Written by Hazel Weiser
Peter King is my representative in the United States Congress! There I said it. I apologize to everyone and assure you I have never done anything to get him elected or reelected. One would think that living in Nassau County, Long Island, under an hour by car or train to New York City, would mean I was living in a fairly progressive community. When I moved here in 1987, I thought I was. But Long Island has a nasty history: in the 1730s, there were more enslaved men and women living here than anyplace else in the north. The Levitt family which singlehandedly created the concept of the cookie-cutter suburbs that soon led to white flight and sprawl, had restrictive covenants in the leases and deeds to their homes in Levittown. (Levittown still is less than 1% African American!) Long Island has 127 individual school districts, each devised to assure homogeneity and racial purity. So Peter King as an elected official somehow fits the demographics of a region trying to stave off modernity despite its proximity to Manhattan.
Thursday’s hearings “The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community’s Response” organized by King as chair of the House Homeland Security Committee legitimized the rhetoric of discrimination. King, in his opening statement responded to outcries that the hearings were witch hunts. After supposedly removing some very volatile speakers from the speakers’ roster, including the Dutch critic of Islam Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Zuhdi Jasser, the Arizona-based founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, King claimed: “To back down would be a craven surrender to political correctness and an abdication of what I believe to be the main responsibility of this committee– to protect America from a terrorist attack.”
No matter what Muslim leaders do in this country, apart from leaving, it doesn’t seem like enough for Peter King. Despite numerous statements and press releases after 911 from prominent Muslim civic and religious leaders, condemning terrorism and violence and Al Qaeda, some of which are documented here, in some weird twist of “free speech,” King appears to demand that Muslims, unlike any other religious community in the United States, proclaim their allegiance to the United States of America and end all threats posed by anyone anyplace who claims to read the Koran. The timing of these hearings couldn’t be worse. The entire Arab world appears to be rebelling against tyranny and dictatorship, and King decides it’s a great time to alienate more Muslims! And what is the threat of terrorism? According to the March 2011 Harper’s Index, only 8 American civilians died worldwide last year in terrorist attacks. None of them died here in the “homeland.” And hypocrisy enters the picture, too, because Peter King was a supporter of the IRA. Look at these clips from Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show capturing King defending his support for the IRA.
The Global Terrorist Data Base, maintained at the University of Maryland, is a fun place to learn about terrorist attacks, if you are so inclined, using its advanced search function. Of the 123 “terrorist” incidents inside the United States since 1998, the vast majority have been perpetrated by either “unknowns,” with a smattering of animal rights or environmental fanatics, the Ku Klux Klan, and white extremists.
I’m not going to pretend that Peter King, who is serving his tenth term as representative is some kind of aberrant figure. He has been ranting against Muslims even though there is a substantial Muslim constituency living in his district, which includes a beautiful mosque. That mosque, the Islamic Center of Long Island, is renowned for its inter-faith exchanges with synagogues and churches, and for the Domestic Harmony Foundation. The Domestic Harmony Foundation was started by a group of Muslim women fighting against domestic violence with a hot line, counseling and legal services, and education programs to change the culture of subordination of women and children. Peter King even condemned the Nassau County Human Rights Commission when it criticized him for saying that there were too many mosques.
Nor can I say that xenophobic comments are isolated to Peter King’s office, because Steve Levy, the county executive for Suffolk County, the “other Long Island” county, is notorious for his rants against Latinos. One man was killed and two other men were kidnapped and beaten by anti-Latino Long Islanders. It’s gotten so bad that a coalition of local and national immigration leaders, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, met with attorneys from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division to ask the division to expand an ongoing federal investigation into discriminatory policing to determine how infighting between Suffolk officials hampered the ability of the Suffolk County Police Department to appropriately handle hate crimes against immigrants and Latinos. A 2009 report “Climate of Fear: Latino Immigrants in Suffolk County, N.Y.,” by the Southern Poverty Law Center documented widespread violence against Latinos and cited the indifference of local authorities. The report singled out County Executive Steve Levy as the “enabler-in-chief” for employing rhetoric and supporting policies against immigrants.
In an age of instant news and social media, when the power of words has been demonstrated to us daily, we need to look to ways to cut through the rhetoric, to speak with the intention of being understood, so that we can engage in conversations that build relationships and community. We should look to our political leaders for modeling this behavior, but unfortunately, at a time of hyper-partisanship, they are failing us. And in their abusive use of rhetoric, they are failing democracy and self-government. Although I don’t believe we are at the “end of days,” I do believe that we have many serious problems facing us as humans living on this single planet, and that dialogue, not rhetoric, grandstanding, or violence, is the essential tool, available to us all, to do something before it’s too late.
Postscript: Here is a link to an interesting report issued by the Political Research Associates on manufacturing the Islamic menace. After 911 when funding for “homeland” security and counterterrorism training became available from the Bush administration, it seems that private contractors with a very definite bias went into the business of training. Their messages are echoed by Peter King and opponents of any mosques being built anywhere, distorting the social and political reality.