March 10, 2011
Today, Republican Representative Peter King’s congressional hearings on radicalization within the American Muslim community begin. And I would say that this blatant and apparently un-self-conscious re-enactment of the McCarthy hearings, this repellent attempt by Representative King to use collective blame to make us view our Muslim fellow citizens with fear and suspicion or as somehow less than fully American, makes me ashamed to be an American, or makes me ashamed that King represents my state.
Except that everywhere, I read about people standing up to what King’s doing, speaking up in defense of the Muslim community, pointing out the hypocrisy of the very premise of the hearings, and drawing comparisons to the McCarthy hearings and Salem witch trials. And it makes me proud, and makes me wonder if we might finally actually be learning something as a country, even if our leaders aren’t yet. Which is that, while any of us are in danger of persecution or officially sanctioned injustice, all of us are.
In illustration, one of my favorite articles of the week, shared by a Facebook friend, comes from the Washington Post and chronicles the relationship of support built between the Muslim and Japanese-American communities on the west coast in the years since 9/11. (Japanese Americans: House hearings on radical Islam ‘sinister.’) The Japanese-American community remembers the internments of World War II, based on nothing more than suspicion of their ethnicity. They remember that it can happen to them, and it can happen again.
I have a theory, which is that people who instigate and support this kind of targeting and suspicion of others based on group identity, are people who are themselves pretty sure that the same tactics will never be turned back against them. People who have never been excluded or abused or marginalized based on who they are, have an easy time believing that they never will be. People who have always been able to take their place in society, or even humanity, for granted, have a hard time imagining not being able to do so.
But people who have been marginalized instinctively identify ourselves in every marginalized person, and see the danger to ourselves in injustice against anyone.
There’s a scene in one of my favorite books, which I’ve written about before, World Without End, in which a serf named Wulfric and his family have run away from the lord who controls their land, to another community where they have a chance to be independent and escape the grinding, perpetual poverty of feudal life. Sir Ralph comes to force Wulfric to return, as was legal in those days: the lord who owned your land effectively owned you. Another man tries to defend Wulfric, who says “Be quiet, Carl. I don’t want you killed for my sake.”
“It’s not for your sake,” says Carl. “If this thug is allowed to drag you off, next week someone will come for me.”
And that’s why King seeks with his hearings to get Americans to see American Muslims as not truly us, but “them,” some alien and hostile force among us. Whatever his ultimate aim is, and I don’t believe for one second that it’s really just to determine the extent of radicalization in the Muslim community, it depends on us seeing Muslims as something other than and less than ourselves.
And that’s why I say that today, I’m a Muslim too, or might as well be, because anything that can be done to anyone–like being presumed guilty of collusion with terrorists and investigated by Congress for your religious identity–can be done to all of us. Every single one. Never pretend that it can’t.
Representative Keith Ellison’s testimony at King’s hearing: