In Peter King’s world, the battle has only two sides and only one winning strategy.
by Amy Levin and Abby Ohlheiser
Lately media outlets have been telling us what Americans believe, from how much we think we should be taxed, to how much we like Muslims. Even how (much) we believe in God. What Pew or Gallup haven’t capitalized on yet is Americans’ obsession with terrorism. How many of us believe in it—as a great danger to society, for instance—or how do we collectively define it—say, as a feature of particular world regions or cultures? Not unlike past eras when Americans developed their own definitions of Marxist, Communist, fascist, or anarchist (not anything good, mind you), in our current era we confidently call individuals with non-conformist, “subversive” ideologies “terrorist.” Sure, there is a technical definition for the word, but like any of the above descriptions, the more we use terrorist, the more obscure its meanings become. Why are certain political institutions reconstructing the definition of terrorism? Which forms of power succeed in remolding the word’s transformation? What are the implications of invoking terrorist discourse?
Steering the bandwagon on exposure of terrorist threats, Rep. Peter King (R-NY3) is but one of the the media’s returning bedfellows on the fear-trafficking topic of homeland security. Like any politician’s platform, there’s more to King’s efforts than meets the eye. Given the context–-the killings in Oslo by suspect Anders Breivik–of last Wednesday’s third round of hearings on Muslim radicalization it is perhaps not surprising that much of the time was spent discussing things other than the stated topic of the day, the threat of Al Shabaab in the US. The Islamist organization, which controls a large part of Somalia and has ties to Al Qadea, was chosen for special consideration by King because of “alarming findings,” as quoted from his opening statement:
Al-Shabaab has successfully recruited and radicalized more than 40 Muslim-Americans and 20 Canadians, who have joined the terror group inside Somalia. Of those, at least 15 Americans and 3 Canadians are believed to have been killed fighting with al-Shabaab, the Committee has learned. Not al-Qaeda, nor any of its other affiliates, have come close to drawing so many Muslim-Americans and Westerners to jihad.
In some ways, this hearing was poised to be qualitatively different from the first two. The initial March hearing addressed radicalization in US mosques. King, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, and his supporters focused on the US Muslim community’s implication in that radicalization; mosques failed to report it. The second hearing was on prison radicalization (or, “prislam”). The first two hearings tried to build an argument for an organized ideological (and, then, presumably physical) attack on various aspects of American society and it’s loyal population, while the third examined a specific group known to ideologically target Muslim American communities for recruitment, despite the fact that the Somali-American population in the US is less than 200,000.
The first two hearings were repeatedly called McCarthyistic “witch hunts.” This third hearing was no different, though committee members seemed to be more interested in making their ideological points to an interested media than solving a problem. From their inception, the hearings have been criticized for their anti-Muslim rhetoric and for their central thesis statement, which is that radical Islamic organizations pose a uniquely serious threat to the security of the US, specifically as potential infiltrators and influencers of the country’s Muslim populations. In King’s words, from the opening statement of the first hearing in March:
This Committee cannot live in denial which is what some would have us do when they suggest that this hearing dilute its focus by investigating threats unrelated to Al Qaeda. The Department of Homeland Security and this committee were formed in response to the al Qaeda attacks of 9/11. There is no equivalency of threat between al Qaeda and neo-Nazis, environmental extremists or other isolated madmen. Only al Qaeda and its Islamist affiliates in this country are part of an international threat to our nation. Indeed by the Justice Department’s own record not one terror related case in the last two years involved neo-Nazis, environmental extremists, militias or anti-war groups.
For King, because his committee was formed in response to 9/11, examination of Islam takes precedent over any other instance of radicalization or threat of violent action against or within the US.
On a practical level, King’s hearings are meant to implicate American Muslims as the enemy in the ongoing “war on terror,” a rhetorical construct used to incite American patriotism and to continue a global military, political, and ideological campaign against known militant groups like Al Qaida. Through these hearings, not only is King continuing the Bush administration’s legacy of “fighting terror,” but propagating the rhetoric of “us versus them.” King recently proposed legislation to renew a panel called the 9/11 Commission Review, originally disbanded in 2004, to evaluate domestic security threats and Islamic radicalization.
The hearings are taking place in an environment that is already hostile to Islam. The ACLU recently obtained a powerpoint presentation that was used to train FBI recruits about the Middle East until at least as 2009, which recommends The Arab Mind, a book by Raphael Patai know for it’s patronization of Arab culture, and a tome by Robert Spencer, director of Jihad Watch and a pal of Pamela “no Ground Zero Mosque” Geller. He’s one of a handful of writers concerned with the perceived “Islamization” of the US and other Western countries, and has developed a description of Muslim theology as intrinsically supportive of violent Jihad. His attention has recently been occupied with, as he writes, defending himself against “the mainstream media’s exploitation of the Norway tragedy to defame the anti-jihad movement.”
Which brings us to the elephant in the room for these hearings: not even a week earlier, Anders Behring Breivik, a Norwegian self-identified Christian crusader, led a massacre in Oslo that left 91 people dead. The connection between these instances of radicalization, Ground Zero and Oslo, were drawn not only by members of the media, but by King himself:
I note that certain elements of the politically correct media, most egregiously the vacuous ideologues at the New York Times—are shamelessly attempting to exploit the horrific tragedy in Norway to cause me to refocus these hearings away from Muslim-American radicalization.
The threat of Muslim-American radicalization indeed seems palpable, and it would be difficult to argue that strengthening homeland security is over-presumptuous. King is correct to point out the sheer volume of Islamic violence, but he exaggerates the implications of those numbers. In King’s world, the battle has only two teams and there is only one strategy to win it. As far as King’s concerned, it’s only terrorism if the perpetrator is Muslim.
Exploit is also a key word here: although it might seem incongruous, the language of human rights has in fact been an integral part of discussions, though not exclusive to them, among those who find the Muslim faith troubling. King uses empower to describe the work that his hearings do, as in:
Apart from all the strategic and moral reasons why these hearings are vital to our security, they are liberating and empowering to the many Muslim-Americans who have been intimidated by leaders in their own communities and are now able to come forward.
But at the hearings, the concern with exploitation and empowerment seems limited to access to intelligence, whether it be evidence of the spread of Shari’ah, threats to national security, or theological otherness. So in this use, the empowerment provided by the hearings is implicitly patriotic. And the exploitation of the hearings by The New York Times, and perhaps the more liberal members of the committee, according to King, is Un-American.
The language of empowerment becomes even more curious when one notices that there were no American Muslim citizens speaking at the third hearing. The witness called upon to represent the Somali Muslim community in America was, in fact, a Canadian Muslim named Ahmed Hussen, president of the Canadian Somali Congress.
While King’s first hearings in March featured witnesses representing both parties, including Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), King refused Ellison’s request to testify at the hearings on al-Shabaab even though he represents the Fifth District, home to the largest Somali community in the country. King denied Ellison’s request.
If King’s intention, by omitting Ellison and other potential witnesses from the Somali American community, was to present a panel of expert witnesses focused on a very specific issue, limiting the discussion to the hearing’s stated topic, then he failed, miserably.
Here’s Rep. Jackson Lee, for example, who also called for another hearing investigating the alleged Rupert Murdoch hacking of 9/11 victims’ phones, and a third on “right wing extremists ideologues,” and then proceeded to explain her objection to the premise of the hearings themselves.
We’re not certain that he’s 0 for 1 here, though. As King’s opening remarks on the media’s framing of his hearing within the context of the Oslo tragedy shows, the hearings are also conducted as an act of patriotic bravery. The hearings, the resurrection of the 9/11 Commission Review Act, and King’s deliberate language are not supposed to allow for a measured discussion of the threat Islamist groups pose to the United States. They’re a call to battle. Since the first hearing in March, King has been suppressing “the media” and American Muslims’ attempts to have that measured discussion.
This is not to give the impression that King is leading some sort of ideological infiltration of US Security and Military organizations. Although King is certainly being exceptionally public about his stance on the violence of Islam, the writers and activists who support his beliefs already have a foot (or two) in the door.
To dismiss King’s and other’s objective with the hearings as a desire to cause fear, as a reflex, is to miss the plot. Demonizing terrorists in the name of homeland security garners more votes for King, given how many Americans are still shell-shocked from the 10-year old tragedies of 9/11, not to mention the evidence of subsequent jihadist bombing attempts. But in those 10 years, that fear has become more than just that. (See the “politically correct” New York Times’s profile of Yerushalmi for more on the development of anti-jihadist rhetoric.) The more fear he warrants, the more political ammo King holds in a much larger discursive war. A war being fought in the name of contested meanings: multiculturalism, political correctness, free speech.
In the aftermath of the recent Oslo massacres, media outlets (some of which first reported the attack was the work of an Islamist group) raced to find out whether the attacker, Anders Behring Breivik, had acted alone. Last Thursday, Janne Kristiansen, the director of the Norwegian Police Security Service told The Associated Press, “It’s a unique case. It’s a unique person. He is total evil,” she said. “On the information we have so far, and I emphasize so far, we have no indication that he was part of a network or had any accomplices, or that there are other cells.”
Breivik has repeatedly been called a “lone wolf,” a term that too has many uses. He certainly isn’t the first to be so labeled in our era. A recent op-ed on the Oslo killings at Fox News calls “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski, whose writings Breivik cites in his 1,500 page manifesto, the “ultimate lone wolf.” Breivik also quotes Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer who formed the anti-Muslim group in 2009 “Stop Islamization of America.” These influences, along with Breivik’s identification with Knights Templar, a Christian crusader army, has led Roger Cohen, among others, to conclude that “Breivik is no loner.” There seem to be at least two reasons why the term “loner” matters in this context. For folks like Geller and Spencer, it conjures up a stark juxtaposition between those who pose no threat beyond their individual violence, like Breivik, and those who work collaboratively and thus pose broad and harmful consequences. Like, say, Muslim terrorists.
The second reason has something to do with how we think about evil. Beyond the evidence that American and European anti-Muslim ideology influenced Breivik, the media’s description of him as an evil lone wolf forces us to consider the politics of evil. When individuals are evil (and nothing else), they become impervious to our understanding and control of them. As Hannah Arendt so sharply put it, evil isn’t even radical, in fact it’s quite banal. If Breivik is a lonesome devil (as opposed to a Christian terrorist) we might ask, who gets to decide the limits of terrorism and the contours of radicalism?
The contours–for King, for Geller, for Spencer, and for the Americans who believe their narrative–are defined by an Islamic-Marxist ideology, where the “liberal media,” “community organizers” (think ACORN), academia, and other tolerance-promoting groups become complicit to an organized Islamic threat. To redraw these boundaries becomes itself an act of radical subversion, placing the ideological artist in the Marxo-Islamist camp.
So what are the lessons we can learn from King’s hearings? One is certainly this: Democracy is threatened when one group gets to speak for, define or represent the whole. This applies equally to those who would limit our definition of “terrorism” to an easy “other” enemy, like impressionable young Muslim men, or, say, to WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange.
Let’s take this one step further, and remove violent acts of terror from the discussion for a moment. Let’s focus instead on people whom Vice President Joe Biden has compared to terrorists. For this, Assange is a useful example. And, as of last Monday, so is the Tea Party. When Sarah Palin or Joe Biden claim that Assange is a terrorist, they are admitting a violated sense of security. Assange and others who reveal hidden knowledge and force transparency cause those who hold power in the US anxiety. To an administration that’s proven to be incredibly opaque, the threat of freedom of information has a special resonance. (The terrorist label stuck to Assange.)
As well, when Biden, a Politico op-ed writer, or anyone else calls the Tea Party terrorists or terrorist-like, they’re also referring to a subversion. The mythic narrative of the recent debt ceiling crisis places the Tea Party as far onto the edge of the political landscape one can get without stepping off (or dismantling it altogether). By pledging to support only the most conservative of plans to reduce spending without agreeing to raise the debt ceiling, talk was that some in Congress might be willing to actually risk default.
Although not all supporters of the “Cut, Cap, and Balance” plan were Tea Party members, the caucus’s leadership promoted the plan as the Tea Party’s; an association that stuck. Which makes sense. The TEA in Tea Party stands for “Taxed Enough Already.” They’ve already staked a claim on taxation, to be sure. But they’ve also claimed an anti-government undercutting of hierarchy, as seen in Speaker Boehner’s seeming inability to control his freshman class and the unruly, heated words on the floor. In questioning and then possibly unseating the establishment of the dominant American conservative party, the Tea Party gains the reputation of a crusading, destabilizing force against politics and power as usual.
But here’s the thing: it’s just name calling. There’s not going to be a hearing investigating the Tea Party, no matter what Biden calls them. But some surfaces are stickier for such labels; sometimes the name calling can more readily lead to or accompany action by those in power: one of Assange’s sources, Bradley Manning, has been locked up for over a year. By an organization whose power depends on secrecy, Assange-as-terrorist gets taken seriously as a frame.
Which leads us to wonder why Assange’s subversion–based on a belief in the people’s right to know, in what we would have to call in context a radical transparency–becomes more widely accepted as “terrorism” while the similar accusation thrown at the Tea Party has very little adhesive quality beyond a gleeful, Gawker-like trenchancy.
The contours of terror have quite a lot to do with the contours of “other.” The stickiness of “terrorist” as a label with consequences, to either Assange or The Tea Party, is then determined by an American, Judeo-Christian sense of “us.” Questioning or acting against an establishment is only permitted if you look, sound, and believe like a member of the club. The only people who can be terrorists are those who don’t belong because being a real terrorist means belonging to the “other.”
Getting back to violent acts, we wonder why Islamic violence receives a holy separation in US dialogue? And to the point that it evades comparison with any other act of violence. Perhaps for King and others the very idea of sticking the terrorist label onto certain books, people, or ideas is odious, even beyond discussion. Doing so makes the enemy familiar, a vision of evil that is too repulsive to swallow. As in the case with Breivik, who claimed to act in the tradition of a religion (whether he did or not), and who committed violent acts indistinguishable from others easily labeled as terrorist attacks, the idea that he could possibly represent the emergence of a “Christian terrorist,” or even the extreme result of American anti-Islamist rhetoric, is wholly unacceptable to those who believe some likeness of his worldview.
What defines the contours of evil, then, is a question of power, sure, but also of belief.
Amy Levin is a graduate student in Religious Studies at New York University and a regular contributor to The Revealer.
Abby Ohlheiser is a journalist and graduate student at NYU’s Religion and Journalism program.