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.
There are blessedly big differences between the Muslim communities of Europe and America. In Holland and France, for example, where Muslims make up around 6 percent and 10 percent of the populations, respectively, whole towns and vast suburbs of major cities have become majority Muslim. By and large, their Muslim denizens are poor and even when completely secularized—as is often the case—distant from many of the defining features of European culture. Islam in Europe has become for many deracinated urban youth, as it is for many among the urban poor in the Middle East, a political identity. And the identity is exuberantly exclusive, walling out more traditional Islamic tenets and more permissive Western values. In America, where secular sentiments are de rigueur only among the elite, faithful Muslims appear vastly better integrated into the surrounding society. Muslim Americans are more affluent than their European counterparts. Intermarriage with non-Muslims appears easier for those who want it (though, again, the sociological studies are in their infancy, so it’s difficult to say for sure). And the anomie that is so striking in Europe and in the major cities of the Arab Middle East doesn’t seem to be prevalent in the United States.
Even so, the confidence that American counterterrorist experts had after 9/11 that the American-Muslim community was immune to the virus of radicalization has lessened. There have been too many incidents at home and abroad involving American Muslims. Something is afoot. It is possible that we are seeing, as we do with so many radical intellectual trends, a time lag between Europe and the United States.
The seeds of Muslim radicalization were planted in Europe in the 1950s, when the Muslim community was small and Muslim organizations, usually inspired and aided by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, were in their infancy. Although it’s difficult to know with precision (European scholarship and security-service interest in European Muslim communities really started only in the 1980s), the wave of radicalization that struck the Middle East in the 1970s and culminated with the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 seems to have hit Europe hard in the mid- to late 1980s. This was the era when Saudi Wahhabi missionary activity, in large part born to counter Iran’s revolution, exploded worldwide. By the 1990s, Saudi cash and Saudi-financed instruction and preachers were everywhere in Europe. When al Qaeda’s missionaries arrived in the late 1990s, they had only to follow the path already cleared years before by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Wahhabi preachers. By the late 1990s, the Brotherhood and the Wahhabis had become nearly indistinguishable.
Missionary cash from the Gulf states probably didn’t start arriving in the United States until the 1990s. The Internet revolution in the late 1990s and the coming of easily accessible satellite television, which broadcasts an astonishing array of the Middle East’s hard-core Muslim preachers, magnified the influence of Islamic puritanism. Where in the 1980s and much of the 1990s an Islamic radical in Europe needed a mosque to find comrades and fraternity with the larger militant world, a radical in America or Europe today can find communion via the Internet and TV. Although it is still unclear how much spiritual fortification Major Nidal Malik Hasan, for instance, received from militant mosques in the United States, it is crystal clear that the Internet was indispensable to his lethal radicalization. Although American-Muslim associations do not yet have the structure or variety of their European counterparts, they are developing. If they follow the European model, as they grow, their funding and connections to Gulf states and their intolerant creeds will increase significantly, displacing and preempting the need for contributions from local congregations.
The United States, of course, has a much stronger tradition of decentralized religious authority and independent religious schools than Europe, a tradition more conducive to interfaith ties than is control by national or international organizations. Yet some of America’s most prominent Muslim associations have roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, and this ought to give us pause: The Brotherhood is all about fraternity with the larger Muslim ummah, the community of the faithful. Its conception of who the faithful are is not, to put it politely, ecumenical. And the Brotherhood’s eagerness to accept foreign funds and establish educational institutions that preach a faith tolerant of violence and of virulent Jew-hatred is proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. American exceptionalism should never be discounted: What worked with all the mutually hostile Christian faiths of Europe will likely also neutralize the Islamic virulence that now comes from Europe and the Greater Middle East. But Islamic militancy is a very tough opponent. Its appeal is both ancient and modern. And the eminence of the United States—all militant Muslim conversations describe America as the preeminent threat to the faith—means that if a radical Muslim goes violent, his ideal target is American. This is the downside of the global appeal of Western values.
Representative King can do us all a favor by focusing on two things: the FBI’s and DHS’s counterterrorist competence and the foreign funding of America’s mosques and Muslim institutions. Instead of asking officials in the FBI and DHS whether American-Muslim leaders have been helpful in combating Islamic radicalism and terrorism in the United States—which, according to press reports, is what King may do—the chairman should query the Bureau and Homeland Security about how knowledgeable their field officers and analysts are.
Does the FBI, for instance, still informally discourage officers from spending too much time in the counterterrorism track since fewer arrests can be made in this line of work than in the traditional criminal pursuits where senior officers have usually made their reputations? European counterterrorist officers working the Islamic target are often much better than their American counterparts because they spend much more time mastering the subject. They have years to develop expertise, while in the Bureau, as in the Central Intelligence Agency, “experts” are often made in a year or two. How are the FBI and DHS building up expertise about the American-Muslim community and the Islamic terrorist target at home and abroad? It would be good if King actually called FBI and DHS agents and analysts to testify and just let them talk. Their dedication, knowledge, and finesse should become evident.
King should also ask both Muslim Americans and FBI and DHS officials about Saudi, Qatari, and Emirati money coming into the United States. Does anyone have a good idea of how much money is coming from the Gulf to the United States? And does Gulf money ever fund “moderate” religious establishments or does it only go to Wahhabi/Muslim Brotherhood institutions? Is there actually a permanent office anywhere in the U.S. government trying to monitor the flow of this cash? How does the United States verify the religious pedigree of foreign Muslim preachers? Do we accept, for example, the Saudi embassy’s or Qatari embassy’s word on their good standing? The Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood has been on the cutting edge of radical missionary activity for 20 years. Do Jordanian Brothers come here to teach? Does anyone monitor foreign preachers after they’re here? Does Homeland Security collect, just for analytical purposes, the textbooks that are being used in Saudi-financed or Muslim Brotherhood schools in the United States? It would be good to have a public hearing on Islamic textbooks used in private schools. They just might be exemplary in their religious tolerance and their condemnation of violence against unbelievers; the odds for this aren’t good, however. Some of these questions are obviously sensitive and would best be answered in closed hearings, but they ought to be asked.
There is nothing wrong with America’s elected representatives’ being doggedly curious about the activities of Muslim militants. It is not bigotry to engage in such questioning; on the contrary, a desire to fight bigotry, let alone terrorism, should motivate our representatives to be much more curious than they have been so far about Wahhabis and Muslim Brothers in our midst. And if any crude Islamophobes rear their ugly heads in these hearings, then Chairman King should be grateful for the opportunity to embarrass them. McCarthyism died, let us recall, in great part because its most egregious practitioners were publicly shamed.
Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, and the author of the forthcoming The Wave: Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East (Hoover Institution Press).