It’s easy to understand the trepidation that some Muslim Americans express about the upcoming House hearings on Islamic radicalism in the United States. Such hearings are often theater, where legislators and their staff orchestrate tendentious inquiries into the gravest issues. And there are spiteful voices, predominately on the right, whose exegesis of Islamic history is neither profound nor comparative, who would be eager to damn Islam on Capitol Hill.
But congressional hearings, even when one-sided, do serve the useful function of challenging the executive branch’s views, which more than Congress’s set the tone of government. And when dealing with Islam, the Obama administration has been incurious and dogmatic. From commendably liberal sentiments of religious tolerance—and in the president’s case, probably from his own affection for his father’s abandoned faith—the administration can’t bring itself to state the obvious: Islamic culture, in both the Old and New Worlds, has had a hellacious time absorbing modernity and has produced a large number of militants with a soft spot for violence against Americans, Europeans, Israelis, Jews, Christians, and, for that matter, Muslims deemed religiously incorrect. It has produced an impressive number of young men and women who are willing to kill those supposed unholy.
Peter King, the New York Republican who chairs the Homeland Security Committee, has announced that his hearings will be tactically oriented. That is as it should be. Given the administration’s determination not to talk about Islam, which has caused President Obama and senior officials considerable rhetorical awkwardness on occasions when American jihadists have gone after Americans, what we most want to know is whether this reticence has made the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security shy away from the surveillance of possibly dangerous Muslims. Ten years after 9/11, is the FBI backing off scrutinizing mosques with a penchant for radicalism, Muslim associations deeply impregnated by Wahhabi and Muslim Brotherhood ethics, and religious groups that receive funding and staff from foreign fundamentalist organizations? Such surveillance should not denote guilt—just well-founded concern that a fundamentalist ambience has proven to be an effective incubator of terrorism in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East. What the Pulitzer Prize-winning former Wall Street Journal reporter Ian Johnson noted about the Egyptian-born Muslim Brotherhood and its many offshoots in Europe—they create a “mental preconditioning for terrorism”—should be a daily anxiety for the attorney general and other American officials.
Unlike Europe—especially France and the United Kingdom—the United States does not have a well-established scholarly tradition of studying its Muslim inhabitants. Most of the European academics and journalists who’ve studied Muslim immigration and the growth of Islam in the Old World are sympathetic to the continent’s largest non-Christian religious minority. That has not prevented them from offering trenchant insights into the dangerous connections between radical mosques, preachers, and holy warriors. It has not stopped them—especially in France—from productive conversations with domestic-intelligence and security services. Questions that are extremely difficult to answer about the American-Muslim community—how many mosques are receiving Saudi subsidies, for example, or using Wahhabi educational curricula and Islamist preachers and teachers from abroad—are much easier to answer in Europe, owing to this greater scholarly/journalistic interest and the attentiveness of increasingly well-educated European security services.
Much more than is healthy, America’s domestic-security services are alone in trying to understand the sociological dynamics of the American-Muslim community, which, as in Europe, is diverse. Big spiritual battles have happened in Europe within neighborhood mosques between Muslims of no clear ideological complexion and militants, who are better organized and financed from abroad (Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states are usually the financiers of the fundamentalist establishment in Europe). Given the paucity of European-educated imams or imams from Middle Eastern seminaries that have escaped the Saudi-funded Wahhabization of the region’s preeminent religious schools, nonmilitant mosques often unintentionally import puritanical, West-hostile religious intelligentsia. In Europe, the major Muslim organizations usually preach an Islam that is considerably stricter than the faith practiced (or ignored) on the streets.