized that young Muslim men were "recruited" and "manipulated" into terrorism. They said these young men were "exploited," "lied to," and "taken advantage of." After the hearing, King said the day's testimony showed that "those who are worst victimized by the radicalization of the Muslim-American community by al-Qaida are the Muslim-Americans themselves." Even the president of the Islamic Society of North America, in criticizing King, agreed that "there's an element targeting our youth and our communities."

It's hard to argue with the argument that Muslims are more targeted, because it's true. Nor does it imply anything nefarious about Muslims or their community leaders in general. That's why, over the course of the hearing, the outrage dissipated.

Which makes you wonder why Republicans didn't frame the problem this way in the first place. Imagine how different the buildup to the hearing would have been if, instead of titling it "The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community's Response," King had called it "Al-Qaida's Targeting of the American Muslim Community and that Community's Response."

But King chose the more aggressive path. When he announced the hearings three months ago, he said they would address the "radicalization of the American Muslim community and homegrown terrorism." Homegrown, not planted. Radicalization of the American Muslim community, not radicalization of a few targeted miscreants.

Now he stands before a microphone and accuses the media of having whipped up "mindless hysteria." And in the next breath, he adds, "If these were just incidental cases … why has no national Muslim leader spoken out and denounced what happened in Minneapolis?"

Poor King. He wants to stop generalizing about Muslims. It's just hard to kick the habit.

Correction, March 11, 2011: The author originally called Keith Ellison the only Muslim member of Congress. That was true when Ellison was elected. But since then, a second Muslim, Andre Carson (D-Ind.), has been elected to Congress. (Return to corrected sentence.)

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