Q&A: The Myth of "Radicalization"


As a result of anti-Muslim attitudes and policies cropping up around the U.S., today the American Muslim community is subject to unwarranted and un-American scrutiny by law enforcement and other government officials. This misguided approach has no sound factual basis and puts all of our fundamental freedoms at risk. The freedoms of religion, speech, and association occupy a special place in our history and in the Constitution; they define who we are as a country, and may not be set aside.

Recognizing and respecting the line between protected beliefs, even radical beliefs, and violent or criminal activity does not undermine our security, but rather strengthens it. Inquiring how many Muslims hold “radical” beliefs, however those are defined, will not aid those efforts. To the contrary, such an approach undermines the crucial bonds between communities and the government and law enforcement. Most dangerously, it is likely to undermine our efforts to demonstrate to Muslims at home and abroad that the United States seeks to live up to its ideals in its treatment of all Americans, including Muslims, and is not engaged in a “war against Islam.”

The latest wave of unwarranted scrutiny of the American Muslims and communities is based on a thoroughly debunked theory of “radicalization” which falsely conflates religious belief and practices with preparation for terrorism, and focuses exclusively on people who practice Islam in America. Such an approach puts at risk the free exercise of religion, gives the appearance of official endorsement of one set of religious beliefs over another, and threatens to chill free association and free speech.

Further, the unsubstantiated allegation that Muslim-American leaders are uncooperative with U.S. counterterrorism efforts is harmful because the allegation is demonstrably incorrect and only sows discord when national unity is most needed. In fact, numerous law enforcement officials have gone on the record to dispute this allegation, academic studies have catalogued the assistance Muslims have provided to anti-terrorism efforts, and organizations including the ACLU and the FBI regularly work with Muslim civil rights and advocacy groups to improve security policies.

The danger posed by modern terrorists is real and Congress must understand the scope and nature of the threat and exercise its authorities to the utmost in overseeing the government's response, holding our military, law enforcement and intelligence agencies accountable, and crafting sensible legislation that enhances security while protecting the rights of innocent persons. But Congress simply has no business examining Americans' religious or political beliefs in official hearings – even if these beliefs are considered “radical” by some. Congress must distinguish between First Amendment-protected ideological beliefs – whether radical or not – and criminal terrorist activity or plots. Only the latter may properly be the subject of official inquiry.

Congress must also avoid giving the appearance of an official endorsement of one set of religious beliefs over another. It would be inappropriate and unwise for Congress to conduct an inquiry into the nature of Islam, the different interpretations of the faith among Muslims, whether there exists an “ideology” of “political Islam,” or whether some Muslims are more loyal Americans than others, just as it would be inappropriate for Congress to examine different interpretations of Christianity or debate whether Baptists or Catholics are more trustworthy.

Attorney General Eric Holder has rightly stated that “law enforcement has an obligation to ensure that members of every religious community enjoy the ability to worship and to practice their faith in peace, free from intimidation, violence or suspicion. That is the right of all Americans. And it must be a reality for every citizen. In this nation, our many faiths, origins, and appearances must bind us together, not break us apart.”

Although warning law enforcement of threats is indeed a shared civic and social responsibility, it would be illegal, unfair and impractical for law enforcement officials to require any religious or belief community to prove its loyalty to this country by “informing” on its members. To the contrary, American Muslims, like the rest of this country's citizens, have the right to protest illegal, over-zealous or abusive government security measures and to vigorously exercise, and encourage others to exercise rights guaranteed in the Constitution.

There are also legitimate concerns about whether individuals who volunteer information to law enforcement will find themselves threatened with legal jeopardy. Advising individuals to speak to lawyers before talking to law enforcement or even to refrain from talking to law enforcement is both prudent and completely legal speech protected by the Bill of Rights.

Unsupported theories of “radicalization” are nothing new. Erroneous theories of eugenics supported racist immigration policies and Jim Crow anti-miscegenation laws for decades. Misguided “red” scares and racism drove abominable policies like blacklists, McCarthyism and Japanese internment, betrayed American values and did not improve security. “Radicalization” is simply a euphemism for religious and ideological profiling, can only lead to further discrimination, and is fundamentally un-American. Casting suspicion on one particular American faith community is wrong and does nothing to make us safer.

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