When is a terrorist a terrorist?

By Kathleen Bergin

Representative Pete King (R-NY), the new chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, wants to keep you safe.  He’s asking patriotic Americans to watch out for the terrorists among us, and thinks people should be immune from civil liability if they report a hunch based on “reasonable suspicion” that ultimately turns out to be wrong.  It’s not clear what constitutes “reasonable suspicion” under his bill (H.R. 495), but my own hunch is that it has something to do with Arab sounding names and prayers to a God named Allah.

Why the skepticism?  If you’re not familiar with Rep. King, he’s the one who thinks that 90% of Mosques in this country are run by radical Imams who prosthelytize religious extremism.   He’s also convened a hearing for today, “Understanding the Homeland Threat Landscape,” to confront what he sees as the threat posed by radical Islamists and their conspiring leaders.

Critics, like Rep. Andre Carson (D-IN), wonder why King and others like him insist on propagating the essentialist motif of Muslim as terrorist.  King’s “is not an accurate depiction of the millions of peace-loving Muslims,” he says, and “our national security depends on us forging strong partnerships with people across the Muslim world.”

True enough.  But as people of good faith work to remind King that “not all Muslims are terrorists,” let’s not forget that not all terrorists are Muslim, either.  I wouldn’t be the first to point out the irony of reserving the terrorist label for only certain kinds of people but not others who fly buildings into planes (Joseph Stack), deliver make-shift bombs (Ted Kaczynski), or publicly assassinate elected officials and other political figures (Jared Lochner, Scott Roeder).  But the extent to which this Islamaphobic discourse belies the facts truly shocks the conscience.

Medhi Hasan at the Guardian-UK looked at the FBI’s own stats, and found that 24 acts of terrorism were recorded in the US between 2002 and 2005.  All but one were carried out by non-Muslim “domestic terrorists”.  That’s 23 out of 24 acts of terrorism carried out by non-Muslims.  The hearings today will apparently focus on the one.

I agree with Hasan that it would be foolish to downplay the threat of terrorism posed by religious extremism.  But it’s equally foolish, distracting and dangerous, to think that the kind of radicalization that leads to terrorism is bound by a single faith.